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The UK Government appears to be edging closer to outlawing discrimination on the grounds of caste. It is hoped this can be included in an Equality Bill currently under consideration by Parliament. Caste discrimination provisions were not in the original draft of the bill, and Hindu leaders had claimed that caste discrimination was not a problem in Britain despite substantial evidence to the contrary. But government ministers have indicated an openness to consider the matter as a result of some powerful lobbying.

It would be particularly fitting for the UK to change its law because the UK has so many citizens with Indian background as a result of former imperial links. Also, London was the venue of the first international conference on untouchables, organized by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) in June 2009.

IHEU has been active both behind the scenes and in public. IHEU International Representative Keith Porteous Wood has been working with Dalit groups in the UK uncovering research about the extent of the problems in the UK, and with academics who provided invaluable legal and legislative help. He also approached potential speakers for what turned out to be an influential debate in the House of Lords. Soon after the debate, Baroness Thornton, one of the government ministers responsible for the Equality Bill, offered to meet those involved to hear their views.

The meeting was held on 4 February in the House of Lords and about fifty groups were represented – many of whom had not been in the same room before. Nearly twenty were invited to address Baroness Thornton. They pointed out how many hundreds of thousands of people they represented, with the electoral implications. Some talked about being prevented from promotion to management posts or even being self-employed. Others said that their caste prevented their children from attending a local publicly-funded faith school (presumably Hindu) and how such religiously segregated schools impeded social cohesion. One man spoke of his suffering which he did not want his children to bear. In contrast, one speaker forecast social unrest as the emerging young generation would not be cowed and was proud to be Dalit. Keith drew attention to IHEU’s conference in June 2009 and read out a short passage from its concluding declaration, called the Conway Hall Declaration. Many of the contributions, including Keith’s, drew applause.

It was clear that these spontaneous statements moved the Minister. She said that her Department had just commissioned a study of the extent of the discrimination in the UK. Unfortunately, however, the study would not be completed until after the Bill was finalised. The Government said it might introduce a power in the Bill for a Minister to trigger caste discrimination protection in the future if they thought it justified, perhaps on the basis of evidence included in the study.

One of the Lords present wanted the meeting to accept this, but Keith told the Minister that as the study would not be ready until after the General Election there was a distinct possibility that the power to introduce caste discrimination legislation would not be invoked, particularly if there was a change in Government.

Keith and several peers argued that there was no need for a study; enough evidence has been provided by the delegates. How much discrimination did there need to be to justify legislation? Was this not a question of principle – and even if there were no evidence of discrimination, what was wrong with declaratory law (simply saying this behaviour is unacceptable and making it unlawful)?

Keith tried to encourage the Minister by pointing to the powerful and indeed historic international signal and example that would be set by outlawing caste. She agreed to pass on the strength of feeling for an immediate change in the law, to which she seemed sympathetic. She suggested that perhaps we should try to lobby both for an immediate change and also – in case we were not successful – the power to introduce it in future. Keith asked the delegates to signify their support, and there was not one dissenter – another powerful message for the Minister to relay back to the Government.

The legislative outcome of the meeting will become clearer in the next few weeks as the Bill is finalised. We will keep you informed.

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