Caste discrimination set to become unlawful in the United Kingdom
By Hainder Singh
London, United Kingdom (April 23, 2013): It is learnt that on April 23, 2013 the UK became the first European country to pass legislation on caste discrimination. Many including all Sikh organisations agree caste discrimination is ‘unacceptable and must not be tolerated’ as stated by the Government Minister.
The Sikh Federation (UK) which relied on the Sikh Council UK to represent a sensible Sikh view decided to directly get involved in influencing politicians at the eleventh hour this morning due to inaccurate comments about Sikhs by politicians in the House of Commons last week and the House of Lords yesterday evening.
The Sikh Federation (UK) was also concerned that another Sikh organisation, for some unexplained reasons, was disturbingly working with certain right wing Hindu nationalist organisations in opposing legislation against caste discrimination. Politicians were therefore unnecessarily linking and dangerously grouping Sikhs with Hindus.
As Lord Singh made clear in the House of Lords yesterday Sikhism totally condemns the whole system of caste and ritual purity, is opposed to discrimination based on caste and by definition one cannot be a Sikh and have a caste. However, an opportunity was missed by Lord Singh in not pointing out the existing definition of caste in the explanatory note to the Equality Act was not acceptable to Sikhs. Lord Singh did however point out ‘the concept of caste is a hierarchical division of Hindu society’.
Lord Parekh who was not in favor of legislation and spoke against it yesterday in the House of Lords stated ‘you cannot be a Hindu without belonging to a particular caste, full stop,’ which is why the legislation on caste discrimination is likely to prove to be highly divisive for Hindus.
According to information shared by Sikh Federation UK: “[t]he caste issue has already exposed a huge divide among Hindu groups based in the UK. The Alliance of Hindu Organisations UK (AHO) has called for a boycott of any such legislation as it would label the entire Hindu community as being ‘institutionally discriminatory’. Some Hindu organisations have threatened to encourage Hindus to vote against Labour and other politicians who voted for legislation to outlaw caste discrimination.
Lord Avebury in the debate in the House of Lords yesterday indicated that the Hindu Forum that speaks for a number of Hindu organisations astonishingly fails to acknowledge the existence of caste discrimination in the UK. Baroness Flather said: ‘The Hindus have come together for the first time ever, to my knowledge, to shout about the caste amendment because they feel that this dishonours them in some way. They dishonour themselves: caste is a fact’.”
Given the defeat of the Government in the House of Lords yesterday evening it was inevitable that an agreement would be reached between the main political parties in the House of Commons and legislation would be approved. It was therefore important to ensure a sensible way forward could be found.
The Sikh Federation (UK) in its short briefing sent to Ministers and the Shadow Ministers speaking in the House of Commons today categorically stated it opposed caste and caste discrimination and reminded them that many of the Hindu groups opposing the legislation refuse to condemn caste and wrongly believe cast discrimination does not exist. This important difference between Sikhs and Hindus will be crucial to build upon in the next one to two years in consultations with Government.
The Sikh Federation (UK) also stated whilst it supported the underlying spirit of the legislation to eliminate caste discrimination it did not believe legislation was the best way forward as it will enshrine caste in UK law and does not take proper account of evolving socio-economic trends in future generations. The Sikh Council UK expressed a similar view and the Government and Opposition listened and agreed to what is usually referred to as a sunset clause that will result in a review after it has been on the statute book for five years and periodically thereafter.
The Sikh Federation (UK) like other Sikh organisations, such as the Sikh Council UK, stated in its briefing for Ministers and Shadow Ministers it expected the definition of caste in the explanatory note to the Equality Act to be changed before implementation of any new law as the definition is inaccurate and offensive and there should be no reference to Sikhs. Sufficient references were made in the debate in the House of Commons to suggest politicians understand the Sikh position.
The Shadow Minister stated: ‘The definition must recognize that caste is not specific to any religion but is a social and cultural practice extending across different parts of communities. It can be subscribed to by, and affect, members of any or no religion, and the definition must reflect that.’ The Minister responded by saying: ‘We will consider carefully how to define ‘caste’.
Although MPs agreed today in the House of Commons to introduce legislation on caste discrimination the Minister also indicated the Government and Opposition had agreed that it would not be implemented in the general ballpark of one to two years to allow proper consultation on matters such as the definition of caste.