The Hindu caste system has emerged as a political issue in the final days leading up to the U.K. election Thursday, after a British Hindu group published a letter urging its supporters to vote for the Conservative party over its stance on legislation about caste discrimination. The letter by the U.K.’s National Council of Hindu Temples argued that the opposition Labour Party’s attempts to outlaw discrimination in the country on the basis of caste amounted to religious persecution of Britain’s Hindu, Sikh and Jain minority communities.
“British Hindus, Sikhs and Jains voting for Labour is now like turkeys voting for Christmas,” according to the letter penned by NCHT General Secretary Satish K. Sharma. “The Tories are the only party which will not make caste discrimination a punishable offence.”
A proposed amendment to the U.K.’s 2010 Equality law ensuring that caste discrimination is outlawed has divided the rival parties, with Labour pushing to have the controversial amendment passed, while some Conservative legislators have argued that existing legislation sufficiently addressed the issue.
The religious group, the oldest umbrella organization for Britain’s Hindu community, has vocally opposed including caste protections in the law, claiming that the issue was not applicable in the country and would "effectively introduce a caste system here in the U.K.” In the background, however, are concerns that the legislation would subject Hindus and other Dharmic-faith communities to accusations of caste discrimination.
While the NCHT claims to represent the country’s estimated 565,000 Hindus, the subject of caste protections is just as divisive within Britain’s Hindu community. The letter’s publication has exposed rifts over the sensitive issue, which had already been sparking debates at local temples, with some publicly condemning the letter for being inflammatory.
In response, the country’s charity commission lodged a protest with the NCHT shortly after the caste letter was posted to its site this week over concerns that it breached guidelines on political campaigning by nonpartisan charities. The Hindu group eventually removed the letter from the site.
The caste system, which remains a feature of Indian society today, has been heavily criticized for enforcing systems of inequality between different caste groups, with dalits, the lowest caste, continuing to face widespread discrimination in the country. This inequality has carried over into Britain among Indian communities, where dalits have been found to face discrimination in education, employment and in obtaining public services, according to two government-commissioned reports.