A lecture given by Anil Bhanot OBE at the International Cultural Symposium 10th to 12th July 2013, London, held by the International Cultural Diplomacy Institute (ICD).
Multi culture in Britain became first institutionalised through the Inter Faith Network which was established in 1988. Although multi culture was developing at the ground level with the immigrant population, there wasn’t a sense of British ownership of it. That came through when immigrants were engaged in policy making through the Inter Faith Network, an independent but Government supported body.
Faith is at the heart of any culture and what is even more important is that Faith brings with it passion, which seeks to preserve that distinctive culture at any cost. This is not to discount the more secular multi culture developing like the Notting Hill Carnival or the Indian or Chinese cuisines and now the Asian Mela’s and so on but there are many specific cultural habits due primarily to one’s faith and to preserve those habits people can be very passionate about, so much so that when other people don’t understand them simply by virtue of their being ‘different’ then it can lead to tensions in society. Inter Faith activities of course then work to make those distinctions more accepting and harmonic. This is where the Inter faith Network comprising of all the major Faith umbrella bodies in the UK worked to respect each other’s mutually exclusive differences so as to appease out any conflicts in the wider British society.
In 2002 came a Directive from the European Union to make religious discrimination illegal in employment law. Thus statutory guidelines to supplement the UK’s Employment laws were developed so that nobody could be discriminated or harassed or victimised on the grounds of their religion or belief, which incidentally included Paganism and the secular Humanism beliefs also. We already had a structure of all the major faith umbrella bodies so each faith body provided their own faith specific guidelines. From the Hindu Council UK I worked with ACAS, the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, a Government Agency and the Home Office. ACAS developed these guidelines for different religious festivals, different food habits like Vegetarian or Halal or Kosher, different bereavement observations among religions and so on. Then once the law came into effect the employers developed the diversity policies in their HR departments.
To give you an example one Hindu employee was asked to remove a tiny nose pin by her employers on grounds of health and safety. She wrote to me explaining that the nose pin was worn as part of her wedding ceremony, which she holds sacred, and that it’s a tiny pin which could not breach any health and safety issues. I agreed with her and thought this was a case of discrimination or harassment at work for simply being different, culturally or faith wise or even at a secular level – the nose pin was harmless. So we represented her case from Hindu Council UK and the employer relented and allowed her to keep wearing her nose pin. More recently there was a similar case where a Christian employee won her right to wear a small cross as a British Airways employee. So these laws, these EU led guidelines, are really not just to protect people’s faiths and cultures but sometimes to uphold just good old common sense values.
When I say common sense I mean that sometimes political correctness is taken too far. If I can perhaps remind some of you how some local councils here seeking to ban Christmas decorations in their offices, gave their reason that it may offend other religions. Well all of us the non-Christian faith leaders came out and lent our unconditional support for the Christmas festivities. I don’t know a Hindu family here who does not celebrate Christmas. Likewise I see now the host communities in different parts of the UK joining in the Diwali and Holi celebrations. In fact I have had my accountancy clients who might be coming to see me around Rakhi time remarking how wonderful the custom is and almost being enviable that they don’t have such a custom. Having said that, last year we had a complaint at Hindu Council from a parent whose child was asked to remove the Rakhi after one week in a Slough school, we didn’t understand the fuss but when our Education Director spoke to the Headmaster and our director, being a woman, offered to tie a Rakhi on the headmaster’s wrist he immediately melted and apologised for being a stickler. This is multi-culture at its best.
