Far-right Hindus in the UK are making attempts to obscure the fight against caste discrimination by claiming it is ‘anti-Hindu.’
The caste systems of South Asia affect not only the region itself, but also South Asian communities around the world. The most dominant of these systems is that belonging to Hinduism, which was initiated in India around 3,000 years ago.
Since then, it has been adopted in different forms — but with similar functions — by many Sikhs and some Muslims of South Asia.
The Hindu caste system places adherents of the faith into a social hierarchy consisting of four categories that determine what jobs they can perform and what their social status is. There is no prospect of social mobility.
Brahmins - Priests
Kshatriyas - Warriors
Vaishyas - Merchants & landowners
Shudras - Peasants & servants
Below this four-tier hierarchy is a group considered outcasts: Dalits. They are shunned from mainstream society and expected to work as manual scavengers. Many live under harsh conditions in the poorest parts of India and are deemed ‘untouchable’ by so-called ‘higher’ castes.
While caste discrimination was officially declared illegal in India in 1948, its practice persists to this day, frequently resulting in brutal violence, including the rape and murder of people considered ‘lower caste.’
Caste-based discrimination also haunts the UK, affecting major institutions such as the National Health Service and the army.
“There was a really offensive leaflet in the chaplaincy section of a large NHS Hospital Trust last year. The leaflet described how to treat a Hindu patient. It basically said an “untouchable’ or a menstruating woman should not touch a Brahmin. Can you imagine? What if you’ve got a nurse or doctor who is menstruating touching a patient? It’s that extreme,” explains Santosh Dass, Spokesperson of the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance.
The matrimonial website Shaadi.com was recently exposed for creating algorithms that prevented members of certain castes in the UK from being introduced to others.
Hari, a Nepali living in London who is considered a Dalit, or ‘untouchable,’ says caste prejudice and discrimination is often subtle.
“It’s people not wanting to give a room for rent. They tell your caste by your surname. You also see when you are amongst ‘higher castes’ they have certain facial expressions as they assume your caste. They talk to you rudely.”
Many Nepalis serve in the British Army as part of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Hari says many of his friends have been refused positions based on their caste. The British Ministry of Defence says it doesn’t consider caste a criterion for recruitment, but many claim it remains a barrier. When Dalits are recruited they often face segregated living quarters.
There is no specific legislation that prohibits caste-based discrimination in the UK. Cases that have been brought forward have been on the basis of caste being understood as an aspect of race. This lack of specific legislation can make fighting a case more complex.
In 2018, the government backtracked on a promise to include caste as a specific category of discrimination in the Equality Act of 2010, arguing there was no need to legally distinguish between race and caste.
“This grey area has been created by the Hindu lobby,” argues Sat Pal Muman, chairman of anti-caste discrimination campaign Castewatch UK.
“The government did this to appease politically active Hindus and garner votes.”
“The Hindu lobby has powerful links to the Conservative Government that relies on this community's votes. The government also needs a good post-Brexit deal with India. This has obstructed the implementation of the law,” Dass elaborates.
Muman says there is an attempt by far-right Hindus to obscure the fight against caste discrimination by claiming it is ‘anti-Hindu.’
“Groups opposing legislation here in the UK have connections with the Hindutva agenda of the Indian government. The very mention of caste puts them under the spotlight. They go on the offensive and accuse you of attacking their religion…but it’s a conversation that needs to be had.”
While the theological underpinnings of caste in Hinduism cannot be ignored, he says the focus of his campaign is based on “the fact that people are being discriminated against. This is about human rights — not a specific religious group.”
He has also dealt with cases among British Pakistani Muslims who have applied a similar system of hierarchy known as biradari, often to denigrate political opponents and control electoral voting within specific castes.
For Santosh, smokescreen arguments and powerful lobbies are no deterrent. “We continue to mobilise and articulate the case for the law. At its root, caste-based discrimination is about dehumanising people and maintaining control and power over them. In the end, the sufferers’ voices will need to be heard.”
There could be a long way to go before that happens.
The stigma of being lower caste is so rife that many people try to hide their caste when seeking jobs and housing. If they are exposed and discriminated against by employers and landlords, taking their case to court could lead to further discrimination from others who consequently become aware of their caste.
This creates a conundrum wherein fear and stigma prevent people from coming forward, allowing the government and the far-right Hindu lobby to claim that changes to the law are not necessary, in turn enabling discrimination and allowing it to continue.
Hari is one example. He didn’t want his real identity to be revealed when talking to TRT World because it would “cause problems.” His frustration is clear: “I hate caste. People are born free with equal dignity and rights. If we were all human, you wouldn’t look at someone as ‘untouchable.’”
“The ‘higher castes’ deny any discrimination exists. If that was the case, why do we have a caste system in the first place?”