On the 21st February 2022, Seattle made history for being the first American city, as well as the first place outside of South Asia, to ban caste discrimination. The term ‘caste’ was added alongside the terms ‘race’, ‘religion’ and ‘sexual identity’ as a protected characteristic in Seattle’s civil code. The city’s councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, was one of the individuals at the forefront of the campaign, stating government officials have a “political and moral obligation” to confront discrimination on the basis of caste, instead of letting such hate crimes be “invisible and unaddressed”. The city’s ban has been a global turning point in bringing the issue of caste discrimination to the forefront on talks of equality and protecting vulnerable individuals from discriminatory attitudes.
However, with the concept of caste historically being confined to mainly South Asian communities, and some East Asian and African communities, the migration of such discrimination to countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, has attracted large amounts of discourse on what exactly caste is and why bans on perpetuating discrimination on the basis of caste is vital.
What is the caste system? How does it affect those in India presently?
The Indian caste system is a 3000-year-old system of social hierarchy, stemming from ancient Hindu origin texts. It categorises individuals into four different castes, and within these four castes, there is a further separation of thousands of sub-castes.
At the top of this system are Brahmins, the teachers and priests, then the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers, followed by the Vaishyas, the merchants and traders, then the Shudras, the labourers. At the very bottom of this structure, there are two groups, referred to as Dalits and Adivasis. Dalits, who have been given the name “untouchables” are thought to be of extreme low caste, and therefore were expected to carry out tasks that are considered too polluting for upper castes to perform, such as street sweepers, manual scavenging or latrine cleaners. Similarly, Adivasis, who are communities indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, are also considered to be of low caste, and are likewise relegated to such sanitation jobs. The premise of “untouchability”, essentially means that Dalit and Adivasi communities are “spiritually impure”, therefore inferior to upper caste individuals like Brahmins or Kshatriyas.
The Indian caste system is also mirrored in neighbouring South Asian countries, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka. Caste systems are also found in other parts of Asia and the African continent. In Japan, individuals from the Buraku ethnic group are considered the “untouchable” class within Japanese society. The Osu ethnic group in Nigeria are perceived as an inferior caste, and therefore separated from the Igbo communities. In Senegal, a hierarchical caste system exists that separates multiple ethnic groups.
Caste discrimination was banned in India in 1948, shortly after the independence from British colonial rule. In 1950, the ban was formally included within the Indian Constitution. Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a member of the Indian Parliament who was born into a Dalit family, and had experienced discrimination throughout his life due to his Dalit caste, is commonly referred to as the “Father of the Indian Constitution”, for playing a significant role in influencing and drafting the Constitution. Dr Ambedkar was a driving force in fighting against caste discrimination in India and for the civil rights of “untouchables”. Furthermore, in 1989, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was passed in order to prevent specific hate crimes against Dalits and Adivasis.
However, with the inclusion of such provisions and enactment of progressive legislation, discriminating on the basis of caste still largely survives in present day India.
The Indian government’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded nearly 60,000 cases of violent hateful attacks towards Dalits and Adivasis in 2021, with a 1.2% rise in violent crimes against Dalits and a 6.4% rise in crimes against Adivasis. It is important to note that these are numbers of recorded hate crimes, with the reality being a much higher number. Every week, numerous news reports are published on violence against low caste communities. In 2022, a nine-year old boy belonging to the Dalit community was allegedly beaten to death by a teacher for touching a pot of water that was only for upper caste individuals. In 2012, a Dalit man was brutally lynched for using a water pump during a heatwave, which was similarly only for the usage of upper caste individuals. In 2019, a inter-caste couple was lynched by the bride’s family who disapproved the groom due to belonging to a low-caste community. Such regular and horrific attacks are also not taken as seriously as needed by the Indian judiciary, with 96% of cases of crimes against Dalits are still pending trials.
Additionally, with some Dalits being able to positively progress, despite discriminative attitudes and barriers towards their caste, millions are still confined in the roles outlined in the caste system despite the legislative ban. This is primarily due to caste being intertwined with bonded and forced labour. Bonded labour is essentially where individuals work to pay off alleged debts from past generations, which makes it extremely hard for those trapped in this system to break out of. The Human Rights Watch published a report in 1999, revealing that 40 million individuals in India, 15 millions of which are children, are trapped in bonded labour, majority identifying with the Dalit caste. Due to being stuck in a cycle of poverty, many Dalit children must start working harsh laborious roles at a young age, in order to support their family, therefore Dalit children have very little access to education. In comparison to children from other castes, Dalit kids have a lower literacy rate, and between the years 1961 and 1991, the literacy gap fell a mere 0.39% & between kids from Dalit communities and kids identifying as high caste. Therefore, with many low caste communities still stuck in slavery-like roles, with no protection from either law enforcement and the judiciary, a narrow access to justice and education, it is no surprise how the decrease of caste discrimination has been virtually non-existent. And instead, a migration of such attitudes has occurred to countries like the US and the UK, countries with large South Asian diaspora.
