In 2012, Permila Tirkey – a member of India's lowest caste – was awarded £266,000 at an employment tribunal after being treated like a slave by a higher-caste couple. She had been paid 11p per hour and worked 18-hour days, seven days a week, performing menial household tasks. She was made to sleep on a mattress on the floor and wasn't allowed to contact her family. All of this took place not in Delhi or Mumbai, where India's caste structure ranks sections of society by the social class they were born into, but at a house in Milton Keynes.
Tirkey's was the first case of caste discrimination to reach a courtroom in the UK, but according to British charity Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) her situation is representative of a much larger problem. This type of prejudice, they say, is widespread among Indian communities throughout the UK. And although non-Indian communities might not be aware of the existence of caste discrimination in this country, it has been acknowledged by the government, with proposals to amend the Equality Act 2010 to include caste being approved in 2013.
However, the amendment is yet to be implemented, with caste rights groups claiming that upper-caste Hindus have placed pressure on politicians to slow down its progress. It's also been opposed by prominent members of numerous Hindu groups, including the Alliance of Hindu Organisations, Hindu Council UK, Hindu Forum of Britain and the Council of Hindu Temples, along with MPs for areas with large Hindu and Sikh populations.
But what possible reason could there be to oppose legislation that seeks to prevent people from being discriminated against due to a characteristic they've got zero control over – the family they were born into? I got in touch with Anil Bhanot of the Hindu Council UK to find out.
Bhanot believes that caste isn't actually an issue in the UK, and that the attempts to get it included in the act stem from animosity harboured by Dalits, the lowest Hindu caste, towards higher castes, due to the mistreatment of the former by the latter in India. "This vengeful thing will not work. It will divide us, and it will destroy our community. There will be the opposite of integration," says Bhanot.
Ravi Kumar of the ACDA has a very different take on the situation. He claims that the drive to have caste included in the Equality Act was triggered by endemic caste discrimination in both the British Sikh and British Hindu communities. "Originally, when migrants first came to this country in the 60s and 70s, they all clubbed together in the face of racial discrimination and hostility. Then, when more people were here and people started building temples, caste re-emerged," he says. "During the 80s, this process crystallised caste discrimination. Nowadays, it's happening all over the county."
Ravi believes the opposition to the legislation comes in part from temples wanting to assign important religious positions based on caste: "Some people think, 'We want to pick and choose our priests, and they have to be from a higher caste. By having this legislation, it means that we'll have to open up the options for which priest comes into our temple.'"
So is caste discrimination in Britain a non-issue, or are Hindu organisations attempting to sweep it under the rug? I headed for Southall, Wembley Central and Alperton's "Little India" areas, sections of London with large Hindu and Sikh populations, to speak to people from the communities supposedly affected by the issue. There, I gave out 50 questionnaires to passersby, which asked respondents whether they thought caste discrimination is a problem in the UK; if they had been personally affected by it; if it has ever hindered them when seeking employment; and if they felt it should be included in the Equality Act. Twenty percent of those who filled it in were Sikh, 76 percent were Hindu, and I also surveyed an Indian Muslim and an atheist who was raised in a Hindu household.
Fifty-four percent of the respondents believed that caste discrimination was indeed a problem, with 20 percent claiming to have been personally affected by it. I was also told about quite severe prejudice suffered by certain people, including the story of a Sikh girl from Southall whose family had moved from Birmingham to London to escape the hassle they got there because of her parents' mixed-caste marriage, only to receive similar treatment in the capital.
"My mum's side of the family are very, very Hindu, and my dad's side are very, very Sikh," she said. "My mum was the top caste in Hinduism and my dad's a skilled trader. There are family members who were incredibly rude and discriminatory to us as children. I've grown up with it and find it disheartening. There are people who don't want to date each other because of these caste issues. It's a bit pathetic, because we don't live in India."
Twenty percent of the respondents indicated that caste discrimination had hindered them when seeking employment. When questioned further, some of them claimed there were occasions when people from specific castes had been requested for a job. Others said they couldn't be sure that they had been affected in this way, and that it was just a suspicion.
Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed believed that caste should be included in the Equality Act. Interestingly, this figure included a good number of people who had answered "no" when asked if it was a problem. When quizzed on why he thought caste should be covered by the law, even though he believed it wasn't an issue, Shyam – a Gujarati Hindu who runs the Viva Village shop and cafe in Alperton – told me that it was best to include it just in case other people's experiences were different to his. "I've never come across [caste discrimination] myself, but others might have, so they should have it in there," he said. He was also kind enough to invite me into his shop for a free cup of masala tea, so shouts to Shyam for that.
Other respondents who said they didn't think caste discrimination was a problem but indicated they felt it should be covered by the act told me they'd been subjected to it in other countries and didn't want it creeping in over here. "I've seen it outside of the UK and heard many cases of it happening there, so it should be included," said a young Hindu from Alperton.
A variety of reasons were given by those who opposed the inclusion of caste in the act, ranging from the belief that cultural rather than legislative changes are needed to eradicate this form of prejudice, to there being no need for the law to be revised because caste discrimination supposedly doesn't exist in the UK. No one seemed to share Bhanot's view that the amendment would damage community cohesion. I didn't question all of the respondents about their answers, though, so it's possible some of the people surveyed might have shared this view.
From the people I spoke to and surveyed, it would seem that caste discrimination is a pressing issue for British Sikhs and Hindus. Admittedly, a sample size of 50 in specific areas of London isn't exactly representative of the entire country. However, what I can say for certain is that some people are and have been discriminated against on account of their caste, meaning – surely – the government should do whatever it can on a legislative level, even if true change relies on community action. Of course, the inclusion of caste in a revised Equality Act has already been approved, so why is it taking so long to implement?
Ravi believes it's due to opposition from powerful Hindu and Sikh organisations.
"Imagine if the Race Equality Act had been determined by Parliament, then the government started listening to people saying, 'We don't believe racial discrimination exists,'" he says. "It's ridiculous. Something really needs to be done. We don't tolerate racial discrimination and we don't tolerate sexual discrimination or discrimination based on sexual preference, so we can't tolerate this either."
The government stated in September of 2016 that it would conduct a consultation by 2017 to decide "whether additional measures are needed to ensure victims of caste discrimination have appropriate legal protection and effective remedies". The results of the consultation are yet to be announced, which isn't a great sign.
So will the government step in to do what it can to prevent certain British Indians, like the girl from Southall, enduring a lifetime of abuse and harassment? Only time will tell.