However on the other side of this argument Multi Culture can go completely off the rails and that is when we must evaluate it to our values as a nation and bring it in line with what we hold as dear. For instance we worked on the incitement to religious hatred bill in 2003/2004 but it took many years before it came to the statute books in 2008 because there were some concerns about how this act will allow religion to curtail one’s freedom of expression, a value that is dear to us as a nation. The comedians especially were worried that they would not be able to tell satirical jokes or poke fun at religion. But the reality was that this law was about religious hatred, hate attacks, like anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, by the far right groups. The Race Relations Act had the provision for incitement to racial hatred so under these race laws a religion could also be protected so long as a religious group belonged to one race. Jews qualified as one race and so for anti-semitism attacks they were protected under tho incitement to racial hatred provisions in the Race Acts. But Muslims were from a multitude of races so they were not protected for the Islamophobia attacks, under this Race Act provision. In fact I found out that Sikhs were also protected as one race yet Hindus were not. I tried to argue that Hindus are from an unbroken ancient civilisation who do not proselytise so we were of one race. But the official position was that Hindus too comprise of different races, Aryan, Dravidian and in Nepal and Bali with other race mixes. So the legislation on incitement to religious hatred was needed as a separate Act to protect all religions which were otherwise not covered under the Race laws. But to make sure this new act could be used for religious hatred only the bar was set very high for a case to come to court and only after the Attorney General’s approval. Thus the freedom of expression, a value that is dear to us as a nation, was preserved.
But what is this freedom of expression, when it comes face to face with religion? Different religions in Britain will have different notions of it but let me give you my opinion. If I can illustrate it with an example: the MF Hussain exhibition, an Indian Artist, came to the UK in 2006. This exhibition portrayed a few paintings of some Hindu icons and deities in nude and there was uproar among the British Hindus here. The exhibition was taken off. Some people said then that the artist’s freedom of expression is violated. I argued that although we must be free to offend others through free expression it must have a selfless purpose and also not one that is tarnished by self-interest or a commercial gain. Once this self-interest comes into play then you have a responsibility towards those who already have a stake in your art-work and in this case it’s the silent Hindu who culturally reveres those icons or deities. So MF Hussain’s freedom of expression, in this regard at least, is limited to only those who want to enjoy his titillation, but he loses his right to exhibit such pieces on a public platform. To have that right to offend others, unconditionally, I think in addition to a selfless cause, the case ought to undergo another test which is that the art-work should be absolutely ‘original’, and not merely variations on an existing canvas which other people already have an ‘ownership’ of. Simply put, once self-interest creeps in then the artist’s right to offend through freedom of expression is compromised.
So our British values are tested and evaluated with imports from outside Britain and sometimes in the name of multi culture but we do have systems, networks and institutions here which can democratically challenge those imports when they don’t sit right with our core value system.
A couple of weeks ago for instance seven men of Pakistani origin were jailed for sexually grooming young white girls. There are of course a lot many more other white males involved in such rackets too but at a multi faith multi cultural level this practice by some confused men is a matter of shame because these men while enjoying the multi faith hospitality of Britain they abused young innocent white girls and more importantly non-Muslim girls. Sikh and Hindu girls have been abused too by such groups. Last year a group of us went to see the Children’s commissioner to highlight our plight. A Sikh parent while telling his story about his daughter ended up in tears. This is multi culture at its worst. But immediately after the seven men were jailed two weeks ago 500 Mosques took the action to give a Friday sermon to condemn such behaviour, and for recognising this problem to be faith related both Lord Indarjit Singh from the Network of Sikh Organisations and I from the Hindu Council UK issued a statement congratulating the Muslim leadership on their timely message. Once we recognise the root of the problem only then we can hope to resolve it.
Another recent problem this spring we have had is with the inclusion of the word ‘Caste’ in the Equality Act which will make it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on their caste. I should have no problem with that per se, but the fact of the matter is that here in the UK we have moved far away from Caste distinctions, and to bring in a law I believe would only promote and entrench caste divisions. Our younger generations find their own matches now, and certainly they prefer their partners from here in the UK as simply British Hindus; they are rarely aware of the caste distinctions. A growing number of inter-caste, and I may add inter-state like Panjabi and Gujarati marriages, and also inter-faith marriages are commonplace now. Many still however prefer to marry within their caste but that does not mean that they discriminate against other castes. Marriage is about commonalities. My point is that caste matters less now and hierarchy is non-existent here.
