Caste System Tore Lovers Apart

By Danish Khan, Womens Feature Service

There is little doubt that the large presence of people from different regions of India are now living in the United Kingdom. It has added to the cultural richness of contemporary British society.

With them has come the ‘Indian curry’ which is served in thousands of restaurants all over the United Kingdom. In fact, curry has become a national dish in Britain. But unfortunately, the Indian community in Britain still tends to be insular. Nothing indicates this as emphatically as its failure to accord a respectable status of the Dalits within the community. Population of the Dalits is estimated to number 2,000,000.

Discrimination based on caste was once talked about only in hushed tones. But it is now increasingly coming out into the open. Several recent studies indicate that Dalits in Britain face discrimination in the workplace, in schools and even in health institutions.

As part of their efforts to document and prove that discrimination on the basis of caste does take place, some men and women have actually experienced caste discrimination at first. With the help of local civil society organizations, they have presented their case before a select committee of the House of Lords.

One such case involved a young couple who faced discrimination at their workplace from a highly caste conscious management. Their travails began when the girl, Talvinder and Ajay who decided to get married. Both worked for a solicitors’ firm in the Midlands. Talvinder happened to belong to a higher caste than Ajay.

The couple received a huge shock when Ajay was told by the administrators of the ‘gurudwara’ (Sikh temple) where the couple had booked their marriage ceremony that they will not be able to go ahead with the event. When Ajay asked for reasons why this was the case, he was told that since he was not a Sikh and belonged to a low caste, he could not get married in the ‘gurudwara’.

The courageous young couple’s problems did not end there. Even after they got married, the bullying, intimidation and discrimination only increased. Today, they continue to face an indifferent and uncooperative management.

The House of Lords has already voted to ban caste discrimination and activists believe United Kingdom is on its way to become the first European country to recognize it as a form of racism.

The government is waiting for a report on a study it has commissioned to determine the extent of caste-based discrimination.

Davinder Prasad, general secretary of CasteWatchUK, which has been at the forefront of the campaign, is confident that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research will find enough evidence to prove that individuals in the UK face discrimination because of his or her caste.

“People feel ashamed to share the fact that they were discriminated because they belong to a lower caste. However, many victims are coming forward and I am sure the National Institute of Economic and Social Research that is conducting the study will find plenty of instances. Hopefully, there should not be any hiccups. It is shameful but we have to face the reality,” said Prasad.

CasteWatchUK has also pointed out the reference to caste in textbooks prescribed for schools in UK, which are “working towards making Britain a caste-conscious society”.

Revealed Prasad, “We had meetings with the relevant authorities to stop the use of such textbooks two years ago. However, nothing satisfactory was achieved. We will continue our fight to get such books banned,” he said.

One such book has the picture of a cobbler with the caption: “This man is a cobbler. His work involves leather, and since contact with the skin of dead animals is particularly polluting, he is a “Harijan”. No Hindu from a higher caste would consider doing this sort of work.”

Prasad thinks that the use of such textbooks make students of Indian origin only too aware of caste as an institution. It could lead to discrimination and bullying in schools.

“As they grow they carry forward with them the same mentality. The problem is particularly acute in pockets where there is a huge Indian population. It has to be made clear that caste discrimination can’t be allowed to happen at this age in Britain,” said Prasad.

Activists argue that the caste of a person is easily revealed by his or her surnames. In this way, the significant Dalit community in Britain continues to be the subject of bullying, discrimination and harassment.

In a report titled ‘No Escape: Caste Discrimination in UK’, which came out in July 2006, Ram Lakha, a Labour politician, narrated his plight. “During campaigning I was often told that I would not get people’s vote as I was a “chamar”. So I filed my nomination in a non-Asian constituency and was able to win. The Indian community in Coventry always felicitates every new mayor. However, till today they have not done this for me.”