Page last updated at 02:54 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Does the caste system still linger in the UK?

Is the caste system as much a feature of life in the UK as the Indian sub-continent? And what benefits - and problems - are associated with it? Here, two commentators from within the Hindu community argue about whether caste does permeate the life of British Hindus - and what effect it may have.

Usha Sood, barrister and law lecturer

The term caste that was historically used to denote social divisions in Indian society still lingers amongst Sikh, Hindu and Muslim migrants from South Asia.

Usha Sood
Usha Sood says caste discrimination is a real problem for many British Hindus

It has been said: The Brahmins (teachers) are the head, the Kshatriya (warriors) are the chest, the Shudras (labourers) are the hands. There are also Vaishyas (tradesmen).

It can still be found in marriage networks, with the older generations preferring to have marriages arranged within their caste or community.

The priests in the 200 or so temples in the UK are all likely to be Brahmin.

The Hindu Forum Report in 2008 disputes caste as an extant divide, arguing that it is really freedom of personal interaction and social choice.

This disregards the hierarchical retention of positions within social and religious ceremonial contexts, and provides a barrier in marriages of choice.

In a controversial report, No Escape - Caste Discrimination in the UK, researchers were told how couples who marry outside their own caste face "violence, intimidation and exclusion".

Caste discrimination is not identified or recognised in existing discrimination legislation in the UK.

Unite member Balram Sampla said in 2006 that the caste system was "a severe blight on the potential of 800,000 Dalits, or 'untouchables' in south Asia - and some 50,000 in the UK".

Some foreign employees including servants and maids are exploited and treated harshly, and are reluctant to draw attention to their plight.

Acceptance of the so-called lower castes as priests and community leaders, as well as openly non-caste based marriage advertisements, and affording equality of opportunity, would go a long way to show that these divisions are disappearing.

Kapil Dudakia, The Hindu Forum of Britain

The caste system is not faith based, but is fundamentally a social phenomenon found in many forms around the world.

Its premise is that a father's occupation is passed down through the generations.

Kapil Dudakia
Kapil Dudakia believes caste helps friends and families form strong bonds

As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, caste is well and truly non-existent, unless you happen to be a member of the Royal Family.

In my experience the vast majority of people, regardless of their historical caste, tend not to follow their ancestors' occupations.

Caste is therefore no longer relevant and it follows that caste discrimination in either services or employment is something of a red herring.

Those who campaign for a caste discrimination law are therefore using the issue as a smokescreen in an attempt to promote themselves and their real cause - which is to convert people to their faith.

The residual impact of the caste system has been for family and friends forming a closer bond and fondness for each other.

It is therefore more likely that their interaction is greater in these social circles and as such, it no doubt would also play an important part in their daily life, for example, in birth, death and marriage.

We all have a right to choose our friends and those with whom we wish to associate - what is wrong with that?

Equally we all oppose anything that is done by way of force.

A survey conducted by an anti-caste organisation revealed that more than 70% of those questioned said their children did not know their caste - how can they possibly then discriminate against other castes?

And a major research project conducted by the Hindu Forum of Britain found that more than 92% of the respondents did not believe that caste discrimination was an issue in the UK.

There you have it; two different surveys both coming to similar conclusions.



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