Once again really this issue was first imported from India by the Christian Dalit groups in India who could not get reservation rights for jobs and education as accorded to the Hindu and Sikh Dalit Castes in a 26% quota system. Christian Dalits wanted a change in the Indian law to give them the same automatic rights on the 26% quota system but the Indian Government refused to change the law, and rightly so, since that way the caste problem will run into perpetuity. On one hand they could convert on grounds of freeing the Dalits from caste and then claim public benefits on account of caste. Anyway around 2001 the All India Dalit Christian Council came to Europe to help internationalise the issue with the hope that legislation in Europe will show to the Indian Government that there is no escape from the Caste system, that it is like race, and the reservation quota should apply to all Dalits whatever their religion. They set up an All Party Parliamentary Group, APPG for Dalits with the Christian Revd. Lord Harries as its Chairman. In the last decade these Christian Dalit groups led by Rev. David Haslam went to the Ravidassyia and Valmiki Temples and started raising an awareness of Dalit discrimination. That is fine, I have no problem with that but their motives behind this campaign were unsavoury to say the least. Rev. David Haslam used to preach that the problem is with the Hindu religion. Initially in Southall I know that the Ravidassyia and Valmiki communities rejected these Christian Dalit activists like Meena Verma, they even rejected the tag ‘Dalit’, but over the years the Christian Dalits’ relentless campaign has paid off and they have created divisions in our Hindu and Sikh societies. They managed to find and report a few cases, 32 in total of which 9 were inconclusive and of others 23 cases, mainly of the first generation Sikh Jatt farmer caste who may have discriminated against the Panjabi Ravidassiya or Valmiki community members. That is of course unacceptable. Nobody should suffer caste hierarchical humiliation; these are our own people, it’s heartbreaking. However the cases showed that the problem is contained in a tiny pocket of the Panjabi community only. It is not sufficient therefore to lay a legislation affecting the entire Hindu and Sikh population of 1.5 million, where the caste distinctions are blurring already.
The argument that even one case of discrimination is one too many is also fine but legislation is not the answer and simply because a few cases would end up dividing the entire community, rather educating the small number of offenders would be the best option which has been the Government’s view. But Lord Harries argued that education may blur caste definitions – I can only surmise that he must be expecting many litigation cases for which castes in their old defined categories would become a prime requisite. This is almost like the colonial ‘divide and rule’ policies after the 1857 war or mutiny of the 19th century when Caste schedules were created and divisions entrenched. I am mindful to say that the Government Minister Helen Grant, perhaps belonging to the Afro-Caribbean race, understood race relations more for being so vociferous in proposing the ‘education’ policy to deal with the offending pockets in our society.
Just like the India’s Christian Dalits the Lords argued that caste is like race. Well it is not like race. Caste is an intra-cultural classification within a race, whereas race is visibly a distinct phenomenon between different sets of people. Whilst race laws protect one set of people from another set, the caste laws could potentially destroy a community from within.
Before the caste schedules of the 19th century, caste was to some extent still partially fluid. For instance the surname Verma in UP is Dalit (as for the Christian Dalit activist Meena Verma) but in Panjab it is Khatri. Persad is a Brahmin surname but you can find it among Dalits also (as the Ravidassyia activist Mr Devinder Persad). This showed that social mobility did bring a change in people’s castes. Notwithstanding the fact that under the Mughal oppression many noble and courageous Hindus who refused to convert were crushed to be Dalits and do menial tasks like scavenging, and a new word ‘Dalit’ was coined from ‘crushed’ at that time. Later under the British Raj it was the census data categorised by caste which created a more defined structure. Likewise legislation here could necessitate caste profiling when applying for jobs. Is that what we want here is the UK in the 21st century? What is even more alarming is that to drum up emotion for the legislation, the Noble Lords quoted over-inflated figures of Dalits in the UK, some 480,000, whereas the real number would not exceed 80,000, including the Christian Dalits.
