The Dalit question

The Economist tells me something I didn’t know: Jeremy Corbyn is an advocate of justice for Dalits.

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.

Except of course for the Dalit portion of “the Indian community.”

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 they’re still talking about it, and dragging out the process. Mustn’t rush into these things.

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.

Because only a neo-colonialist Orientalist would insult the Indian community by advocating the outlawing of caste discrimination. So Dalits are neo-colonialist Orientalists, so they can safely be forgotten.



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