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Indian-born MP wants caste bias banned in Britain

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS,

London : A draft bill designed to promote social equality must also try and erase caste-based discrimination that is rampant among South Asians in Britain, an Indian-born MP says.

Virendra Sharma, MP for the Indian-dominated London suburb of Southall, made his plea as the British parliament Monday began a second round of discussions on the Equality Bill.

The bill aims to consolidate nine existing equality laws into a single law that will tackle disadvantage and discrimination based on race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief.

To this list, Sharma argues, the government must add caste prejudice, which he says is endemic among the large South Asian community in Britain – regardless of religion or national origin.

“I am certain a lot of people, especially in parliamentary constituencies with large numbers of people from the Indian sub-continent, would like to see caste discrimination outlawed in the UK,” Sharma told IANS in an interview.

According to Sharma, caste-based thinking is “built into the social fabric” of the estimated 3.5 million South Asians living in Britain, constituting nearly 5.7 percent of the population.

“There are no exceptions: people try to make it into a Hindu issue, but it is not,” said Sharma.

“Whether you are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Sikh, if you have come from the sub-continent you will have caste built into your social fabric.”

Britain-based Dalit groups say there are at least 50,000 Dalits living in Britain, although estimates vary, going up to 200,000.

Sharma says it is all the more important to bring in legislation on caste because of “fears” that the increasing number of private Indian companies now setting up in Britain may inadvertently import caste-based practices.

“There are more and more Indian companies coming here and they are bringing in senior managers who are in a position to recruit – that’s where the problem can arise. That’s where the fear is.

“They can tell your caste from your surname.”

Sharma says many of complaints he deals with in his Southall constituency office have to do with caste prejudice. Although there are no figures on the extent of caste discrimination in Britain, London-based Dalit campaigners say the problem is widespread but buried in silence.

“There is discrimination in marriage, jobs, service and education, but people don’t want to talk about it out of embarrassment – especially second generation immigrants,” said Eugene Culas, Director of Voice of Dalit International, a campaigning group.

“People won’t admit to the problem without some sort of moral support,” said Culas, who supports Sharma’s efforts to criminalise caste discrimination.

Culas says his West London office receives around 20 people a week, “all of whom have stories to relate about caste prejudice in Britain.”

“But when we wrote to the department of communities and local government, we were told caste is a sensitive issue which might harm relations between communities,” Culas said.

Ram Lakha, a former mayor of the English city of Coventry, told the authors of a 2006 report he faced discrimination from upper-caste voters when seeking election in a largely Indian ward.

“During campaigning I was told that I would not get people’s vote as I was a ‘chamar’. So I filed my nomination in a non-Asian constituency and was able to win,” he was quoted as saying in the report, titled ‘No Escape: Caste Discrimination in the UK.’

“I recently discovered from my children that they suffered difficulties at school. It is only now, because the issue is being raised, that they chose to tell me. Given everything that has happened, I am very proud and thankful to God for what I have gained,” Lakha told the researchers.