Baroness Flather, a secular Indian and anti-faith by her own admission, gave examples of caste discrimination 60 years ago that she was banned from entering her family kitchen for she’d pollute the food. I have heard of young women in menstruation, before the time of sanitary towels and fridges, being restricted so maybe due to unforeseen accidents but for food I only see homes in Delhi with maids from poor families, probably Dalit – nobody asks or cares for their castes anymore – and these maids do most of the cooking. As for her remark on Brahmin cooks to imply some elitism in cleanliness you can still find only Brahmin priest cooks preparing temple or ceremonial food, perhaps because they themselves are strict vegetarians, and so considered most suitable to prepare temple food, but it is these same Brahmins who go around ‘serving’ this food to the devotees at ceremonial events and including to the so called Dalit devotees – of course all are welcome at any temple in the UK. Is this some discriminatory practice? No, it is a show of humility and equality instead. Even India has moved on from the 60 years the Baroness would have been referring to and the Indian Government has been doing much to lift the Dalits out of poverty, although a lot more still needs to be done. The Lords debate on 4th March here explicitly mentioned the 200 million Dalits in India, as a justification of some sort, to legislate here. Excuse me? Do we make laws here for us or for other countries?
Lord Avebury, who come across as almost ideologically committed to legislation, I was hardly surprised to see supporting a banner outside the House of Lords in April stating: ‘Caste is Evil’, but it seemed to have cottoned on to by the opposition’s Labour Minister who in the House of Commons actually proclaimed, “Caste is evil”. Ten years ago Rev David Haslam had started preaching, ‘Hinduism is a problem’ and now the slogan had turned into ‘Caste is Evil’. No, caste is not evil, caste is benign; it’s caste discrimination only that is evil. It’s untouchability in particular that is evil. But the Ravidassyia and Valmiki communities here are neither Dalit nor untouchable; they are our proud brothers and sisters. They are equal to all. We love them as our own. Caste’s high and lows – hierarchy – are its corruption but by itself Caste is benign for it avoids social exclusion and loneliness. All the Sikh Gurus rejected caste hierarchy – Jaat Paat – yet they all married within their own caste. The old caste structure was set on a ‘care and compassion’ principle for all, not discrimination. Evidence shows that it became discriminatory to Dalits in particular under the Mughal oppression and the Colonial Rule when India’s vast resources were depleted out of the country so much so that under the British Raj India saw its first famines, ever. But as for Baroness Flather’s referring to herself as polluting the food we at Hindu Council UK did many religious processions at the end of which the food prepared by Ravidassyia and Valmiki temples everyone part-took and it was always delicious. However now that these divisions are set in our society here I dare not even approach them to do the same.
The Lords debate was stuck in a past time-warp, and it will serve to take us back in time if the legislation does get implemented. It has already harmed the Hindu and Sikh society as far as I can see. But for the moment we understand the legislation will sit idly on the statute books until after a full consultation has been had with the communities affected. In a representative democracy like in Britain legislation can only work through proper consultation, otherwise it can harm the harmonic multi cultural fabric of our very dynamic British society.
Finally, if I can end on a Hindu Vedic precept: Vasudevaye Kutumbkam, an often quoted precept which means the world is one family. Whilst I may have the odd jibe at Colonialism its positive effect on globalisation cannot be underestimated. With the ensuing immigration came multi culture and there is already talk of us living in a global village. But what we really need to work towards is developing a global family, where compassion comes into play. Ultimately the harmony will come when we all identify with similar values across nations. The litmus test of a nation’s values can be measured by how well it treats its minorities but without compromising the majority. I believe Britain scores well in that.
[Since the lecture a couple of lines on the Caste section above were inserted for clarity]
Anil Bhanot OBE
Hindu Council UK
12 July 2013