When I immigrated to Britain, I thought I had finally left behind the hyper-racism of India’s caste system. I was wrong. A few years ago, after I’d given a lecture on Hinduism at a training course in the Diocese of Southwark, a schoolteacher came up and in a hushed conspiratorial tone whispered a horror story in my ears.
A 7-year-old boy of Indian origin raised his hand in class and said to her: “Miss, I don’t want to sit next to Hema.” When she asked him why he told her in front of the whole class: “Hema is a low caste girl. I am a Brahmin. My parents told me not to sit with her or make friends with her.” This was London, not Lucknow. Can you imagine the outrage if a 7-year-old white boy had said that he did not want to sit next to Lola, because Lola is black?
Suddenly, the sewage from the ugly unsanitary world of the hyper-racist Indian caste system began seeping out from the gutter of British multiculturalism that was so open – it rejected nothing and welcomed even the worst – especially if the social and cultural detritus was imported by minority ethnic or religious groups as part of their heritage. After all, who are we to judge?
Last week, The Hindu, an illustrious Indian newspaper, exposed Theresa May’s government for quietly shelving plans to recognize the caste as a form of racism in Britain’s anti-discrimination legislation. Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission attacked the government for ducking the highly contentious issue of caste and pointed out that the government’s actions were “inconsistent with the U.K.’s international obligations to provide for separate and distinct protection for caste in our legislation”.
But Penny Mordaunt, Minister for Women and Equalities (a non-job invented for Harriet Harman under the Labour government), doesn’t want to rock the Hindu boat. She finds caste discrimination “unacceptable” but argues that the Equality Act protects against it.
Here’s what is really sticking in her craw. The Equality Act (2010) under the section on “Protected Characteristics” lists the usual categories of victimhood like age, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc., but is supremely coy when categorizing “caste” under the category of “race”.
Using Sir Humphrey Appleby circumlocution and mind-numbing bureaucratese, it provides for a Minister of the Crown to “amend this section so as to provide for caste to be an aspect of race” or “amend this Act so as to provide for an exception to a provision of this Act to apply, or not to apply, to caste or to apply, or not to apply, to caste in specified circumstances”.
But like Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers shouting, “Don’t mention the war,” Penny Mordaunt and the Equalities Act are desperately shushing the controversy and pleading, “Don’t equate casteism with racism.”
Goodness, gracious me, didn’t you know only white people can be racist, not Indians? Where will it all end if we upend the hierarchy of intersectionality by taking down the white cisgender male a peg or two and slotting the high-caste Hindu Brahmin on the same level? How shall we drown ourselves in the oceans of white guilt created by our liberal tears?
Racism has got to be the exclusive privilege of the Western white male, hasn’t it? We can’t share this fashionable entitlement with caste-conscious Indians who oppress everyone from the top to the bottom of the caste ladder, can we? Isn’t this what progressive Penny Mordaunts are telling us?
Under the Equality Act, “race” includes “colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins”. Supporters of the caste system argue that the caste system is not racist because it is not based on color, nationality or ethnicity. They are both right and wrong. The caste system is based on Hinduism’s religious hierarchy of human beings. Louis Dumont thus astutely named his classic work on this stratification Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications.
In a hymn from the Purusasukta of the Rig Veda, a foundational Hindu scripture, there are four main categories or varnas of Hindu society – varna means colour as well as class. The highest caste of Brahmin (priest) is born from mouth of the Supreme Deity Brahman, the Kshatriya (warrior) comes next being born from the deity’s arm, the Vaishya (businessman or trader) comes from the god’s stomach, and the Shudra (menial or servant) from the foot of the Creator.
The untouchable or Dalit is the unborn emerging from outside the body of the Creator, with no physical link to the Supreme Being and almost a different species, like an animal. The Manusmriti, another Hindu scripture, describes the untouchable as “polluted” and “unclean” from birth. He violates, by his very existence, the Brahmanical obsession with hygiene and is perpetually filthy, according to Dumont.
The religious texts assign different skin colors to the different castes: Brahmins are white, Kshatriyas are red, Vaishyas are yellow and the Shudras are black, according to the erudite Vedic Brahmin, Bhrigu, in the Mahabharata, Hinduism’s most famous epic. The colours are based on the predominance of a quality or virtue (guna) in their nature (prakrti).
Komar Dhillon in a PhD dissertation subtitled “Pigmentocracy in India” describes how skin colour is intrinsic to Indian racism. “Benefits for those on the lighter end of the skin color spectrum are recognized and leveraged in accordance with the systemic logic of being naturally superior. Conversely, often those on the darker end of the spectrum are perceived as inferior (by others as well as themselves), thus perpetuating the superiority of whiteness,” Dhillon writes.
