London: As the House of Commons is set to vote on a controversial amendment tomorrow to include caste among other forms of discrimination, Hindu groups here are divided on its impact on the diaspora.
The House of Commons is set to vote on a controversial amendment tomorrow as a part of the Equality Act 2010, which could offer lower-caste Hindus a legal safeguard against caste discrimination. According to the 2011 census, there are 816,633 Hindus based in the UK.
While campaign group `Caste Watch UK` plans to rally hundreds of its supporters in Parliament Square today to urge MPs to introduce legal protection for those from traditionally lower-caste backgrounds, other groups such as Alliance of Hindu Organisations UK (AHO) claims the legislation will label the entire Hindu community as being "institutionally discriminatory" and have called a boycott of the amendment.
"Caste discrimination is prevalent and rife in Britain and it has been proved by official research. These groups [AHO] do not represent all Hindus and Sikhs and their claim that it is not an issue in Britain is baseless. It seems either they are in denial or this is a delaying tactic, but the moment of truth is here," said Davinder Prasad, general secretary of Caste Watch UK, which has been campaigning for caste-based discrimination to be included in the country`s equality laws for years.
The AHO, on the other hand, has labelled it a "backward step" as it fears that such a law will result in individuals applying for work or places to study in the UK being forced to "identify themselves by caste for equal opportunities monitoring purposes".
"The issue of the caste system is one that the Hindu community would very much like to move beyond. We strongly believe that modern Hindus do not care about what caste someone came from. This legislation would take us back to the past where we do not want to go," said AHO spokesperson Arjan Vakaria.
Although a section of the Equality Act 2010 could offer lower-caste Hindus a legal safeguard against caste discrimination, it has not yet been activated despite repeated demands. The government has instead indicated that it plans to tackle the issue of caste discrimination through an educational initiative before resorting to legislation.
But that could change when MPs vote on a cross-party amendment - already passed in the House of Lords that would make caste a protected characteristic under the act.
The Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, who had introduced the amendment in the House of Lords last month, pegged the British Dalit community at around 480,000 and claimed that evidence showed they suffered discrimination in education, employment and the provision of public goods and service.
"Nothing could be more significant and effective in reducing discrimination on the grounds of caste than to have a clear-cut law that discrimination in the public law would not be tolerated," he had said during the Lords debate.
The government had commissioned NIESR to carry out research into the issue, resulting in a report in December 2010 entitled `Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain`.
The government has asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to examine the nature of caste prejudice and harassment in the UK, the findings of which are to be tabled later this year.