Caste discrimination and the Votebanks of Britain’s Hindu Right

Amrit Wilson

Just days before the UK general election, the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK) (NCHTUK) published an article on their website eulogising Theresa May and describing in glowing terms how she had visited the Swaminarayan temple and met representatives of the Hindu Forum of Great Britain, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the overseas wing of the RSS), the Overseas Friends of the BJP and various British Hindu Tory politicians. It concluded by advising their readers to vote and to choose between ‘PM Theresa May who performed Abhishek with Britain’s Hindus and whose party has elevated Indian Origin Parliamentarians to cabinet and Ministerial positions, or Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn who snubbed PM Modiji’s Parliamentary address and whose grandees are determined to foist Caste labels upon British Hindus’.

The NCHTUK is a charity and, under charity law, must eschew politics but this obvious contravention of the law is unlikely to result in punitive action because the British Charity Commissioners tend to act only to silence the voices of progressive NGOs. Even when the HSS was investigated for hate speech in 2015, their response was merely, and absurdly, that the organisation should keep away from the RSS, its parent body! But then again even government figures do not keep away from the RSS, in fact the RSS has become so respectable that Treasury Minister Priti Patel has openly expressed her admiration for it, and MPs like Bob Blackman, MP for Harrow East, have been delighted to share platforms with RSS leaders at HSS events.

In places like Harrow East or Brent in North London, the British incarnations of the Sangh Parivar have created vote banks which threaten all those who (in the words of Alpesh Patel, a hedge fund manager and columnist for the widely read Asian Voice) attack ‘the land of my forefathers, India’ – in other words criticise the Modi government or demand legislation which outlaws caste discrimination in Britain. However while Tory MPs, as well as many Labour MPs, have enthusiastically gone along with UK’s Hindutva brigade, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been a patron of UK’s Dalit Solidarity Network and made it quite clear that he abhors caste discrimination.

Over the last twelve years the law on caste discrimination has become a battle ground between Dalit and progressive organisations on the one hand and the Hindu Right on the other. Because while caste discrimination has always been present in the South Asian communities in the UK, it has escalated over the last couple of decades, often profoundly affecting everyday life for oppressed-caste people, and dividing the South Asian communities particularly Sikhs and Hindus. As Meena Verma of the Dalit Solidarity Network says, caste prejudice and the organisations which are denying that it exists, have both become more entrenched in the UK in recent years.

Satpal Muman, Chairperson of Caste Watch UK, the largest Dalit organisation in UK, describes some of the cases of caste-based abuse and discrimination which his organisation has documented – elderly patients being refused care because ‘upper-caste’ medical professionals will not touch them, or workers being refused promotion, or sidelined, and school children being bullied for reasons of caste. In places like Southall, just west of London, Dalit women have had sexualised casteist slurs thrown at them in supermarkets, beauty parlours and other public spaces. Even the once progressive Bhangra scene in Britain has been penetrated by caste abuse and hierarchy. Back in the 70s and 80s, when Bhangra first hit South Asian parties and clubs it was about South Asian unity and fighting racism. Now, all too often, its inherent machismo is directed at glorifying Jats and insulting oppressed-caste men and women.

A law against caste discrimination could clearly be used to combat these types of abuse and although in the numerous cases which occur in the private arena the law will not be directly applicable it may act as a deterrent, in relationships and marriages, for example, where transgressing caste boundaries lead to emotional and sometimes physical abuse. As Manju (not her real name), a Dalit married to a man of a ‘higher caste’ in Britain, put it, ‘It does not matter how much money you have in the bank or how many degrees you have under your belt, they see your caste as defining you. I was not allowed to go into the kitchen or to touch food because I was considered impure.’.

As a result of the campaign, legislation outlawing caste discrimination was effectively passed, with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 imposing a ‘duty’ on the government to make caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act of 2010. But the Conservative government is now backtracking in the face of all legal norms and has effectively stalled the law by failing to comply with this duty. Instead it has launched a public Consultation, which asks, not whether the law is going to be strong enough in its present form to be effective, but whether it might not ‘stereotype …certain ethnic groups’ or ‘potentially have unintended consequences for members of those groups naturally associated with…caste’.

The Consultation also suggests that the law could be abandoned in favour of reliance on the development of case law pointing to a case (Tirkey vs Chandok) where an Adivasi domestic worker successfully brought a claim against her employer for breaches of employment law and damages under the Equality Act for discrimination on grounds of religion and race.

Written as it is in impenetrable legalistic language, the Consultation is nothing but a smoke screen to obscure bitter everyday experiences of caste prejudice, says Satpal Muman. As he and the representatives of other major Dalit organisations wrote in a recent joint letter to Justine Greening, the Minister for Equalities, the assumption that case law would lead to a change is baseless ‘it is unlikely that case law will be developed because of the major risk of cases being unsuccessful…no one [including Ms Tirkey] has succeeded in a claim for discrimination specifically on the grounds of caste under the Equality Act.’ The letter has not so far received a reply.

Tory MP Bob Blackman, who was recently in the news following the Grenfell fire as one of 71 Tory MPs, who voted against making properties ‘fit for human habitation’ is among the most vocal opponents of the law. He is also virulently against Human Rights in Kashmir – after the summer of mass blindings in Kashmir, he voted against a motion in Parliament to raise the issue at the UN – and will brook no criticism of the Narendra Modi’s government. About the caste law Blackman claims, with a confident disregard for logic, that legislation outlawing caste is likely to cause segregation.

MPs like Blackman, the General Secretary of the NCHTUC, Satish Sharma, and a very small number of academics like Prakash Shah, Reader in Law at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), are the leading voices in the lobby against the law. Shah is quite open about his political position. He recently invited JNU’s RSS professor, Makarand Paranjape, to speak at QMUL, and listened approvingly while Paranjape heaped scorn on his Dalit students. In his book ‘Against Caste in British Law’, Shah describes the caste legislation as a threat to Indian businesses and to ‘the well-being and existence of Indian communities’ which would cause distress and create ‘a climate of intimidation’.

Shah’s melodramatic language suggests that what is at stake is not just the legislation outlawing caste discrimination but a demonstration of the power of the right-wing Hindu forces in Britain and their ability to get their own way.

Significantly the last year has also been a time when the British government, first under David Cameron and more recently under Theresa May, has been seeking trade deals with India, and wanting to keep on good terms with the Indian CEOs with multinational empires whose names frequently appear on UK’s Rich Lists, men like Swraj Paul, Anil Agarwal and Laxmi Mittal who are full of adulation for Narendra Modi. Like them, May is not interested in Modi’s abysmal human rights record or his ominous silences in face of communal violence and atrocities against Dalits, Muslims and Christians in India. May is unlikely to want to rock the Hindu Right’s boat in any way by supporting legislation outlawing caste. But the campaigners are not disheartened. ‘It will be a struggle’ says Satpal Muman ‘but we are ready for it. We won’t give up’.