Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Content warning: mention of violence and rape.
On the 28th October, The Rights Collective hosted our second digital teach-in on the topic of ‘Caste In The Diaspora’. As a group of mainly upper-caste individuals, we wanted to hold space for learning and be critical of the ways in which caste affects us and the ways we too are complicit in anti-caste bias.
“Wherever South Asians go, they bring caste.” - Thenmozhi Soundarajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs
What is caste?
Caste is a complex phenomena, but the Equality Act 2010 defines it as a “hereditary, endogamous (marrying within the group) communities differentiated according to different functions of life, such as occupation. The concept is associated with South Asia, particularly India and its diaspora.”
The caste which a person belongs to can often determine their entire life. This means that it can dictate the opportunities you have access to, the resources you are given, and even the person you can marry. Caste also determines one's proximity to structural violence, with Dalits face enduring violence and gross oppression because of their caste.
Image from Equality Labs.
The Dalit experience
Jyotsna Siddarath is an India-based anti-caste, feminist activist who founded Project Anti-Caste Love and Dalit Feminism Archive. During our teach-in, Jyotsna began her presentation by differentiating between caste and race, as these two concepts are sometimes used interchangeably and muddy the terrain of talking about caste relations. Race is a distinct visual marker that can be seen and is visible, whereas caste is invisible and is not always instantly recognised unless one hears someone’s last-name.
Jyotsna took us through the perspectives and lived experience of being a caste-oppressed person in India. The fact is that caste is foundational to Indian society and affects the country's 1.2 bn population. To have caste privilege means you are part of the dominant upper-caste groups that have unfettered access to benefits and sometimes, even immunity that is only available to you by virtue of your caste. So what happens when you are at the bottom of the caste system?
Being a Dalit in India, especially amongst a global pandemic, means Dalit lives are seen as disposable. Jyotsna stipulates that Dalit people have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis as frontline workers, and cleaners; both socially and politically but, despite that, they are still treat as disposable.
Dalit organising around caste has a long and rich history, from Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Panthers to Dalit activism in South Asia and diaspora groups organising and fighting against caste discrmination in Global North.
Caste discrimination in the UK
As we know, caste travels. A good portion of Indian migrants to the Global North, including the United States and the United Kingdom, are from the upper-caste community. As such, much of the conversation and discourse around Hinduism has been dominated by upper-caste Hindus. This has served to minimise the issue of caste among the diaspora. The discourse of caste in the Global North is complicated by the conception of Hinduism presented by Hindus there, who are often in denial that the issue of caste exists where they are.
In the UK, there has long been a history of social movements fighting against caste-discrimination. Santosh Dass, who is the President of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations, UK and Chair of the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) gave us an introduction exploring the trajectory of the anti-caste movement.
Caste discrimination in practice is similar to other forms of discrimination. An example of this in the workplace could be a promotion being taken away after one's caste has been discovered, rental accomodation being withheld, or services being denied.
As it currently stands, there is no clear law in the U.K. that covers caste. In 2018, a proposed law to implement caste into the Equality Act was not taken forward after it was agreed that current legislation was enough (see Tirkey vs. Chandhok). Groups like the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) and Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN) have campaigned relentlessly to outlaw caste discrimination in the U.K.. Santosh says not only will this help by providing legal protection but it will also “help change behaviours and attitudes.”
Upper-caste Hindu groups and even religious institutions such as the Hindu Council deny there is caste discrimination in the UK. In their 2008 report, they state there are “not aware of caste discrimination in the U.K.” and label lobbying efforts conducted by parliamentary groups as being done in a manner to “save them from the falsehood of Hinduism”.
To conclude, this teach-in taught us that caste is political, and deeply ingrained into Hinduism. We cannot have one without the other. In order to eradicate caste discimination, we must first eradicate Brahmanical patriarchy. To learn more, you can join our Brown Womxn [Un]Learn Reading Circle, Anti-Caste Series.
What Is caste, and why are we still talking about it? By Equality Labs, 2018
Caste in Britain: a socio-legal review, by Meena Dhanda, et al. 2014
Brown Women [Un]Learn Resource Hub, The Rights Collective
If you missed the teach-in, you can watch the recording here.
Habiba Akhtar is a Project Lead at The Rights Collective. She is a graduate of SOAS University of London with an MA in Human Rights Law and works as a Researcher for the Legal 500 in London.