The migration of caste discrimination to the United States and the United Kingdom
The existence of caste discrimination in the United States first made international headlines in the year 2020. A litigation by The California Civil Rights Department against the Silicon Valley tech giant Cisco Systems Inc commenced. It was alleged that a Dalit engineer was treated unfairly on the basis of his caste by colleagues, who were similarly of South Asian descent. He regularly received underpayments as well as less access to opportunities due to being of low caste. Despite the case still ongoing, it has been credited with being influential in the American movement against caste discrimination, which has been primarily led by Equality Labs, a Dalit-American civil rights organisation that focuses on raising awareness and ending caste discrimination.
The litigation against Cisco was just the start of lawsuits regarding caste discrimination.
The following year, a federal lawsuit was launched at a international Hindu organisation referred to as BAPS, for trafficking and exploiting Dalit workers from India to build a New Jersey temple under harsh and inhumane conditions for extremely low wages. The Dalit workers were paid $1.20 an hour, which violated New Jersey state law of a minimum wage of $14.13 an hour. It was alleged that the organisation withheld the workers passports in order to stop them from returning back to India, as well as threatening the workers if they publicly voiced the illegal working conditions.
It was reported that caste discrimination affects 5.7 million South Asian Americans, with 1 in 4 Dalits living in the US, have experienced either verbal or physical assault, 2 out of 3 have reported to receive unjust and unfair treatment in the workplace, and 1 in 3 Dalit students studying in the US have experienced discrimination. Prem Pariyar, speaks about how he fled Nepal to settle in the United States in 2015, after being violently attacked by upper caste individuals. However, even in California, to his surprise, he faced caste discrimination. He was told not to touch the food at his upper caste friend’s house due to having low caste status. Bhim Narayan Bishwakarma, a Dalit American living in San Francisco, attempted to lease a room from a landlord who was also of South Asian descent, however, was rejected as the landlord disclosed that his other tenants stated they would move out of the property if a individual from the Dalit caste moved in. These are just a few of the cases that show how attitudes towards caste are still prevalent within some communities of South Asian diaspora.
Such discriminative experiences have been encountered by Dalits living in the United Kingdom. Sudesh Rani spoke out about her experience of violent verbal abuse at a supermarket in Bedford, where two women began shouting derogatory insults, terms which are normally used against individuals of low caste. When Rani officially complained to British law enforcement, there was uncertainty on how to go forth with her complaint due to the lack of awareness surrounding caste discrimination. In fact, in 2010, the UK Government Equalities Office released a study on caste discrimination and harassment, which confirmed the existence of it within the UK. The study outlined how such discrimination was prominent in education, the workplace and places of worship across the UK.
The case of Tirkey v Chandhok  has also been influential in exhibiting how caste discrimination has manifested in the UK. Ms Tirkey, a member of the Adivasi community was recruited as a domestic worker for the Chandhoks in the UK. Ms Tirkey worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and was subsequently paid a mere 11p an hour. Her wages were transferred to a bank account, which she had no form of access to. The Chandhoks also seized her passport in order to stop Ms Tirkey from leaving the country. The Employment Appeal Tribunal found that Ms Tirkey was extremely vulnerable due to having a low-caste background. Hence, the Chandhoks were found to act discriminatively towards Ms Tirkey, however this was rather on the basis of ethnic origin and religion, due to no legal provision regarding caste.
Cases like Tirkey v Chandhok and the experiences like that of Sudesh Rani prove why a specific legislative provision is needed in the British legal system, to move in the right direction to prevent the occurrence of caste discrimination. Groups like The Dalit Solidarity Network UK led a movement, similar to that of the US based Equality Labs, to include the term caste in the Equality Act 2010. However, in 2018, Penny Mordaunt who acted as the Minister for Women and Equalities during this period, stated that “someone claiming caste discrimination may rely on the existing statutory remedy where they can show that their ‘caste’ is related to their ethnic origin, which is itself an aspect of race discrimination in the Equality Act.” However, many Dalit activist groups, such as the Dalit Solidarity Network explain how the specific term of ‘caste’ should be included in legislation as not all cases of caste discrimination can fall under the term ‘ethnic origin’, as not all low caste individuals have the same ethnic identity and culture, therefore the inclusion of caste is needed to seek justice for such discrimination.
It is evident that caste discrimination has migrated outside the Indian subcontinent, and legislative progress, and the one occurred in Seattle is impactful in raising awareness about a frequently hidden form of bigotry. With caste discrimination affecting 260 million people worldwide and intertwining with other serious human rights violations such as debt bondage and forced labour, it is imperative to turn our focus and uplift the voices that have been silenced and suppressed one too many times.