Class-obsessed Britain bans Indian caste system
The UK government has announced that the Indian caste system will effectively soon be illegal in Britain. But what of Britain’s own obsession with social class?
In the UK, it has long been illegal to discriminate against someone because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. But there is one form of prejudice that has until now remained ignored by the law and largely unexamined by the media: discrimination based on caste.
This is not particularly surprising. Britain has no native ‘caste system’, and many of the country’s 63 million inhabitants would not even recognise the term. For the 1.4 million Britons of Indian descent, however, issues of caste are ancient and familiar.
The Indian caste system has its roots in a Hindu belief which divided traditional Indian society into four groups known as ‘varnas’. The Brahmin group of priests and intellectuals enjoyed the highest status; below them were warriors and merchants; at the bottom were Shudras (workers), who were expected to remain loyal and subservient.
Contact between the groups was strictly regulated, and to marry a person from a different caste was a terrible crime. Lowest of the low were ‘untouchables’, confined to the least desirable jobs and considered to be spiritually unclean.
In modern India, the caste system is widely condemned. Laws prohibit caste discrimination and some opportunities for social advancement are reserved for lower castes, but inequality and discrimination are still rife. And Indians in Britain are vulnerable to the same prejudices.
Now the UK government has declared that caste-based discrimination will be made illegal. Human rights campaigners welcome the move. But some suggest that the UK has its own method of social stratification: the class system.
The UK is notorious around the world for a longstanding obsession with class, and its social mobility is one of the lowest in Europe. A third of the country’s MPs and half of its business and media leaders are privately educated, along with 70% of high court judges.
Unlike caste, class is not fixed from birth. And the definitions are vague and ever-changing. This month, a BBC survey suggested that modern Britain now has seven social classes, with an economically vulnerable, socially and culturally excluded ‘precariat’ on the lowest rung.
For such a class-riddled society, some say, banning caste discrimination is hypocritical. Labels like ‘elite’, ‘working class’ and ‘precariat’ are just as harmful and restricting as ‘Brahmin’ and ‘untouchable’: class should belong in the past.
Not so, say others: even the most modern societies have different levels of privilege, and refusing to put labels on them won’t make them go away. Class has an impact on your identity and opportunities, wherever you live – if we want more equal opportunities, the first step is to honestly admit that they don’t yet exist.
- Is social class still relevant in your country?
- ‘Caste discrimination is racism in all but name.’ Do you agree?
- Have a go at the BBC’s class survey. How useful and relevant do you think these new definitions are?
- In the feudal system, society was thought of as a pyramid with the monarch at the top and peasants at the bottom. Draw a diagram depicting class in your society – what shape do you think it would be?
Some People Say...
“The way people get their living determines their social outlook.’ Karl Marx”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Isn’t class just a British thing?
- It’s true that Britain is generally thought of as a society which is particularly preoccupied by class. But all societies have social groups with differing opportunities and expectations, whether those divisions are determined by a person’s career, their income, their education or a title that they hold – or a mixture of all of those things.
- But class is irrelevant to my life.
- Are you sure? Think about the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the language you use and the jobs you expect to have when you are older. Can you honestly say that none of these things are affected by your family background? Most people would agree that class is more complicated than it once was, but that doesn’t mean it has stopped existing altogether.
- Caste system
- Although India’s is by far the most famous, this term describes any society that divides people into distinct social groups at their birth. The name comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word ‘casta’.
- These are the four broad categories which each caste falls into. Within each there may be many different castes, which vary from region to region and sometimes overlap.
- The lowest castes in Indian society were considered dirty, and for this reason contact between them and higher castes was forbidden. This is where the term ‘untouchable’ comes from, although it is now considered extremely offensive, and ‘Dalit’ is usually preferred. In Britain, around 400,000 people are descended from Dalit families.
- An adaptation of the Greek word ‘proletariat’, which has been used since the 19th Century to describe the working classes. ‘Precariat’ is a new coinage, which is supposed to imply a precarious social and economic position.