Law tackles U.K. caste discrimination

Stephen Beard Apr 22, 2010

Law tackles U.K. caste discrimination

Stephen Beard Apr 22, 2010


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.

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