The UK's House of Lords has voted to bring caste discrimination within the scope of equality legislation, potentially strengthening protections for vulnerable members of 'lower castes'. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has welcomed the news as a "positive step" which could stand to be replicated in numerous other countries.

IHEU has long-camapigned on the issue of caste-based discrimination. The organisation hosted the first worldwide conference on caste discrimination in 2009 (see BBC coverage), with humanists, other campaigners and political leaders from several countries discusing the severity and global scale of caste discrimination. The resulting Conway Hall Declaration on Untouchability called for new legislation, and Lord Avebury, who took part in the 2009 conference, was among the Peers who brought the motion which passed on Monday. IHEU delegates have applied pressure on caste discrimination at the United Nations on a number of occasions (for example to coincide with the 2009 conference and criticised the UK over its slow response as recently as last October), and IHEU supports a project working with Dalit villages in India.

The amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill was moved by members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits and received crossbench support.

The National Secular Society (NSS), a member organisation of IHEU, described this week’s vote as a "heavy defeat" for the UK Government, losing by 103 votes.  Prior to the vote the NSS briefed Peers with a legal opinion obtained by the NSS, which concluded that the UK is obliged in international human rights law to legislate for caste discrimination.

The previous Labour Government amended the Equality Bill to include an enabling power to make caste a protected characteristic as a result of which discrimination and harassment on the grounds of caste would be outlawed. The current Government has however resisted triggering the power despite a report into the prevalence of caste discrimination in the UK.

IHEU's International Director based in India, Babu Gogineni, commented:

"This is a very positive step and a victory for common sense in the UK. It is understandable that an imported form of discrimination is a sensitive topic, but this should not mean that the government ignores or downplays a serious threat to the rights and liberties of its citizens.

"The UK government's own research found evidence of caste discrimination by ‘highest caste’ individuals, against some proportion of the 50,000 to 200,000 ‘lowest caste’ individuals in the UK. This discrimination occurred in the form of workplace bullying and diminished recruitment and promotion prospects, in the provision of services, and through bullying in schools. Harassment and demeaning or violent behaviour linked to caste discrimination was also identified.

"We know from experience that the explicit outlawing of caste discrimination does not solve everything; caste discrimination was outlawed in India in 1947 but remains an endemic social problem affecting millions. However, legal deterrent is a powerful tool for building a ballast against the inhuman and degrading discrimination associated with caste.

"Not many are aware that caste discrimination persists in Nigeria and also Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, and in other south Asian countries. These countries too should take proactive steps to outlaw discrimination based on caste."

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: "The Government set a poor example by refusing to follow the UN's recommendation last year that the UK to make caste discrimination unlawful – as it was obliged to do so by its international obligations. Instead, all the Government offered those suffering from caste discrimination was conciliation where there is conflict."

The amendment needs the support of the House of Commons before it can become law.

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