In the closing days of the session that has just ended, the Government were defeated twice in the House of Lords on an amendment to the Equality Act, inserted into the Enterprise Bill, to make caste a legally protected characteristic.
Ministers then gave in, so that after years of campaigning by organisations representing the Dalits in the UK – numbering more than a hundred thousand people – they will have the same rights under the law as those who suffer discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
An amendment to the Equality Bill in 2010 had given the Government power to add caste to the list of protected characteristics by order, but in the three years that followed, Ministers offered a series of excuses for refusing to invoke the power.
There was no consensus for the measure amongst those likely to be affected by it, which turned out to be the whole of the Hindu and Sikh communities and not those on the receiving end of discrimination.
There was insufficient evidence of the extent of this type of discrimination, though research they themselves had commissioned from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research had uncovered that evidence. Moreover, they acknowledged that if there were only a few cases, the victims were entitled to protection.
There were other solutions such as education and conciliation, they said, which could be a more proportionate response. But many of us are old enough to remember similar arguments being used against protection from racial discrimination, before Roy Jenkins’ legislation of 1976.
And finally, it was suggested that compliance with this proposal would impose disproportionate burdens on industry, a spurious argument since caste is being treated as an aspect of race, with which employers are familiar.
But now, following the Government’s concession, the Secretary of State is required to bring forward regulations to include caste as an aspect of race within 2 months of enactment of the Enterprise Bill.
Contrary to the feelings expressed by some Hindu and Sikh organisations, this is not a reflection on their communities as a whole, any more than the prohibition of racial discrimination is a reflection on all indigenous Brits.
Caste discrimination may be rare in the UK, but it would be remarkable if a practice that has proved difficult to eradicate in south Asia was not part of the cultural baggage that some migrants brought with them from the region.
Society’s condemnation of the phenomenon, outlawed under the Indian constitution since 1950, is now belatedly also part of UK law.