Law tackles U.K. caste discrimination

Bust of Dalit leader Babasaheb Ambedkar, decorated with floral tributes at a ceremony in the Indian High Commission in London.

Meena Varma, director of Dalit Solidarity Network U.K.

Davinder Prasad, a Dalit who has suffered discrimination. He founded CasteWatchUK to campaign against caste discrimination


Kai Ryssdal: A new law in the United Kingdom gives a nod to that country's colonial past. There are more than two million British citizens of Indian extraction. They, and all Britons, are protected from discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation and now, their place in the rigid hierarchy of the Indian caste system.

From London, Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports.

INDIAN HIGH COMMISSIONER: Thank you for joining us this evening to celebrate Ambedkar Jenati.

At a ceremony in London, the Indian High Commissioner pays tribute to a revered Indian statesman.

HIGH COMMISSIONER: It is difficult to describe in a few words the greatness of Babbasaheb Ambedkar.

Babbasaheb Ambedkar was the chief architect of the Indian constitution. He was also an Untouchable and spent his life fighting against the caste system. The constitution he drafted 60 years ago outlawed caste discrimination. And yet today the Untouchables, or Dalits, are still persecuted -- and not just in India.

Meena Varma who's campaigned for a ban on caste discrimination in Britain.

MEENA VARMA: It might not be the same horrific abuses that you get in Asia, but it is discrimination on every level of employment and provision of goods and services.

One victim has been Davinder Prasad. He's a Dalit who's lived in the U.K. for 30 years. He was managing a department in a large defense company but caste made his job impossible.

DAVINDER PRASAD: I had two guys who were from higher castes joining my department. And when they found that I was from a low caste things started going absolutely haywire. They refused to take instructions, and it was a big fiasco.

Davinder was eventually moved to another department. He launched a campaign group called CasteWatchUK and has dealt with scores of similar cases.

PRASAD: A professional who lost his job in a law firm. We had a manager who was managing a community center; he lost a job as a manager. So we got all kinds of examples where people who are really suffering in their lives because of caste system.

The system can have a really pernicious effect on the young. Take 29-year-old Anita. She wouldn't reveal her last name because of the stigma of being a Dalit. She was born in the English Midlands and only became aware of her caste when she was at high school. Taunted by her classmates, she quickly lost her self-esteem.

ANITA: I made all these conclusions about myself that I'm not going to be like others because I'm an Untouchable. I'm a low caste.

She has prospered and now with her partner owns three grocery stores. But she admits that often in the past she concealed her origins from Asian colleagues and customers.

ANITA: I internalized that and thought I must be really low if I have to hide it, and I think that's what really affected me.

At the ceremony celebrating Babbasaheb Ambedkar, people joined in a Buddhist prayer. Many of the Dalits perhaps quietly giving thanks for Britain's new Equality Law. But no one from the Indian High Commission was prepared to comment on it. The Indian government has denounced the legislation as muddled and meddling.

Campaigner Meena Varma.

VARMA: They've always rejected any international pressure on the basis that this is an internal issue that they will deal with. Well, evidently it isn't an internal issue anymore.

Meena and others hope the new British law will be activated soon and will send a powerful message back to India that caste discrimination, like racism, should never be tolerated.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

Meena Varma, director of Dalit Solidarity Network U.K.

Davinder Prasad, a Dalit who has suffered discrimination. He founded CasteWatchUK to campaign against caste discrimination

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I'm surprised that discrimination for "caste" doesn't fall under discrimination on the basis of "origin". Is it that the British government simply did not believe this kind of discrimination was taking place, or didn't take it seriously? Or, in order to garner votes in an election year, this law was put into place?

I think the caste system is silly, but it's even sillier that Brits couldn't stop such discrimination under their already comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. I also applaud the Brits, and wish we Americans could once and for all get some good anti-discrimination laws on the books.

"..muddled and meddling."
Did the Indian government really say this? Wow!

The caste system was made in india based on the type of work you do . Ther is no education system in old days. Dad is the teacher for the son. The discrimination came when currency system came into play. The currency paid for some more and and some less for the work they do. Because of this later poor generations has to face the discrimination . Same thing is happening now also. The rich are trying to control power and business by paying bribes even in the democracy political systems. Same in the case with nations, Rich countries try to bull the poor countries by threatening and bribe.

