Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Caste Discrimination in the UK - A Sikh View

Background:  From Caste Watch UK* press release:

Finding of Evidence confirmed by Independent research Commissioned by Government

Caste discrimination and harassment has not been explicitly covered by British discrimination legislation. However, the Equality Act 2010 includes the provision that, by order of a Minister, caste may be treated as an aspect of race. This research was commissioned to help inform the Government whether to exercise this power. The research sought to identify whether caste discrimination and harassment in relation to aspects covered by discrimination legislation (i.e. work, education and the supply of goods and services) exists in Britain. Evidence suggesting such discrimination and harassment was found. (Source: Government and Equalities Office, RESEARCH FINDINGS, No. 2011 / X).

In an e-mail Mr Davinder Prasad,General Secretary,CasteWatchUK wrote: “We welcome the eagerly awaited report Caste Discrimination and Harassment in Great Britain by Hilary Metcalf and Heather Rolfe published on 16 December 2010 by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The findings of the report puts beyond reproach the work of our organization that has been actively campaigning since 2003 in creating awareness of Caste Based Discrimination occurring in Britain and seeking legal remedies.

It is refreshing to see responsible government committed to values of fairness, justice and equality in mandating the research to find ways to curtail the actions of Caste Oppressors through Law. The Equality Act 2010 was hailed as a land mark harmonising anti-discrimination legislation that embraced new discrimination strands and strengthened existing ones.

It is noteworthy that NIESR approached victims of caste discrimination as key stake holders and commissioned independent researchers to hear evidence at first hand. Caste has contributed to social paralysis and continues to exert a powerful influence in Britain upon the Asian Diaspora.”

Following article is based on the author’s response to Mr Davinder Prasad.

This is an historic achievement by Caste Watch UK.

Caste discrimination should not only be challenged by the law in every country, but, like slavery, made illegal by international law and eradicated altogether.

Guru Nanak Sahib started his revolutionary reform mission by refusing to wear the high caste “jeneu” (sacred thread) and rejected Varan Ashram Dharma, the main pillar of Snatan Hinduism, at the age of nine years.

Regrettably, but not surprisingly,  the study by Hilary Metcalf and Heather Rolfe at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) is basically flawed.  It glosses over the root cause of caste discrimination, which is firmly embedded in the Varan Ashram Dharma i.e. “sanatan”  or ancient Vedic system, one of the main pillars of Hinduism.

It is not true to say that (to quote from the report):  "The term ‘caste’ is used to identify a number of different concepts, notably, varna (a Hindu religious caste system), jati (an occupational caste system) and biradri (often referred to as a clan system). The examples of caste discrimination identified related to jati."

Comment: These are not different concepts but a hierarchical description of the same degrading Manuvadic caste system.

To quote from the report: "Caste awareness in Britain is concentrated amongst people with roots in the Indian sub-continent (who comprise five per cent of the [UK] population). It is not religion specific and is subscribed to by (and affects) members of any or no religion."

Comment: The first part is true but not the second part. 

The followers of all non-Hindu India based religions, being mainly converts from Hinduism took the caste practice with them, even when their new religions did not believe in caste, or even condemned caste unequivocally, like Sikhism.  Examples of such condemnation in Guru Granth Sahib are too numerous to be quoted here.

To repeat, the four “varans” are broad divisions of brahman, kshatrya (khatri), vais & shudra (or "ashoot" i.e. untouchables).  Each varan  has further divisions of work/social “jaat” and “paat” or “kul” (e.g. jaat Khatri & paat Kapoor).  There are further sub-divisions of gotras and bradris.  These are hierarchical and firmly rooted in the Varan Ashram Dharma (Hindu) religious system.

According to Rig Veda (X-10, 11 & 12), when the devtas divided the "Pursha" (universal being), then its mouth became brahman, arms khatri, thighs became vais and feet became the shudras (untouchables).  Accordingly the work was divided between these four varanas as: brahman to teach Vedas and do yags and religious rituals etc and to receive charity; kshatrya or khatri for armed defence, to rule and to give charity etc; vais, the main work-horses doing agriculture, trade and looking after animals; and shudra - our main topic - to serve the three above by doing the most menial and degrading jobs

Varans were also according to skin complexion i.e. colour segregation.  According to Vedic scholars brahman - fair, khatri - reddish , vais - yellowish, and shudra -darkish.    

