British Indians seek legal protection from caste system

Tens of thousands of Indian immigrants in Britain are demanding legal protection from caste discrimination, saying Old World prejudices are being allowed to flourish in the West.

Up to 200,000 Indian immigrants are considered dalits, formerly known as untouchables

Tens of thousands of Indian immigrants in Britain are demanding legal protection from caste discrimination, saying Old World prejudices are being allowed to flourish in the West.

Britain’s Indian community — the largest minority group in the country, with some 1.5 million members — is well established, successful and intertwined into the country’s social fabric.

But up to 200,000 British Indians are considered dalits, formerly known as untouchables, comprising the lowest of the low in a rigid caste system rooted in the Indian subcontinent.

“The people who practise this culture, they migrated to other countries around the world including Britain,” said Umlal Kainth, one of hundreds of protesters who took to the streets in central London Saturday, demanding government action.

“Although we live in a very fair society, those people refuse to jettison those evil traditions,” Kainth said.

Pratik Dattani, a spokesman for The Alliance of Hindu Organizations in the United Kingdom, said the organization is concerned the legislation may paint Hindus - many of whom Dattani says don't experience caste discrimination - in a bad light. (Alex Robinson/CBC)

Britain agreed to include caste-specific provisions into its anti-discrimination laws after an acrimonious parliamentary debate in the spring, but not until 2015, following a two-year consultation process.

“Parliament has given a signal to government that it has to implement legislation,” said Davinder Prasad of the group Caste Watch UK, at the protest.  

Prasad said the demonstration was a call to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to "bring forward" the legislation.

Prasad carried a petition bearing 20,000 signatures to 10 Downing Street, the PM's official residence.

Community divided

However, not all members of the Indian community are in favour of the legislation.

Pratik Dattani, a spokesman for the Alliance of Hindu organizations in the United Kingdom, attributes the division to fears within the community that legislation would only serve to foster stereotypes.

“Among my friends this discussion of what caste are you, are you a high caste or are you a dalit, just hasn’t ever been part of our vocabulary,” Dattani said.

But many dalits say they remain vulnerable to prejudice on a regular basis, with no way of fighting it.

The men who pray at the Shri Guru Ravidass Temple in Newham, East London are chamar, a class whose members traditionally worked as tanners and were deemed untouchable because they dealt with carcasses.

Raunki Jhumat came to London in the 1980s hoping to shed the stigma. It didn’t work.

“When you mix in the society they will find out if you are low caste and high caste," he said. 

Even his 29-year-old British-born son, Aneil, has experienced it. When he started school, he said friends shunned him after learning his caste.

“You are constantly labelled and that stands through in people’s minds rather than your own achievements,” said Aneil Jhumat.

“It’s the cancer that Indians just cannot understand,” he said.

“It’s such a massive part of peoples' lives in the Indian subculture, it’s just never approached head on.”

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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