NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Theresa May announced last week that there is no need for a separate law against caste discrimination in the United Kingdom, and that it can be dealt by emerging case law as developed by tribunals and courts. The Conservative-led government retracted the stand taken by the previous government, citing the lack of a clear definition of caste, and the small number of cases involved.

This followed the prolonged consultation titled “Caste in Great Britain and Equality Law: a Public Consultation”, which lasted from March 28 to September 18, 2017. It invited views on whether legal protection against caste discrimination could be ensured by relying on emerging case law under the Act, or by explicitly making caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act of 2010. It received 16,138 separate consultation responses from the British Indian diaspora.

Opposition parties like Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in favour of outlawing caste discrimination, which is increasingly rearing its ugly head in the UK. The Liberal Democrats even included the outlawing of caste discrimination in their manifesto in the 2017 general election.

This drastic decision by the Conservative-led government represents a major setback to the relentless and protracted struggle of the Dalit community in the UK, who belong to various religious groups and come from various South Asian countries. By contrast, the anti-law lobby comprising various Hindu groups such as the National Council for Hindu Temples UK, the Hindu Forum of Britain, the Hindu Council UK and the Sikh Federation UK, hailed the decision. They said in unison that this was the outcome they had lobbied for.

Reacting to the decision of the government, the chairman of CasteWatch UK Sat Pal Muman stated, “The government has sent a depressing message to the Dalit community: that their cause is not important and they will continue to face discrimination with impunity.”

The anti-caste discrimination campaign led by CasteWatch UK, a prominent watchdog on caste discrimination, and Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliances, an umbrella body of groups fighting caste discrimination in Britain, further alleged that the government’s about-turn came due to pressure from the anti-law lobby led by upper-caste Hindu and Sikh groups in the UK, who are numerically strong and electorally significant.

This despite the availability of individual testimonies as well as independent research studies, by scholars and the government itself, confirming the prevalence of caste discrimination in the UK, in employment, education, and the provision of social services such as elderly care.

Vivek Kumar, professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems in the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has been researching the Dalit diaspora in the UK, told The Citizen that “The decision of the government is biased. Despite the availability of various independent studies, if there is no law on caste discrimination, it may lead to the intensity of such discrimination in various sectors. It is a very important piece of legislation for ensuring the law of equality.”

The Equality Act 2010 is comprehensive legislation meant to protect British citizens from various kinds of discrimination based on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. In 2013 a motion was introduced by Labour Party members in the House of Lords to include caste in the Equality Act through an amendment to Section 9 (5) (a) of the Act, based on various reports of caste discrimination among the South Asian diaspora, in particular the Indian community.

It can be argued that trying to resolve caste discrimination through emerging case law, or by considering it an aspect of race or ethnic origin in the Equality Act 2010 is itself a flawed idea, as opinion is divided among scholars around the world on whether caste and race are the same phenomenon. For the government to initiate a public consultation to decide on the law on caste discrimination could itself be seen as erroneous, given the distinct nature and characteristics of caste and race.

Caste is a form of social discrimination, based primarily on the idea of purity and pollution of the Hindu social system (although caste has gradually penetrated into other South Asian religious groups). Whereas racial discrimination is based on physical or biological traits. So the existing legislation is per se inadequate to resolve the issue of caste discrimination. As the consultation process was based on the incorrect premise that caste and race can be conflated, the present government must revoke its decision and enact a separate legislation. This is the only way out to ensure the rule of law for the South Asian Dalit diaspora in the UK.

Apart from the migration of Indian Dalits en masse as indentured labourers in the colonial period, they have also migrated to various countries as free labourers and professionals after Indian independence. About ten percent of the Indian diaspora in the UK are Dalits, who come mainly from the Punjab region of India. As various studies have revealed, they have been facing subtle forms of caste discrimination.

These include ridiculing Dalits by caste name, from schools to the workplace; restrictions on intercaste marriages; denial of equal opportunity, equal status and respect in the Indian-based organisations; and attacks on them in pubs and other places. Not surprisingly, one can find separate places of religious worship and Dalit organisations across the countries being founded by British Indian Dalits.

It is very important to note that caste discrimination against Dalits is not confined to the UK alone. It is a global menace, given the extent of Dalit migration across the globe. The persistence of implicit caste discrimination in an alien environment besides India has led to global Dalit movements to fight for justice, self-dignity and social equality.

If a separate law against caste discrimination were enacted in response to the Dalit movement in the UK, it would set a precedent for other countries to emulate, countries where the global Dalit diaspora wages its battle against caste discrimination every day.