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Britain searches for solution to caste discrimination

Victory turned sour for those calling for the United Kingdom to outlaw Indian-type caste discrimination, when it was revealed the rules won't come into force until 2015. Some British Indians say such a law isn't needed.

Ram Dhariwal says he's experienced discrimination first-hand at work as an IT professional in Britain. "It made me feel small," he said, when a new Indian colleague immediately asked him at a department meeting about his caste, then derided him as a so-called "untouchable." Dhariwal's religion would have made him an untouchable, a Dalit, if he lived in India.

His experience was not an isolated one, with caste discrimination on the rise in the Indian-British community, the country's largest minority group. Lawmakers decided something needed to be done, and this spring they added caste as "an aspect of race" to the UK's anti-discrimination Equality Act. Critics say doing so has drawn attention to caste and made a small problem a greater one.

Race may have been an issue at times, but never caste issues from within his own community, said Dhariwal, a second-generation Indian Brit living the middle-class life his parents envisioned for their children after they moved here in the 1960s.

"My dad would be astonished," he told DW, adding that the issue of caste has come to the fore more frequently since Parliament took up the debate a couple of years ago.

Bilingual signs on Brick Lane in east London (Photo: Dominic Lipinski)

The British-Indian community is a UK fixture

"Over the last few years … since this caste system legislation has been playing around," Dhariwal said, "that's made people more open - especially high caste - of raising their profile."

Opponents of the new legislation within the South Asian community say that caste discrimination was fading from memory in the UK before the issue came under scrutiny.

"I think this has done more harm than good," said Bharti Tailor of Hindu Forum UK. "It has brought up these divides and opened old wounds when they were in fact healing naturally. [And] this legislation is vilifying and putting a spotlight on [our] community … and saying we discriminate within that community. That is a big burden."

The right route?

The Indian-British community, some say, is increasingly blighted by growing internal divisions that emanate from India.

"We found cases we thought were caste discrimination that would come under the Equality Act," said Hilary Metcalf, co-author of a legislative report containing two dozen case studies in which caste was a major reason why certain people weren't hired for a job or some children were bullied at school.

"[One] carer was caring for [a family's] mother," recalled Metcalf, looking over her 2011 report. "But eventually the carer saw a picture of the guru Ravidass, who is related to the Ravidassian religion, regarded as a low-caste religion."

Metcalf says the carer started naming excuse after excuse to avoid washing the elderly woman who she now regarded as an "untouchable."

In her report, Metcalf and her co-author say legislation banning anti-caste discrimination is what's needed.

"It empowers those people to do something about it," she said.

But as it stands now, the caste-discrimination addendum to the Equality Act won't kick in until mid-2015.

Anti-caste discrimination protesters vow they will keep fighting to outlaw this particular kind of racism, but Bharti Tailor of Hindu Forum UK says the two-year delay gives plenty of time to gather information that proves the law isn't needed at all.

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