Scientists of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics have demonstrated that caste distinctions go back to 70 generations of social differentiation based on genetic lines. Hence caste has a genetic, rather than merely a social or occupational basis, and as such is fundamentally racist in origin, they conclude.
All this is incontrovertible evidence that the caste system is not only racist in terms of discrimination on the basis of pigmentation; it is worse than racist. The caste system is Racism Plus because the discrimination is inextricably intertwined with religion and into the binary division of pure and polluted.
So endemic is the caste system that a number of Indian Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, all belonging to egalitarian religions, succumb to its toxic temptations. I have often pointed out that Christians who support the caste system are doing so in defiance of fundamental biblical teaching in Genesis; where God creates all human beings in his image and likeness, unlike the Hindu doctrine of different castes emerging from different parts of the body of the Supreme Being.
India is the most racist country in the world as the caste system is the longest running system of discrimination anywhere in the world and has been going strong for three millennia. So degrading is the discrimination that upper caste people continue to force untouchables into manual scavenging; the stomach-churning practice of cleaning human excrement from dry toilets by loading it into cane baskets and carrying it away on their heads for disposal, although the system has been outlawed in India.
So what happens when Indians who are deeply entrenched in the caste system cross the ocean and settle down in our green and pleasant land? Do they jettison the age-old practice of Indian hyper-racism and embrace our values of equality and human rights?
In 2015, an employment tribunal ruled in favor of Permila Tirkey, who was forced to work 18-hour days and paid 11 pence an hour because she was from a lower caste. Her employers, Pooja and Ajay Chandhok, kept her enslaved in their home in Milton Keynes for four and a half years. They prevented her from bringing her Bible from India to Britain and from going to church.
The victim’s barrister, Mr Milsom, of Cloisters, said “The government’s original rationale for refusing explicit prohibition of caste-based discrimination was that there was no evidence of it taking place in the UK”. He added that the tribunal’s “damning findings” had left the government’s stance on caste discrimination “untenable”.
The report No Escape: Caste Discrimination in the UK (2006) concluded that 85% of the respondents felt that Indians in the UK actively practise and participate in the caste system. The former Mayor of Coventry, Ram Lakha, faced intense discrimination from upper castes when he stood for election in a largely Indian ward. “During campaigning I was often told that I would not get people’s vote as I was a chamar (one of the untouchable castes). So I filed my nomination in a non-Asian constituency and was able to win. The Indian community in Coventry always felicitates every new Mayor, however, till today they have not done this for me,” he said.
Most participants asserted that Hindu temples in Britain were not open to persons of all castes, with 80% claiming that each temple in the UK only allowed a specific group of people, based on caste, to worship there and that “temples were classified on caste lines.” The reported documented a number of cases of caste discrimination in employment and even in the National Health Service.
Last year, the London School of Economics cancelled a talk by Dr Meena Dhanda from the University of Wolverhampton because her subject on “the challenge of confronting caste-based oppression” was too hot to handle.
But Britain’s Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt is so politically correct that she won’t mention caste and racism in the same sentence because it might offend Hindus. The Tory government also fears that, “enshrining caste in British law”, could affect Theresa May’s attempts to forge trade relationships with Commonwealth countries, namely India.
Unsurprisingly, the UK-based Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) has applauded Ms Mordaunt’s decision calling it an “important outcome for both the Hindu community and wider British society” because “legislating for caste is an exceptionally controversial issue”. The HSS uses a straw man argument comparing “caste” to “class”, deliberately failing to acknowledge that in British society one can transcend class, but in Hinduism one can never change one’s caste!
Contrast the stance of the present Conservative government with that the British colonial administration in India. Sagarika Ghose underlines the pivotal role of white Western missionaries in destabilizing the caste system under the British Raj. “It would be accurate to say that caste, as a conceptual category, was seriously challenged only after the arrival of the Christian missionaries, who initiated the radical idea of extending education to the Dalits,” she writes.
“The first special schools for untouchables were opened in the 1840s, encouraged not only by the missionaries but also by the British administration,” she notes. Ghose cites a Dalit writer who wrote that “as far as the Dalits are concerned, ‘the British arrived too late and left too early’, a reference to the fact that had it not been for the British colonial administration, Dalits would have never gained the right to attend school.” Ghose acknowledges the contribution of Hindu reformers like Jotirao Phule (1827-90) who “used Christian missionary arguments to ‘reject the fictitious world of Hindu religion.’”
“It is somewhat ironic that the religion most correlated with whiteness would be the catalyst for enacting social change in the realm of education amongst the racialized Dalits,” observes Dhillon in her treatise on Pigmentocracy in India. It is even more ironic that the country that was the catalyst for enacting social change in the realm of education and social policy when it ruled India is now not only importing the caste system from India, but also conserving it for posterity under the banner of the Conservative Party.