This is an amazing story. Fits perfectly in the India narrative - Caste system, NRIs, fighting years of bias..., why let facts spoil the fun. So let's totally ignore the fact that D Prasad, who was supposedly discriminated due to his caste, was protected by UK laws and there must be someone in the organization, who was British, and was not pre-dis positioned by Indian caste system who could have resolved the issue. Afterall Indian are less then 5% of UK society, so even if every Indian in UK is castist, the society in general can not be. So why this brouhaha? Let me offer a guess - Dalit politics is a big business in India, people are making millions wirting books, making dalit memorials and building statues - of course, all on government's dime. So let's make S*** up, craft stories and hope we can get a pie of Indian dalit business

I belong to a non-dalit caste and one of the reasons of moving to US was to get away from the permanent reservation system for Dalits in India. Now the discrimination is happening against the upper castes, my mothers didn't get promoted in an Indian Govt job at the pace of promotions for Dalits. Now Dalits have their own caste system, in the way that higher class Dalits would not marry their children to lower class Dalits.

Thanks for a great story. When I first came to US, I used to be very surprised when people asked me about the class system in India. The reason being I didn't think it existed any more. The way I was raised and our behavior toward everyone was equal and the same. Not to say I didn't know what it was and how last names are conveyors of one's caste but just that a caste is probably attached to a name because of the profession that someone's ancestors and families chose to do. And hence the surname was more like an advertising campaign in a world where word of mouth was pretty much the only medium that would get you customers. Since all professions are equal why would caste matter. In fact since now people choose multiple professions in their lifetime, unlike our ancestors, caste does not matter anymore. A student in USA (that's where I live now) can choose to clean toilets, walk dogs, bake pizzas or be a clerk at a store to make ends meet. However it does not restrict him/her to enjoy any luxury that a CEO at Wallstreet can, given he/she has the means. This is where it was different in India, the luxuries of life were restricted to the so-called upper castes in olden times. To give you an example, it is not considered appropriate to wear a dress better than the bride at someone's wedding. Similarly it was not appropriate for a person from a so called lower caste to own luxurious things regardless of whether he/she had the means. This restriction was not only for the lower ‘castes’ but also for people lower in hierarchy. So, say a King’s employees who might even be Brahmins would also fall in that category. It was just not considered appropriate by one and all, apart from the fact that as you go to lower rungs of the ladder your incomes also fall. This restriction also spanned to the professions/works they could do. Also, it was difficult for them to change their professions once they had that caste attached to their name.

All in all that contributed to lower means, but more importantly a lack of exposure, an attitude that lacked self esteem and an environment not conducive to progress or improvement overall. As time passed by and awareness increased, it was realized that this system is wrong to its core and something should be done to correct this. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar were the purveyors of this change. However it the management of change that was not handled properly. That has led to a sort of discrimination against other groups (the so-called upper castes) in India due to reservation policies in academic and corporate systems.

I think finally it is the amount of exposure, experience and environment that demarcates one human being from the other. The so-called upper castes had the means that helped them create an environment for themselves that would foster learning and earning more. On the other hand their counterparts in the lower rung just struggled to make ends meet. However I think if the society as a whole can understand that there were groups that were privileged enough to get a headstart early and so now have a civic responsibility to hold the hands of the neglected and underprivileged groups and help pull them forward there would be no need of flawed and discriminatory policies that the governments in power put in place that will always alienate one group or the other.

This is from someone who has had friends succeed from all backgrounds given the right environment.

I thought that when people become British citizens, regardless of origin, they were all under the same law. Are they saying that before this legislation, British Law actually allowed discrimination based on Caste? Or was it a failure to enforce existing laws in Britain? I think the Indian government is right in calling this a 'muddled' attempt.

The story of Ms.Anita's childhood, is clearly discriminatory and I would be surprised if it was not prosecutable as it is.

But I do understand the point they are trying to make here. It rankles the Indian liberals no end that even today the bulk of India's successful people are from the Brahmin community.

While I understand how they feel, I think they miss the point that Brahmins have succeeded all over the world in meritocracies and painting them as bigots will not be easy outside of India. Even in India, in spite of clear discrimination against Brahmins for the last 60 years, they have succeeded by sheer hard work and merit. I wish you you would recognize that sometime in your shows.

BK Vasan

Great story. I am absolutely ecstatic for the Brits who are of Indian origin. Caste systems are or rather should be a shame on any society that practices them. I am thrilled for you. Go Britain!


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