NEW DELHI: Despite outlawing social evils such as child marriage and Sati, the British balked at taking on untouchability during the Raj. Three months ago, in a quirky turn of events, the David Cameron government was forced by the House of Lords to outlaw caste-based discrimination among Indians settled in the UK. Last fortnight, yielding to counter pressure from Hindu groups, the government deferred the enforcement of the law by announcing a two-year-long public consultation for it.
The decision to hold such a prolonged consultation has exposed the government to allegations from Dalits that it was dragging its feet on the implementation of the amendment to the Equality Act 2010 passed by Parliament in April. Dalits decried the notification of the two-year consultation as "excessive", as the government's own guidelines stipulate three months as the optimum period.
The consultation timetable came on the heels of a letter written in May by equalities minister Helen Grant to Alliance of Hindu Organisations (AHO). The letter made no secret of her "disappointment that it has been necessary for the government to include caste as an element of race in the Equality Act following the further defeat in the House of Lords".
Although it "remained concerned that there is insufficient evidence of caste-based discrimination to require specific legislation", the government, according to Grant, conceded to the ban because "a stalemate on caste between the two Houses could have jeopardized... a wide range of important reform measures".
The Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN), which lobbied for the legislation, is miffed with the length of the consultation process. DSN director Meena Verma alleged that the government was "intent on backtracking on its promises and pandering to a Hindu lobby" which saw the legislation as "a direct slight on their religion". Verma believes that after "a well drafted and fully inclusive consultation", the anti-caste discrimination provision could be brought into effect before this year-end.
For the AHO, the two-year consultation has come as a fulfillment of its demand. It wants the consultation to address "the issues of definition of caste, the need to avoid disclosure of caste and a sunset clause to allow the removal of the legislation". AHO has also expressed concerns about the "intolerant, offensive and inaccurate comments" that had been made, "in particular in the House of Lords", against the Hindu community during the debates in April on the anti-caste discrimination law.
The stated objectives of the consultation process include improving the understanding of employers, public sector organizations and others who are "required to have an awareness of caste for the first time, about the new law and the nature of any duties connected with it".
According to the timetable, the government's response to the consultation, "which will include a draft affirmative order outlawing caste discrimination", will be issued in the second half of 2014, as a prelude to the introduction of the final order in the summer of 2015.