Had Babasaheb Ambedkar lived in London today, he might have reconsidered his saying “my five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable, and that an untouchable wherever he went in India was a problem to himself and to others.” According to Santosh Dass, president of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations, UK, “the key thing” was that Ambedkar “was spared from the perniciousness of untouchability in London.” He might not have been today, if some British peers are to be believed.
Dass was instrumental in renovating Ambedkar House in North London. Like the houses where Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore spent some time, the redbrick semi-detached 10 King Henry’s Road building near Primrose Hill now also sports a round blue English Heritage plaque. This one reads “Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1891-1956, Indian Crusader of Social Justice lived here 1921-22.” The government of Maharashtra paid £3.1 million for the house in 2015.
It was opened to the public in April this year. The basement is a meeting room, while a photo exhibition of Ambedkar’s life and achievements takes up the ground, first and second floors. There’s also a library on the first floor with a collection of Ambedkar’s own writings and a comfortable reading space overlooking the garden where stands a statue of the Dalit leader who wrote India’s Constitution.
The quotation “Democracy is essentially an attitude of reverence towards our fellow men” on a wall takes one back to Permila Tirkey, a Scheduled Tribe woman from Bihar who worked as a cleaner and nanny in Milton Keynes. Her employers, Ajay and Pooja Chandhok, made her work 18 hours a day, seven days a week for 11 pence an hour. She slept on a mattress on the floor and wasn’t allowed to bring her Bible to Britain. She could not contact her family, and although she did have a bank account, her employers controlled it. This ordeal lasted four and a half years. There was a complaint and a case before a tribunal which awarded her nearly ₤184,000 in unpaid wages and compensation.
British law does not expressly prohibit caste discrimination, but both Houses of Parliament have legislated to amend section 9(5) of the Equality Act 2010 so that race discrimination covers caste discrimination. However, Theresa May’s government must introduce secondary legislation to make this effective. As Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a retired bishop and Oxford don, stressed in a debate two years ago, “The word used is ‘must’ with no equivocation or qualification.” Another indefatigable crusader, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, described by The Times newspaper as “one of the most knowledgeable and authoritative figures in the field of human rights”, flayed the government for its persistent prevarication over doing so.
They were especially angry because although Mrs May had vowed to fight “burning injustice” in British life, she didn’t seem to want to risk the support of South Asian millionaires to ensure justice for the less privileged among the more than three million immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.
Many of these settlers have imported their own values. As Baroness Flather, Sir Ganga Ram’s great-granddaughter, pointed out in the course of the debate, “people who live with certain types of practices do not just give them up because they move from one country to another”. It’s “so much a part of their psyche and so ingrained in their thinking that it is not easy for them to get rid of it”.
She might have added that many migrants are also caught in a time warp, nursing beliefs and practices that the motherland has abandoned. Studies in the US suggest a bias towards male children among Asian immigrants while dowry, forced marriages, honour killings and caste discrimination are also traced back to South Asia. However, a Uganda-born Gujarati peer, Lord Popat of Harrow, contradicts this view. He claims that “the vast majority of the British Hindu community… do not know what caste is or what caste they belong to” and felt “persecuted by this caste discrimination campaign”.
Hindus alone are not guilty. As Lord Harries of Pentregarth admitted in opening the debate, caste “has affected all religions from the Indian subcontinent, including Christianity and Islam.” Despite Sikhism’s egalitarianism, the evil “is embedded in most Sikhs”. Lord Ahmed, a life peer born in Mirpur in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, “was going to speak forcefully about his experience of caste-based discrimination among Muslims of Pakistani origin in Bradford” but “had to withdraw his name.” However, the main controversy centres on some 1.5 million British Hindus, with an estimated 400,000 Dalits providing the principal complainants.
Some Dalits say upper-caste employers either refuse to employ them or deny them promotion. Some upper-caste Hindu women in Wolverhampton refuse to drink water from the same tap as Dalit women. A Dalit solicitor whose wife, also a solicitor, was born a Jat, said they had suffered humiliation, victimisation and harassment. The employment tribunal hearing their complaint – the very first for unfair dismissal on caste grounds – collapsed when the judge mysteriously recused herself from the case after the police called on her after 36 hearings.
Sadly, Ms Tirkey’s success did not establish a legal remedy for caste-based discrimination. “There is no binding and authoritative legal precedent” according to Lord Lester. He indicated two alternatives. Expensive and protracted litigation up to the Supreme Court could remove the uncertainty. Or the government could demonstrate its respect for parliament’s supremacy and the rule of law by complying with international notions of justice. That would bring Britain in line with India where caste was outlawed long ago, added Lord Meghnad Desai, blaming electoral compulsions — without naming Mrs May — for preventing reform.
Her first statement “reminded the Conservative party that her first principle was to ensure that all people had a fair do in life” recalled a Conservative peer, Lord Deben. Dalits could not be excluded from that promise. If Mrs May’s government did not stand up and tell this House that it intended to obey the law, its only alternative was to tell the House that it intended to disobey the law. Beset with her Brexit problems, the Prime Minister is too practical a political operator to adopt such an idealistic course.
Ambedkar was enrolled at Gray’s Inn when he stayed at King Henry’s Road. He also studied for a masters at the London School of Economics, returning to London in 1920 to finish his research. He might have found London a far less congenial place a century later. Lord Desai tells us that Britain’s caste Hindu lobby is “very powerful, prosperous and persistent”. What it lacks in numbers it makes up in money power. Theresa May, who occasionally drapes herself in a saree, shows no inclination of wishing to thwart it.
Sunanda K Datta – Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.