The rigid social stratification in India known as the caste system has brought some old and musty prejudices to the United Kingdom.
Oh wait — didn’t the U.K. already have old and musty rigid social stratification? You know, the earls and lords and dukes and barons or whatever it is fox hunters call each other over there, culminating in the Queen and her tabloid-fodder brood?
Nevertheless, a growing coalition of Brits wants to ban caste discrimination — the kind brown people practice against each other. There is no mention of abolishing the white nobility system the privileged have long used to keep other whites (and growing numbers of racial minorities) down. Apparently it is okay for the overwhelmingly white government to base membership in the House of Lords on the station of a person’s parents, but not okay for Indians to do the same to each other. Irony, anyone?
The hypocrisy beggared belief when the first arm of government to approve the anti-caste legislation turned out to be the House of Lords itself. It was like a proclamation: ‘only WE may discriminate based on ancestry. Everybody darker than ‘peach’ in the Crayola box must never believe themselves superior to anyone.’
To be fair, it’s true that the caste system is more insidious and damaging than a class system. According to an organization called CasteWatchUK, “Caste is determined by birth and cannot be changed. In a class based system there is ‘vertical mobility’ but this is denied in a Caste based system.”
Before I dig myself a bigger hole by pointing out everyone’s moral blindness, I’d like to take a station break here to announce that England is my favorite country outside of New York City (which might as well be its own country). I recognize that it is just as hard to pull oneself up by the boot straps in the U.S. as it is in the U.K. Just like the Brits, we over here on the western side of the pond are also prone to discriminating based on ancestry (although we measure primarily by financial assets, not whether a monarch gave your forebear a new name and a fairy-tale touch on the shoulders with a magical sword). End of station break.
Opponents of the proposed legislation argue that it is unnecessary because Indians do not discriminate against each other based on caste in the U.K. Apparently this contingent believes the trip from Southeast Asia to the United Kingdom washed away everyone’s caste and rendered them one big undifferentiated brown horde.
And maybe it did — in the eyes of white residents of Britain, who are unlikely to understand or care much about caste distinctions. But that doesn’t mean that those distinctions lost any vitality or importance to Indians. The BBC has found that the U.K. is home to caste-based discrimination (CBD), telling the story of a woman from a relatively low caste who routinely faces prejudice from other Indians in England.
Even the U.K. government acknowledges the occurrence of CBD. A spokesperson explained that the government opposed the proposed legislation banning CBD because it is not “the best way to tackle the incidents of caste-related prejudice and discrimination that have been identified.”
Speaking in favor of the legislation, a Labour spokesperson agreed that CBD is a problem in the U.K. “Studies confirm the caste system exists in the U.K., with over 850,000 people affected,” she said, “and the associated lack of caste mobility is inconsistent with moves to encourage a more cohesive society.” She called CBD a “known but hidden problem.”
It looks like the House of Commons will pass the ban and CBD will be officially outlawed in the U.K. But that is not the end of the battle: after passage comes enforcement. After all, India banned CBD in 1976, but it is still an everyday fact of life in many areas of the country.
Let’s see if musty old Britain is the right environment for killing off ancient systems of social stratification. Somehow I doubt it.
Photo credit: iStockphoto
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