Sam Jones, Guardian (Manchester), November 11, 2009
Caste discrimination is rife in the UK, with more than half of those from traditionally lower-status Asian backgrounds finding themselves victims of prejudice and abuse, according to a report published today.
The study, co-ordinated by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (Acda), suggests that the caste system is still widespread and affects tens of thousands of people in the workplace, the classroom and even the doctor’s surgery.
Fifty-eight percent of the 300 people surveyed said they had been discriminated against because of their caste, while 79% said they did not think the police would understand if they tried to report a caste-related “hate crime”.
Almost half of the respondents (45%) said they had either been treated negatively by co-workers or had comments made about their caste. Nine per cent felt they had been passed over for promotion, and 10% said they had been paid less because of their caste. A further 5% said they had experienced threatening behaviour because of their caste.
One woman said she had been demoted from her job at a radio station after her manager discovered her caste background, while one bus company decided to reorganise shifts so that a “higher caste” inspector would not have to work alongside a “lower caste” bus driver.
The classroom also appears to be subject to caste divides: 7% of those surveyed said they had been the victims of threatening behaviour while aged under 12 at school, with another 16% suffering verbal caste abuse. According to the study, 10% of those responsible for caste discrimination against under-12s were teachers, and 42% fellow pupils.
One of the most commonly reported forms of discrimination is caste-related name-calling. Almost three quarters (71%) of those questioned in the survey identified themselves as members of the Dalit community. Dalits, who were formerly known as Untouchables because of their low caste status, are sometimes referred to abusively as chuhra and chamar.
“[Such] names [are] as derogatory as calling a black person a nigger, anyone from the subcontinent of Indo-Pakistani diaspora Paki, or someone of Jewish extraction a kike,” says the report. “These names are associated with hereditary work such as scavenging and working with leather–occupations regarded as beneath ‘caste Hindus’. These names are deliberately used to offend and provoke. They are hurtful and exceedingly offensive.”
A number of respondents also reported being asked–directly or indirectly–about their caste background by their family doctor, nurse or a community nurse. One elderly woman felt her care worker had discriminated against her on caste grounds, while a physiotherapist was also alleged to have refused to treat someone of low caste.
The report says that the significant number of doctors from the Indian subcontinent now indicated “a potential for caste discrimination occurring in the healthcare sector”.
The Acda hopes its findings will persuade the government to amend the equality bill to make caste discrimination illegal.
Although the issue was raised over the summer when the bill was at the committee stage, a caste discrimination amendment was not added as there was not enough evidence on the matter.
The report–which was produced in collaboration with focus groups and academics from the University of Hertfordshire, the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University–aims to provide a snapshot of caste discrimination in 21st century Britain.
The study concludes: “There is clear evidence from the survey and the focus groups that the caste system has been imported into the UK with the Asian diaspora and that the associated caste discrimination affects citizens in ways beyond personal choices and social interaction. There is a danger that if the UK government does not effectively accept and deal with the issue of caste discrimination the problem will grow unchecked.”
Allowing such a situation to develop, it adds, would undermine the “values of fairness and equality of treatment” that the government promotes.
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, said: “Caste discrimination, like other forms of discrimination, needs to be outlawed. This is the evidence that will prove the case for its inclusion in the equality bill.”