On 21 December 2014, the Sunday Times newspaper printed an article by the title “Cameron ‘blocks ban on caste bias'”. The article cites unnamed senior Whitehall sources who say that David Cameron has blocked a proposal to extend the discrimination laws to cover caste, thus depriving some 200,000 people of Nepalese or Indian origin of legal protection. The writer of the article is Marie Woolf, Whitehall editor. The article is rather short on any real detail, but she presumably has the Equality Act 2010 in mind, which indeed does have a provision on caste that, after a 2013 amendment, obliges ministers to implement the provision. The article goes on to refer to Cameron being “accused by [unnamed] critics of bowing to a powerful ‘vested interest’ and wealthy Hindu businessmen who oppose the move.” The final paragraph of the same article cites Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society as saying that “The government has been directed to introduce anti-discrimination legislation by parliament and the UN. For it to defy both can only be explained by conflict with a strong vested interest.”
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The question is what exactly it is. Is there some “vested interest” which is blocking the government’s obligation to implement a law that it should have? If so, is there a link between that interest and the mentioned “wealthy Hindu businessmen” to whom Cameron is bowing? We are none the wiser after reading the article, which hangs on a cloak and dagger-ish tone, but provides no detail. Instead, it is accusation by innuendo and smacks of some vested interest behind the article itself. It may not go unnoticed that “Asians” is the usual wording when reporting stories of child abuse, but here the misdemeanour is unequivocally committed by Hindus.
The National Secular Society has taken an oddly keen interest in the Equality Act’s provision on caste and it argues vehemently for its implementation, as the Sunday Times article testifies, and as further digging into its adopted positions on the same provision confirms. It is unclear whether we should classify the Society as having a “vested interest” on the caste question because the identity of its dog in the fight about the UK legislation it is far from clear. One could ask, for instance, why an article on the caste legislation does not instead cite the views of one of the Dalit organisations, like the Dalit Solidarity Network-UK or the International Dalit Solidarity Network, which have agitated for the legislation and orchestrated propaganda being touted as ‘research’ on caste based discrimination, both before and since the legislation. Or it could have cited one of the Churches who have a role in backing and funding these Dalit organisations because of their “vested interest” in opening the door further to proselytism in India by using UK law as a way of pressuring the Indian government to open up caste quotas to Dalit Christians. It could even have cited any of the parliamentarians who supported the introduction of the caste clause, especially in the Labour party, perhaps even an Asian peer to add authenticity and spice in the same quip.
Instead, we have to make do with the insipid righteousness of the National Secular Society. Digging further into the website of the Secular Society, we find that some of those very same people, who have spoken in Parliament in support of the caste provision appear among its list of Honourary Associates, including Lord Avebury, Lord Cashman, and Baroness Flather. Could it be that the “vested interests” pushing for the inclusion and implementation of the caste provision see fit to use the vehicle of the Secular Society as a way of covering their tracks, which lead back to the Churches’ agenda of proselytism in India and beyond? In fact, we know from the work of Jakob de Roover and Martin Farek that the very idea of a caste system can be tracked back to the Christian theological writings about India’s ‘false religion’. Its subsequent incorporation into the secular social sciences has led to it assuming the status of the explanation for Indian social structure, so much so that any ‘fact’ about Indian society must refer back to that explanation. This is what gives life to the kind of atrocity stories to which Dalit and Church organisations, joined by the National Secular Society, make constant reference.
Digging even further reveals that the wording of “vested interests” may also derive from the Society’s own briefing of May 2013 on the caste provision. Referring to the period just prior to the 2013 amendment being adopted, that briefing states:
The National Secular Society also expressed its concern that the Government’s reluctance to provide important legal protection to vulnerable British citizens from the South Asian communities may have been unduly influenced by Hindu organisations with vested interests.
So it appears we have the curious phenomenon of the Society being, having, representing, or acting as a cover for, “vested interests” pointing to yet other “vested interests”, composed of some unnamed Hindu organisations. Perhaps the Society would like to clarify just which organisations it has in mind by this reference and while doing so it might also clarify whether those vested interests are legitimate or illegitimate. Pending any such clarification, one must presume from the tone and context of the briefing that these Hindu organisations do not have legitimate interests.
The implication of the statement, whose resemblance to the wording adopted in the Sunday Times article is noticeably striking, perhaps needs to be clarified further. The fact is that several Indian (not only Hindu) organisations have opposed the caste provision in the Equality Act on the ground no research establishes the existence of the caste discrimination; that if there is such a problem then non-legal ways should be found to solve it; that the provision presupposes the Western construct of caste which makes no sense to Indians and cannot in any case be implemented; that the operation of the provision will have damaging consequences for Indian businesses and employers and community organisations, and thus to the economic and associational life of the Indian communities in the UK; that the real agenda is to further entrench the proselytism agenda of the Churches in India and so on. Ignoring the serious concerns about the legislation, its context and consequences for the Indian communities in the UK, the National Secular Society takes a particular position on it, perhaps not untypical of other such campaigning organisations: present information in such a skewed way that only one’s own “vested interest” is promoted, and ignore that any other voice may have reasonable position, especially if it is Hindu. And this is what the position paper of May 2013 goes on to do. Its writer seems convinced that a caste system exists in India described in the manner of Dalit propaganda, using many contrived ‘atrocity stories’, buying into the Orientalist construction of the caste system; that caste discrimination is rife in Britain, presenting existing ‘studies’ on the matter as if they are beyond doubt; that legislation is a necessary means to solve any problems and so on. Since that is the agenda it is moored to, it must dismiss Hindu “vested interests” as necessarily amounting to the banging of their own drum and which therefore should not be taken seriously. Turkeys of course would not vote for Christmas, would they? If Hindus organisations bang their own drum to cover up discrimination, then what value should one put on the National Secular Society’s stand, which bangs the drum for the Churches for whose interests it acts as a cover?
In so adopting its stance, the National Secular Society compromises its own principle of operation. The Society’s website sees ‘secularism’ as involving two basic propositions: “The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.” It may be reasonable to suppose then that the society supports a secular state. In this sense, it is not that different from those secularists in India, who also defend the secular state in that country. As Balagangadhara and De Roover have argued with respect to the case of India, the secular state cannot but be partial either to the vision of the Semitic religions characterized by necessary rivalry regarding doctrinal truth and the necessity of bringing over others to that truth by proselytism and conversion, or the view of the Indian traditions whose practitioners see no such rivalry and refuse to endorse conversion on the ground that the claims of the Semitic religions are destructive of their own continued existence. Despite the claims made by its advocates, therefore, a secular state cannot be neutral as between either of the positions, since it must take a position for or against one or the other. Similarly, the stance taken by the National Secular Society, demonstrates that secularist practice ends up being partial to the Churches’ account of religious rivalry, the inevitable end of which must be the destruction of pagan traditions, among which one may include the Indian traditions. Not only that; the National Secular Society also compromises on the first of the propositions characterizing secularism because it does not in fact support the separation of state policy from the agenda of the Churches but, in fact, it endorses that agenda. The trope of the caste system and its suppression is a mere accessory to this aim.
Director of GLOCUL: Centre for Culture and Law, Queen Mary University of London