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Caste Away in 21st Century

When Ram Parkash Lakha, the former mayor of Coventry, near Birmingham, England, faced caste discrimination from upper caste voters while .....




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11-06-2008
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Caste Away in 21st Century


When Ram Parkash Lakha, the former mayor of Coventry, near Birmingham,
England, faced caste discrimination from upper caste voters while
seeking election in a largely Indian ward on the Labour party ticket,
he decided his election manifesto would target the age-old custom
amongst the Indian diaspora.

“When I went to seek votes from the Asian community, I was told that
they won’t vote for me because I’m a dalit (untouchable) . Initially, I
thought people who left India years ago might have done away with the
caste system – but to my surprise, it still prevails,” said Councillor
Lakha in a telephone conversation with XPRESS.

Having served in the Labour party for nearly 30 years, Lakha’s journey
into mainstream British society has been a topsy-turvy one. Born in a
small village (Nawan Pind Naicha) in the Indian state of Punjab in
1949, Lakha migrated to Britain in pursuit of a discrimination- free
life. He rose up the ladder, fighting against all odds, noticeably
favouritism at work and in politics.

“People who migrate here [to Britain] carry with them the social
discrimination which has been a bane of Indian society for centuries.
They not only practise it but also pass it on to their children, who
invariably exercise it in schools and other institutions, ” said Lakha.
According to research published by the Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN)
UK in 2006, many of the 50,000 dalits in the country have suffered
discrimination from other castes in terms of jobs, healthcare,
politics, education and schools. The report No Escape – Caste
Discrimination in the UK also highlighted the plight of married
couples who faced “racial taunts” in public.

Similar views are aired by Davinder Prasad, General Secretary of
CasteWatchUK, a secular and voluntary organisation registered with the
Charity Commission in Britain that fights for the welfare of its Asian
members mostly hailing from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Speaking over the telephone, Prasad said: “We seek to promote social
cohesion and an environment that respects and values individuals in
society, irrespective of colour, caste, creed, gender, or any other
criteria encompassed in the current equality legislation in the UK.
But to my knowledge it is not happening, since caste-based
discrimination is unbridled in those families who have either a groom
or a bride from a lower caste.”
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Post Caste Away in 21st Century

CasteWatchUK, is fighting tooth and nail to get the
Single Equality Bill passed in the British Parliament. The Bill
discourages all forms of discrimination, but the group wants
caste-based discrimination to be one of its articles. The social
network group also calls untouchability “a hidden apartheid of
segregation and modern-day slavery”.

“Our aim is to see that the Bill contains a clause that says no to
‘caste-based discrimination’ . By doing so, people who practise it here
can be challenged and punished under British law,” said Prasad, who
has been living in Britain for nearly three decades and has faced
inequality at work despite being a magistrate and a senior manager.
He said some people fail to understand that there are many dalits like
him who have risen in their professional life purely on merit. “I
finished my education in India from a reputed institution without any
reservation. But my upper caste colleagues had doubts over my merit
and were ashamed to work under me.”

Prasad said the British school curriculums do teach about Hinduism in
a broader perspective, but the chapters contain sentences like “the
Brahmins are the superior race” and “the Shudras (untouchables) were
employed to do menial jobs”. This, he said, fan the flames of
intolerance amongst children at a young age.

Even the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), based in
Copenhagen, Denmark, opines on the issue. Kirsten Sorensen,
Communication Officer, IDSN, said: “Caste-based discrimination has
mainly been documented in the UK, because the county has the largest
south Asian diaspora in Europe. Other countries have a lesser problem
to cope with since the United Nations and the European Union play an
active role there.”

CasteWatchUK is holding a conference on August 30 at the University of
Aston, Birmingham, to bring Asian communities under one forum to
debate and discuss the ills of caste-based discrimination.
Its artistic wing, CasteAway Arts, has launched a play, The Fifth Cup,
which explores the theme of caste discrimination and its devastating
effects on society. Based on true-life experiences, the play is a
poignant insight into discrimination within the British-Asian
community, viewed through the eyes of a young boy on a journey of
self-discovery.

Apart from the Indian Sub-continent, caste-based discrimination is
widespread in parts of Sahelian Africa (earlier empires centred on the
Sahel, the area of grasslands south of Sahara), West Africa, as well
as among the Somali and Ethiopian people. African groups such as the
Haratin of Mauritania and the Osu of Nigeria do face discrimination.
In Japan too, nearly 3 million Buraku or Burakumin people have been
discriminated against on the basis of caste-based minority.

In Yemen, the “Akhdam” or sweepers’ community have been living at the
lowest social level of life for the past 900 years. But today, thanks
to the changes in the country’s social structure, these people are
able to exercise their civil rights – albeit marginally.
On eliminating it for ever, Prasad said: “Educating people on
discrimination is the right approach to fight against this practise.
But something that originated 3,000 years ago will take time to be
erased from the face of the Earth. But how long it will take nobody
knows.”
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