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The Story of Caste Discrimination Legislation in UK and its adverse implications

All that I Am' by the Singh Twins (their copyright), award winning UK artists celebrating British Indian identity and cohesion and interviewed at length here. The Hindus, Sikhs and Jains are widely respected throughout Britain for their hospitality and welcome to people from all walks of life. So why is there a need for caste discrimination legislation in Britain?'

Book Review: Against Caste in British Law: A Critical Perspective on the Caste Discrimination Provision in the Equality Act 2010, by Dr. Prakash Shah, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Dr. Prakash Shah

When I embarked on the 1500 mile epic Masala Tour of Britain in November 2010, it was a Diverse Ethics attempt to educate the British media about the Hindu, Jain and Sikh communities of Britain and their hugely positive and constructive contribution to the wider economy, society and the natural environment. British media have generally been hostile to religion, and these communities rarely get positive mention as they are defined in a very westernised worldview of religion as dogma and Hinduism as heathen, idolatory and uncivilised. But in truth, faith, community and family are a core part of everyday life for most Indians in Britain, and the country is hugely enriched by their presence. The word Dharma means something very very different than religion in the western sense – it is in truth the science of sustainable living. I was given nearly fifteen BBC radio interviews as I travelled on the tour, and a full page profile in the Guardian. We did manage to convey this positive story, and got excellent feedback from all over the country. A full video archive of the journey can be viewed on You Tube.

When this latest book from Dr. Prakash Shah landed on my desk, I felt as if all my efforts were in vain. The new Caste Discrimination legislation in Britain is going to wrench the gut of community life in this country, and destroy much that is positive and good. Far from valuing the positive contribution, it will jeopardise it irreparably. Like Prakash and many community leaders, I have lived and volunteered in these communities for several decades and ‘know’ on the ground that there is no caste discrimination in Britain. Yes, I am rooted in my community and have been for decades, but somehow, the opinion and views of such rooted community members and leaders was not considered in rushing through the legislation. Liberal minded MP’s and Lords saw it fit to support this legislation without much understanding or research, because they wanted to be ‘fair’ and also because few are aware of how these communities contribute to British society. They suffered from the colonial hangover of caste. Maybe some even felt threatened by the Indian community’s success and enterprise.

Lord Navnit Dholakia publicly spoke up against this legislation


Dr. Prakash Shah is a Reader in Law at Queen Mary College, University of London and has an exceptional list of publications and pioneering research to his credit. He is Director of GLOCUL, a pioneering initiative to raise the critical issues of faith and law in a legal world dominated by very partial and discriminatory views of different faiths. In this very lucid and comprehensive book, written in a very measured language for Palgrave Macmillan publishers, Prakash goes through the history of caste in India, the British desire to classify, control and rule, and the deep legacy of this ‘stereotypical’ image of India on British life and society. Even when we know that stereotypes are usually always exaggerated, we routinely fall into them, because of what psychologists call ‘unconscious bias’. We assume a lot of things without understanding or truly knowing. And if we are in a position of power, like an MP or a House of Lords member, we can bring this ’stereotyped’ influence to bear on whole communities and societies, with adverse consequences. He examines the key influencers and hidden agendas behind this legislation, the technical complexities of defining caste, and the unforeseen consequences of this law for individuals, businesses and communities in Britain. At a time when Britain is desperate to build and sustain good, responsible communities, this law could take us far far backwards, and destroy so many things which have helped boost British economy and society.

In his excellent forward to the book, Prof Gautam Sen summarises the history of caste in India, showing that it was often disturbed by many factors such as wars and famines, and the factual basis for the hierarchy that is suggested is grossly inaccurate. Even today in India, there are many Brahmins struggling to find work or housing so where lies their power and influence? What is critical to understand is the combination of orientalist scholarship and the Christian desire to proselytise that has constantly reared the ghost of caste as a way to undermine the very fabric of Indian social life, culture and values. Unless we understand this political agenda, we will never remove the active attempts at destroying Indian wisdom and pluralist life.

