THE LIST of things on which Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the British Labour party, disagrees with David Cameron is, of course, very long. But here is one that you may not have thought about, unless you happen to be a politically active member of the Hindu or Sikh community in Britain. Mr Corbyn is a long-standing and passionate advocate of the Dalits, people from India who complain of being treated terribly by their compatriots because of their low status under the caste system; such discrimination was supposedly abolished by independent India’s constitution but it remains a powerful social reality.
Indeed, advocates of the Dalits remember him gratefully as one of the first British politicians to take up their cause. Specifically, Mr Corbyn wants British law to prohibit discrimination on grounds of caste, a step which the government seems reluctant to take, and one which some prominent British Hindus adamantly oppose. These opponents insist that the existence of caste discrimination in Britain is unproven, and that outlawing it would be an insult to the Indian community.
In 2012, Mr Corbyn told parliament:
Dalits are the largest group of people in the world who are systematically discriminated against on the basis of their descent and caste. They perform the worst jobs in the dirtiest conditions, and have the shortest life expectancy, the lowest level of education, the worst housing and the lowest pay and employment levels of any group in India, or indeed, the rest of the world.
Since becoming opposition leader he has, of course, had many other concerns, but he reaffirmed his commitment to the Dalit cause on October 14th at the Annual General Meeting of the Dalit Solidarity Network, a lobby group of which he is honorary chairman. The group says it speaks for hundreds of thousands of south Asian people in Britain who remain vulnerable to discrimination, mostly at the hands of fellow south Asians, because of the low miserable status they are accorded by the rules of caste: both Dalits (who stress they are still looked down on even if they leave Hinduism for another religion) and the Ravidassias, a category of Sikhs.
All this matters more than ever because a political battle over the Dalit question may soon come to a head in Britain after simmering for a long time. Arguments over whether Britain should explicitly outlaw maltreatment on grounds of caste have been in progress since at least 2010 when an Equality Act made it illegal to discriminate (in the treatment of employees and customers, or the provision of state services) on a familiar list of criteria, including race, ethnicity, religion and gender.
In its initial version, the Act said that the government “may” add caste to the catalogue of protected characteristics if the need were to become obvious. Then in April 2013, after some lively debate in both Houses of Parliament, the government reluctantly agreed to a new forms of words, spelling out that it “must” add caste to the list. But the consultation process needed before that change takes effect, which could be completely in a matter of weeks, has been dragged out, and it is still in progress.
The latest twist in the saga involves a judgement by a British employment tribunal. A couple of Indian origin had to pay £180,000 to a former domestic worker who alleged she had been underpaid and maltreated, over a period of five years, after moving with her bosses from India to Britain. The couple were of Hindu heritage though at least one of them had become Buddhist; the maid was Christian. The plaintiff alleged that she faced discrimination on grounds of both religion and caste, and a series of British tribunals found both claims legitimate. Through a tortuous line of reasoning, it was accepted during the hearings that consideration of caste was just about permissible under existing British law. The government apparently saw this as an opportunity to escape a nasty dilemma.
In their recent pronouncements, Mr Cameron’s ministers have been hinting they no longer need to add the word “caste” to the Equality Act because it has now been established in case law that caste is already a legitimate area for complaints over discrimination. Even as things stand, “case law provides potential protection for someone wishing to claim caste discrimination,” said Baroness Williams, speaking for the government in July. Lord Anthony Lester, a respected human-rights advocate, has dismissed that argument, saying that one employment tribunal hardly counts as case law, and legislation is still needed.
Meena Varma of the Dalit Solidarity Network says she believes that Hindu lobbyists are pressing the government “at the highest level” to drop the idea of legislating against caste discrimination. On the other other hand, the list of people and bodies who still think that Britain should outlaw caste discrimination is also quite impressive; not only Mr Corbyn but Anglican bishops, some respected Liberal Democratic and Conservative peers, the National Secular Society, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Navi Pillay, who till recently was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
So the Labour leader is not alone in his concern for the Dalits, whether in India or Britain. But as he may soon discover, people who speak out for the wretched of the earth can get themselves called all manner of unpleasant things, from neo-colonialist to Orientalist. Being caught in the middle of a south Asian argument can be an unpleasant experience for a British politician of any ideological persuasion.