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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Caste-based discrimination in the UK

The National Secular Society campaigns for caste-based discrimination to be recognised as a form of discrimination under UK equality legislation.

The hierarchical caste system, most associated with Hinduism and imbued with graded inequality and discrimination, is the result of the ancient religious and cultural beliefs that, in diametric opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, does not view all people as equal.

Caste-based discrimination is a world-wide phenomenon affecting some 300 million people, of whom around 170 million are in India. It affects people in the UK too however; the increase in population of those who have arrived in the UK from the Indian sub-continent means that some who have settled here have also brought with them their own social habits, norms and religious customs – including the institution of caste.

Research has estimated there are at least 50,000 (and perhaps in excess of 200,000) people living in the UK who are classified as "low caste", and there is caste-based discrimination, harassment and bullying present in employment, education and in the provision of services.

Currently, such discrimination falls outside the existing framework of race and religious discrimination law. Thus, the National Secular Society and many others, including those representing lower castes, the UN and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, recommend that the definition of race in the UK's Equality Act should be extended to include caste so as to provide explicit protection for those suffering from caste-based discrimination.

In April, the government declared that it would bring forward regulations to include caste as an aspect of race in UK Equality laws. Since that time however, the Government has initiated a convoluted consultation on implementation which could significantly delay the legislation. NSS honorary Associate, Lord Avebury, and others are fighting to shorten the consultation period.

The passing of legislation to outlaw caste-based discrimination would set a powerful and historic example for the rest of the world that discrimination should not be tolerated, whatever the cultural or religious reasons used to excuse it.