When I was 12, I went to a temple near our house on the day of Shivratri. But as soon as I got there, I saw a crowd outside; the priest was arguing with someone and was attempting to push the gentleman out of the temple. When we inched closer, we heard the pundit say, “You don’t belong here; you are from a dirty caste.” I didn’t understand what was going on, not just because I was too young to know what casteism was, but because it was something I’d never witnessed before.
At that age, I was taught that a temple is a holy place where anyone is welcome and seeing someone being sent away really shook me. The poor gentleman ended up leaving the temple and you could just see how heartbroken he was, and at the time the UK government had no clue about the caste system, so he couldn’t go and report it.
Since then, there have been more instances of caste-related crimes. For example, a mother was allegedly called a chamar. People use this term in a derogatory manner as a casteist insult. Chamar is a lower caste. This attitude towards people hailing from lower castes was spreading to workplaces too; Indrajit, a man associated CasteWatchUK (a non-profit organisation that tackles caste-related discrimination) had no idea what caste was until he moved to the UK and his Indian colleagues in his town identified what caste he belonged to after asking him questions about his ancestors. They found out he was a Dalit and complained to the manager that he was ‘inefficient’. This was done only because he was a Dalit. This ended with Indrajit losing his job.
Examples such as the above eventually caught the UK Parliament’s attention and as a result, it amended the Section 9 of the 2010 Equality Act in 2013. The amendment requires the government to make a secondary legislation, to make caste discrimination a kind of race discrimination. According to the findings of a research published on the UK government’s website, “Relying on the Indian community to take action to reduce caste discrimination and harassment is problematic.” This why the government feels the need to intervene. But why are so many British Hindus opposed to this?
I visit the temple in my town every week, but this time I decided to speak to the treasurer and get his opinion on the legislation. He suggested that it would create ‘friction’ between what is a ‘cohesive community’. When I asked what he meant by that, he replied, “The Indian community in the UK is one of the friendliest I have been involved with, and at the temple here, I have seen no issues of casteism. The examples that you are giving me happen once in a blue moon. We should not damage the reputation of Hindus in the eyes of the British society by suggesting we are people who discriminate against our own kind.”
Looking at the flip side, there are people who think the legislation is a good idea. For example, the president of the Hindu Society at my university believes, “It will make people more aware, not just Hindus, about the issue of casteism and this, will hopefully prevent it from spreading further. If more people know about it, then the more likely it is that someone will try and stop it from taking place.”
When asked if it should be put on the same level as racism, she agreed. “Judging someone based on their caste is like judging someone for their colour, race and gender. It is not their fault that they were born into a lower caste.” She makes a compelling point. Judging someone on the basis of their caste is defiance of human rights and by choosing to ignore that problem, we are blurring the lines between what should be considered as discrimination and what should not.
This, in turn, questions many of the laws we have, tackling racism and sexism. If laws exist for those, why isn’t the issue of caste addressed? My professor also agrees. “The longer the government takes to do something about this, the more the situation will worsen.”
What can be said for now is that irrespective of there being an act in place or not, discrimination based on caste is a form of racial discrimination. So, we should all do our bit in society to stand up to those who are at the receiving end of it.
Sreeja Karanam is an intern at Youth Ki Awaaz.