Most regrettably, Mahatma Gandhi, instead of totally condemning and eradicating caste, was content by giving the so-called low caste a different label of "Hari jan", thus recognising and perpetuating low caste as part of Indian way of life. 

In recent years, the so called “low castes” have self inflicted some permanent damage to their own cause by creating new religions and sects identified with so called "low castes". Thus, they have become even more isolated.

To quote from the report: "Some religious groups are almost wholly from the lowest castes: Ravidassia, Valmiki, Ramdasis and Ambedkarite Buddhists. Christians with roots in the Indian sub-continent are also often assumed to be low caste."

I am not sure who "Ramdasis" are but the Ravidassia sect may be a reaction to the carry-over of the Hindu varan system amongst Sikhs.  Otherwise, Bhagat Ravidas sits amongst the galaxy of Sikh Gurus and Bhagats in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy Scripture.  

Let us eradicate caste based discrimination in all socio-religious and work spheres.  However,  we cannot ignore from whence it came.  To quote Prof. Gurtej Singh of Chandigarh: -  "Hinduism is a caste based faith built painstakingly around the firm belief in human inequality and the notions of purity and pollution that attach to individuals by birth. Its rituals are grounded in the proposition to afford unlimited privilege to the ‘higher’ castes to exploit the labour and persons of castes deemed inferior. It has a hierarchical system of exploitation built into religious practises and ends up in Brahmins exploiting all other castes. "

Sikhs respect the underlying truth of all religions, but no orthodox religious system can be spared if it does not meet the norms of a civilised egalitarian society.

*  Caste UK WatchPO Box 3685, Coventry, CV6 4WA Tel 0789 1058712 / 07751 668926 E-mail: info@castewatchuk.org www.castewatchuk.org

Gurmukh Singh
E-mail: sewauk2005@yahoo.co.uk

Friday, 3 December 2010


Initiatives to bring diverse Sikh organisations and gurdwaras around one table are always welcome. They should be supported.

At working level, uniting Sikh diversity becomes practicable only when individual or “jathebandi” aspirations to “lead” are set aside, and real differences recognised and ring-fenced. Not understanding differences under the very large Panthic umbrella will almost certainly delay or even doom initiatives to unite. Whilst it is for jathebandis and ambitious individuals to exercise self-restraint in their desire to “lead” and to impose own interpretation of Sikh tradition, real differences need recognition.

One area is the question of interpreting Guru Granth and Guru Khalsa Panth twin track approach (symbolising piri-miri respectively) in the context of the status of (i.e. “maan-maryada”) of Sri Akal Takht Sahib. The “authority” of Sri Akal Takht Sahib flows from, and is not independent of, mainstream Guru Panth tradition.

Events in recent years have shown that one goal before Khalsa Panth is to ensure that the status of Sri Akal Takht Sahib as the voice of the collective body of Sarbatt Khalsa Panth is not eroded. The global Sikh community has seen divisions arising from the manner in which directives have been issued from this highest of Sikh institutions entrusted with the interpretation of Gurbani and Gurmat. The 18th Century mechanism of Sarbatt Khalsa has been eroded or even lost due partly to practical reasons as the Panth has expanded; and, also due to outside political ambition to control the Sikh decision making process. Whatever the real reasons, a large section of the global Sikh community is keen to see restoration of the maan-maryda of Sri Akal Takht Sahib as the voice of the Khalsa Panth when interpreting Gurbani guidance from which flows Sikh miri-piri (temporal- spiritual)whole-life tradition.

In the meantime, initiatives to unite Sikh organisations of different persuasions need to recognise the real differences and divisions which exist due to confusion about tracing the real “authority” behind the institution of Sri Akal Takht Sahib, to the collective will of Khalsa Panth. Open recognition of this problem will lead to a practicable approach to unity on other real issues which face us in the UK, in Europe and globally.

Longer term Sikh solution to the decision making process at Sri Akal Takht Sahib may be provided by internet and information technology e.g. through cyber forums supported by panels of Gursikh scholars.

However, in any healthy and diverse community such as the Sikhs, complete agreement on all ideological issues may not be possible and that should be accepted from the outset.

Gurmukh Singh