Race Matters

How is caste discrimination different from racism?

While the caste system - and the discrimination it engenders - originated in South Asia, it is very much present in the UK. Here Castewatch UK reports on the effects of caste discrimination.

An elderly woman reported receiving poor quality of care from a medical professional who, on learning of her caste, considered her to be unclean and refused to touch her.

This is just one of the experiences of caste discrimination taking place today in the UK, which has been reported to us at Castewatch.

Caste is associated primarily with cultures of the Indian sub-continent. According to those who practise and promote it, Caste is determined by birth and cannot be changed. Each Caste continues in a state of social paralysis, antagonistic and hostile towards the others’ interests, with inter-marriage discouraged if not prohibited. Whereas, in a class-based system there is the possibility of vertical mobility, this is denied in a Caste-based system. 

There are four categories, each ranked differently in terms of social honour. Below these groupings are those in the lowest position of all: Dalits, who were previously known as ‘untouchables’. Although the practice of ‘untouchability’ is legally prohibited in India, those from the Dalit community continue to be shunned socially and economically.

Yet caste discrimination is not limited to South Asian countries. In March 2017, the Government Equalities Office opened a public consultation regarding caste-based discrimination in Great Britain. The consultation seeks public views on what measure(s) the UK Government should take to outlaw caste-based discrimination.

UK law does not specifically protect against caste discrimination, however Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010 provides for caste to be made an ‘aspect of race’, as mandated under The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (alongside the already protected characteristics of colour, nationality and ethnic/national origins). This provision would benefit those who may be affected by caste discrimination in employment, provision of goods and services and public functions, by providing them with a clear route for legal recourse.

The notion that the Dalit community is by nature ‘impure’ and therefore inherently bound to servitude continues to create social divisions across South Asia. Although Dalits are the most severely affected group, caste-based discrimination in the UK is pervasive, affecting all communities among the South Asian diaspora because of the entrenchment of caste as a social paradigm.

Discrimination based on one’s caste holds similarities to discrimination based on one’s ethnic background or race; members of one group hold prejudice and exercise discrimination towards the group that they deem to be inferior. However, it is important to note that while the discrimination experienced can be similar to racism, caste is different from race.

While ‘race’ (as a social construct) may be understood as a way of classifying people in to groups based on physical traits, ‘caste’ is a system of social stratification, where groups are assigned a way of life defined primarily by occupation. Caste has no distinguishable physical feature and members of the same ‘race’ group may be of several different caste groups. In Britain, Dalits have progressed economically and do not follow their traditional occupations of cleaning toilets and skinning dead animals, but caste-based discrimination can be encountered in social interactions. Unlike race discrimination, caste discrimination is intra-racial and is practised among those of the same nationality, ethnic origin and/or cultural background.

According to Census data, the British South Asian community in the UK is numbered at more than 3 million. Findings of a 2010 study led by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (pdf) suggest that caste discrimination is occurring in Britain in places of work, places of worship and in the provision of goods and services. The same study estimated that there are between 50,000 and 200,000 people in diaspora communities that may be experiencing caste discrimination.

Our research and outreach activities have led to a number of people approaching Castewatch UK with their own experiences of caste discrimination, as in the case of the elderly woman above. In another example, a man in his fifties was subjected to regular humiliation and bullying in the workplace. A colleague even verbally abused him using language designed to degrade him on the basis of his caste. This occurred in front of other colleagues, who did not know how to react. When approaching both his supervisor and local union representative, the victim received no help or interest in his complaint.

We also have cases of children being subjected to caste-based bullying in schools. In another report we had, a man recalled that he was subject to caste discrimination since his school years, where being called an “untouchable” was commonplace. As a young musician, he and others would play instruments at South Asian weddings. He recalled that some would comment that tips should not be given to him as he was a ‘beggar,’ which was in reference to his caste.

Caste discrimination can also be present in everyday, often overlooked, interactions. One person described to us how discriminatory treatment towards him in his shop has now become normalised: “I was serving a customer at my shop and this customer was of a so-called high caste background who constantly questioned me about my caste. This lady refuses to put money in my hand, like I am an untouchable.”

Those opposed to any legislation to combat this prejudice argue that it is unnecessary. Some say that making caste discrimination illegal will adversely affect community cohesion among diaspora communities or that it would open a ‘Pandora’s box’ of litigious action. 

It is important to acknowledge that these arguments are not new to legal debates in the UK. Similar arguments were cited as a cause for concern by those opposed to the establishment of The Race Relations Act 1976.

We at Castewatch UK argue that the proposed amendment to the Equality Act 2010 is an important step to furthering anti-discrimination measures in the UK. We urge those interested to get involved and respond to the consultation, guidelines for which can be found at www.casteintheuk.org. The deadline for submissions to the consultation has recently been extended to 18 September 2017.

For more information on Castewatch UK, follow the link above or email info@castewatchUK.org
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