Updated: August 8, 2021 8:59:07 am
On June 30 this year, Gray’s Inn, the internationally recognised seat of jurisprudence, unveiled a radical portrait of its former alumnus Dr B R Ambedkar and inaugurated a room named after him. It was the culmination of years of discussion between the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK (FABO UK) and Gray’s Inn.
Commissioned and donated by FAB OUK, the David Newens oil painting of Ambedkar is based on a 1946 black-and-white photo by renowned photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine. Radical? Ken Hunt, the writer, observes, “Unlike his (Ambedkar’s) usual poses, Bourke-White’s shoot captured him in a relaxed mood at his home in Delhi. He is on his veranda with a cascade of bougainvillea beside him.” His smile engages, and, like Mona Lisa’s, his eyes will follow future legal eagles around the room.
Lord David Alton of Liverpool, Master Ali Malek QC, Dr Ambedkar’s great-grandson Sujat Ambedkar and I gave speeches before the portrait’s unveiling. Lord Alton is a staunch supporter of our campaign against caste-based discrimination and regularly refers to Dr Ambedkar in parliamentary debates on equality legislation, anti-caste discrimination law, and the discrimination Dalits and Adivasis face.
The campaign to publicise caste discrimination experiences in Britain began in the ’70s with such committed Ambedkarites as FABO UK’s Arun Kumar. For over two decades, Dalit organisations have actively lobbied for a law to address the impact of caste discrimination. It is in essence no different to other forms of discrimination — say, on disability, sexual preference, gender or race — already outlawed in Britain. That’s why groups want it to be protected under the Equality Act 2010.
I came to London at the age of eight from Punjab. Britain’s pro-equality legislation helped give redress from the caste discrimination we faced.
Powerful Hindu and Sikh lobbies oppose the law and argue “caste consciousness… does not exist” here, or bizarrely, that the legislation will introduce it. This patent falsehood is laid bare by the prevalence of gurdwaras and temples in the UK serving specific castes. The suggestion that the Indo-Pakistani diaspora grows up miraculously unaware of caste here was rubbished in the 2019 BBC television documentary Hindus: Do we have a Caste Problem?. In February 2020, The Sunday Times reported how UK Indian dating and matrimonial sites reinforce caste divisions.
The anti-caste-law lobbies promote “education” as the way forward. In 2013, I appeared on Newsnight, BBC2’s flagship weekly current affairs programme, hours before a parliamentary debate and an important vote on caste law. Jeremy Paxman, the show’s combative host, and I shredded the anti-caste-law representative’s feeble arguments. “Would you have an educative approach for race or gender discrimination?” Of course, we wouldn’t!
Formed in 2008, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) is one of the leading organisations fighting for such a law. In May 2021, together with the Ravidassia community, ACDA saw through the prosecution of a London-based Sikh man who had produced hate-filled, caste-related diatribe on TikTok.
The government wants to repeal the 2010 caste law provisions based on a flawed consultation. The argument is that principles in one caste-related case, Tirkey v Chandok, from 2015 should be enough. But this case could be overturned.
It’s also imperative that more people learn about Dr Ambedkar.
In 1991, the Ambedkar Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee installed a blue plaque outside 10, King Henry’s Road, in London. It reads ‘Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1891-1956, Indian crusader for social justice lived here 1921-22’. When the property came on the market in 2014, FABO UK proposed that the then government of Maharashtra fund the purchase of what was already a place of pilgrimage. It took a solid year of badgering the government, and many a sleepless night worrying that some property developer might buy it.
My hope is that our anti-caste discrimination movement, the Ambedkar Museum, Gray’s Inn and other initiatives still in planning act as inspirations to think creatively about the emancipatory project that Dr Ambedkar launched.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 8, 2021 under the title ‘Caste in the UK, and why Ambedkar matters’. The writer is one of the leading figures in the campaign to outlaw caste-based discrimination in the UK.
Suraj Yengde, the writer of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly Dalitality column
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