On Tuesday 23 January, Warwick in London hosted an exciting and controversial event on caste discrimination in the UK. The event included a documentary screening of Caste Aside, which looks at the contentious fight to legislate on caste in the UK. The screening was followed by an extremely lively discussion which included panel members, Anil Bhanot, Meena Dhandra and Sat Pal Muman from opposing sides of the argument and an audience Q&A which was heated at times but managed by expert chair, Warwick in London’s Siobhan Benita.
The discussion addressed the extent to which caste discrimination exists in the UK, with supporters of the legislation arguing that discrimination is prevalent. They pointed to examples ranging from children being bullied at school because of their caste to individuals being negatively impacted in their professional workplaces as they were deemed to be an “untouchable”.
Opponents of the legislation, on the other hand, argued that whilst discrimination of this type might unfortunately occur in India there was insufficient evidence about its existence in the UK and that the introduction of legislation would, therefore, cause unnecessary division amongst the Indian diaspora in the UK and be damaging reputationally.
Questions were raised about whether caste discrimination was a religious or a cultural issue and whether such discrimination had impacted on social mobility. It wasn’t an issue that was limited to the Indian Hindu community but also affected Sikhs and people who had come to the UK from Pakistan. Audience members challenged the suggestion – offered by Anil Bhanot – that caste discrimination was primarily a “euro-Christian” concept, which had first been established during colonial occupation of India. They pointed to references to caste discrimination in historic texts going back to the 5th century.
Despite the Government having said that they would make a decision on the legislation by the end of January there was little optimism in the room that this deadline would be met. Many guests were of the opinion that the context of the political discussion had shifted and that, most recently, BREXIT had introduced a new dimension. In a post-EU world, the UK government might be reluctant to act in a way that could be perceived negatively by the Modi Government.