· Government urged to act to help 500,000 Dalits
· Problem is exaggerated, argues Asian MP
Hugh Muir, Tuesday July 4, 2006, The Guardian
They are communities that live together, look alike and share a common background. To the uninitiated, there is no discernible difference. But a report will today claim that many Indian communities in Britain are blighted by caste discrimination. Researchers detail claims that many of the 50,000 Dalits in the UK – once known as India's lower-caste "untouchables" – suffer discrimination from other castes in terms of jobs, healthcare, politics, education and schools.
In a report likely to provoke bitter controversy, researchers were told how couples who marry outside their own caste face "violence, intimidation and exclusion". The study, No Escape – Caste Discrimination in the UK, focuses on domestic discrimination, although campaigners are also trying to force British firms with commercial interests in India to outlaw practices unfair to Dalits. The government has promised to consider the issue in forthcoming legislation and to look at claims of discrimination against lower-caste Gurkhas in the British army.
David Haslam of the Dalit Solidarity Network, who organised the research, said the group had spoken to 130 people for the study. "Dalits across the UK felt that within the Indian community, their identity was based on caste and that the caste system was very much in operation." He said respondents called for caste discrimination to be addressed in schools as part of the national curriculum and for the establishment of more temples open to worshippers of all castes. Eighty-five per cent urged the UK authorities to "work towards the elimination of caste discrimination".
Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and a Dalit Solidarity Network trustee, said he was aware of caste discrimination abroad but was "horrified" to "realise that caste discrimination has been exported". He added: "This is an issue which the government and all those concerned about good community relations need to address."
The former mayor of Coventry, Ram Lakha, told researchers how he faced discrimination from upper-caste voters when seeking election in a largely Indian ward. "During campaigning I was told that I would not get people's vote as I was a chamar [a derogatory name for Dalits]. So I filed my nomination in a non-Asian constituency and was able to win." He said it was customary for the Indian community to honour each new mayor – yet his achievement had not been recognised in that way. "Everyone in the Indian community knows how things are. It is there, and it will take a long time to die out. I recently discovered from my children that they suffered difficulties at school. It is only now, because the issue is being raised, that they chose to tell me. Given everything that has happened, I am very proud and thankful to God for what I have gained."
Harbans Lal Virde, general secretary of the west London religious association Buddha Dham, said he also faced workplace difficulties. "The non-Dalits in my community objected to my promotion and did not support me in my work. They did not like me as a supervisor. The non-Dalits presume that 'chamars' are good for nothing." One respondent, who asked to remain anonymous, said it was difficult to confront the problem. "At work there is no open discrimination; it is usually discreet. Most of the businesses are small – if you complain, the person who will listen to your complaint is from the higher caste, so no action is taken."
Researchers say some barriers are breaking down. In India, Dalits and non-Dalits rarely eat together, but 81% of those questioned said the restriction did not usually apply here. Piara Khabra, MP for Ealing Southall, accused researchers of exaggerating the extent of problems: "It is a big issue in India, but not here. There is a broader community and different traditions. People live happily together." He said many complainants may claim caste discrimination mistakenly or for political reasons. "I am the MP and people come to me who are from the lowest castes."
In one employment tribunal case alleging discrimination based on caste, a factory worker claimed he had been unfairly disciplined at work and then dismissed because non-Dalits complained about him. In another, a healthcare worker claimed he was victimised when his supervisor, who had been friendly, discovered his caste.