In fact, Prakash argues quite convincingly that the whole drive to this legislation has been influenced by a strong Christian agenda of proselytization, which has been successfully practiced on the Dalits in India, and is now being applied to Britain to divide and undermine the Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities. He adopts a global perspective on caste and its history, demonstrating scientifically how this whole notion of hierarchy and discrimination was grossly misappropriated and misinterpreted by the British colonialists. This echoes with the British slave trade, which was endorsed by writers and scholars on the basis that the negroes were uncivilised and needed to be ruled and governed. The same applied to the Aborigines in Australia, and the Hindus in India were seen as a heathen caste with dangerous rituals and idol worshippers who needed to be civilised. Key sponsors of the legislation, like Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, have used all their might and influence to push through this new law. I wonder how many Hindu temples, Sikh temples and Jain ‘unconverted’ communities Lord Harries has visited, and how often he has heard from these communities about personal stories of caste discrimination. When we invited a senior public leader to the Jain temple in the UK, he explained that the Jains are an emblem of hope for Britain and a role model for its peaceful future. I wonder if there is a more subtle agenda here about fear of the very success of such communities and their open-mindedness and social cohesion which is seen by others as a threat worth ‘dividing and ruling’. Dr. Prakash Shah is clear that there is a profound agenda to promote Christianity among the Indians, something which is already happening in India.

Many ordinary Britons who have Hindu, Jain or Sikh friends or neighbours, or have visited their temple complexes or festivals, know how friendly and welcoming they are to one and all. In fact, at a recent Hindu event I attended, an English guest publicly said that she has never felt more welcomed by strangers in her whole life. So where do we discriminate and how? Does having one’s own community association based on history and heritage count as exclusivity and caste discrimination? If so what of the many private English clubs restricted to members only, or some like the Garrick which are men only and congregations of very senior and influential lawyers and judges? In the workplace, the overwhelming need is for skills and a work ethic, so caste cannot come into this equation even for Indian employers. In fact I do know that many Indian owned businesses are some of the most diverse and inclusive employers in Britain.

One of the key problems that Prakash highlights repeatedly is that even if caste discrimination were to exist, there are huge challenges in having a clear legal definition of caste which is unambiguous and therefore, easy to enforce legally. No such definition exists, partly because the caste system was itself a creation of the British divide and rule strategy in India, like in the Caribbean. Prakash highlights in great detail the nuances of the UK Equality Act, and how attempts to fit caste into this framework raise many challenges and ambiguities. The research and evidence gathering to support the legislation has itself been flawed and biased from the outset, but somehow there has been little challenge to this outside the communities. Unlike most academics today, who live in their theoretical bubbles and have particular rules about the nature of evidence, Prakash lives and works in both worlds – the scholarly and the community – and has tried very hard to educate and inform both sides over decades. He is a rare public intellectual, concerned for the betterment of society through the use of science. The aim of writing this book is to inform public policy and influence debate in an objective, scholarly way.

The history of new laws and policies has been littered with unforeseen consequences. Dr Prakash identifies these consequences for employers, employees, charities and community organisations, and the risks of litigation. These could open them to facile cases which they would be forced to defend in courts. Often these courts are the anti-thesis of cultural and religious pluralism, and operate with a very English idea of fairness and justice. Sadly, one of the consequences of these communities being hard working and cohesive is that they have not been very politically engaged, and this storm has hit them without warning. But act, they must, before it is too late.

Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Share this review widely on social media - twitter, facebook, linked in
  • Buy and read this important book
  • Write to your local MP explaining that this legislation is the anti-thesis of equality
  • Write to members of the House of Lords, especially Lord Harries and other supporters like Baroness Flather, to complain about this legislation
  • Get your HR Director in the company you work for alerted about the adverse consequences of this legislation
  • Mobilise members and leaders of your community to protest against this legislation through information and then direct action

 Feel free to comment on this article in the discussion section below. Share your stories of how you have campaigned to defeat this legislation and raise awareness about its bias and adverse consequences.

Article added on 12th August 2015 at 9:18am