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Hidden apartheid: the caste system and British Asians

The issue of caste is often unrecognised, but discrimination and bad treatment towards Dalits is a serious problem, says Gagan Dulai

The caste system has been practiced in south Asia for over 3,000 years. It is widely believed that the practice began when Aryan tribes from Iran invaded South Asia between 2,000 BCE and 1500 BCE. Iran means land of the Aryans in Aryānām.

I was asked to write this blog just before Christmas but then I heard of the Channel 4 Indian Winter season. A series of documentaries about the slums of Mumbai and Krishnan Guru-Murthy presenting a week of reports from India, for Channel 4 news.

I decide to wait and see how Channel 4 would tackle the issue of caste, but the ‘C’ word was never mentioned. The caste system was once again the elephant in the room in all the documentaries and all of the news reports.

Channel 4’s reluctance to deal with issue of caste is not unusual. Many news outlets and programme makers choose to ignore it. Labeling the Dalit and tribal peoples of South Asia as simply poor rather then being placed in that position by the caste system.

Protest against caste

This is because the British Asian and Indian nationals who work on these programmes, as well as theatre production and exhibitions in the arts sector are themselves from the higher castes.

Waterman’s theatre in Hounslow has an unhealthy obsession with production focusing on Indian royalty or the British Raj.

The Serpentine gallery ‘Indian Highway’ exhibition in 2009 displayed the work of 19 Indian artists who were billed as ‘demonstrating an active political and social engagement, examining complex issues in contemporary India’. There was only one problem none of the 19 artists were Dalit and none of the artist chosen explored the issue of caste.

Their are bhangra musicians which advocate the caste system through celebrating caste statues. Such as the music produce and DJ Notorious Jatt. (Jatts are the land owning caste.)

There are estimated 50,000 Dalits living in the UK, although exact figures are unknown due to the changing of names. Many members of the community face discrimination in all areas of life. The majestic Hindu temple in Neasden was built on slave labour by Indian craftsman. Who were flown over treated like chattel and exploited in the name of god.

The former mayor of Coventry Ram Lakha, a Labour councillor – who is a Dalit – faced verbal abuse and discrimination from upper castes. He was referred to as a ‘chamar’ which is caste equivalent of ‘n****r’. The abuse got so bad that he eventually filed his nomination at a non-Asian constituency and was able to win.

Caste discrimination is usually discreet people in a position of power are from the higher castes, be it an employer or a school teacher, and it is hard to complain.

A report by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) published in November 2009 has revealed further shocking examples of caste discrimination in Britain.For example:

A manager of a bus station in Southampton who had to re-organise the shift system so that a higher caste inspector would not need to work with a lower caste bus driver.”

There is also the case of a physiotherapist who refused to treat someone of a lower caste. This does not surprise me, as a large percentage of the Asian medical professionals working in the NHS originate from the ‘higher castes’.

I have an acquaintance who is a neurosurgeon by the name of Maya. She believes that the British Raj was a ‘attack on humanity’, is praised by her white colleagues for her life-saving work and impeccable manners.

Yet her Indian maid, who is paid in rupees, has to sit on the floor, eat left-overs and is not allowed to speak unless spoken to. When I confront Maya she sees nothing wrong with her behaviour.

The problem is set to get worse as Indian companies set up in Britain, with them they being trans-national upper caste Indians. Many whom ‘simply cannot manage with out home help’.

Paid in rupees, and treated appallingly, violence and sexual abuse towards them is commonplace.


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