All 1 Debates between Baroness Flather and Lord Singh of Wimbledon

Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill

Debate between Baroness Flather and Lord Singh of Wimbledon
Monday 4th March 2013

(11 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words as the only person here to belong to a caste. As far as I know, there is no other Hindu in the Chamber.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon
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Yes, there is. There is the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I apologise to the noble Lord. We know very well what a terrible and shameful thing the caste system is for us Indians. Two issues are the most shameful in Hindu culture—caste and dowry. Both have significant effects on people. Dowry leads to the aborting of girl foetuses and the killing of girl children. Caste puts people down; a whole group of people are there to do the worst jobs that no one else will do. That can never be right.

The problem is that Hindus are discriminating against other Hindus. Very few British people understand the caste system or even know what caste means, other than that there are higher and lower castes. Hindus in this country discriminate against lower-caste Hindus. That is so appalling and unacceptable that I cannot understand how it can be allowed to go on. In India, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the caste system is getting worse, not better. When India became independent in 1947 and Gandhi started a campaign to allow lower-caste people to do all different levels of work, we all thought that by now there would be no caste system in that country. There was a great hope that the caste system would die out. It has not done so but has got worse. People have killed their own children because they have married a person in a different caste. There are organisations in Delhi that find and bring back young people who run away from their villages to escape the wrath of their parents. They pick them up and bring them to their parents, who have them killed. It is not a joke in India. It is horrible.

We have heard that there are laws in India, Bengal, Bangladesh and Nepal. Those laws are not enforced. No one cares about them, and a few rupees will buy you the willingness of anyone from a different caste to help out, so there is no question of the laws being effective. That also applies to the laws against dowry and aborting girl babies. None of those laws is enforced. A law that is not enforced is of no use whatever.

If we were to pass the amendment, we would be making the clearest statement that society can make that such behaviour is unacceptable in this country. We also need to state to our own people, the Hindus: “You cannot come here and behave as if you are in India because there are laws here that will be enforced and will not be overlooked”. I know how some children were treated in schools when I was teaching. That was some years ago, and things have got worse, not better. Unfortunately, there are Hindu organisations that are against the amendment and feel that it is targeting them and saying that high-caste Hindus are the ones to blame. Well, they are to blame if this discrimination happens, because they start it. I hope that today noble Lords will accept this amendment. It is a very small thing, but it will mean a lot to 400,000 people.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon
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My Lords, speaking from a Sikh perspective, I give my full support to the amendment. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, taught, “Ask not a person’s caste but look to the inner light within”. At a time when even the shadow of a lower caste person was said to pollute the food of a higher caste, he instituted the system of langar, where people of all religions and social backgrounds were, and are, welcomed to share a gurdwara meal. The historic Golden Temple in Amritsar, recently visited by the Prime Minister, has, as he will have noticed, four doors at its sides, signifying a welcome to all people regardless of religion or supposed social difference.

Emphasis on the equal dignity of all human beings is central to Sikh teachings. I was slightly bemused by the readiness of some, including ministerial advisors I have met—and we see the same misinformation in the ministerial statement—to display their ignorance of basic Sikh teachings and, in a near-colonial way, to conflate caste, class and all undesirable social discrimination and religions on the subcontinent in the word “caste”. Attitudes of superiority and inferiority are found in all societies. We should remember the media headline “Prince William marries a commoner”.

Caste has a very precise meaning attached to practices associated with the Hindu faith. It has its origin in the desire of the Aryan conquerors of the subcontinent in pre-Vedic times to establish a hierarchy of importance, with priests at the top followed by warriors, those engaged in commerce and then those engaged in more menial tasks. The conquered indigenous people were considered lower than the lowest caste. Accident of birth alone determined a person’s caste. Sadly, thousands of years latter, and despite legislation by the Indian Government, which has been referred to, this hierarchy of importance still lingers on.

I have gone into detail because it is important to understand what we are talking about when we discuss discrimination on grounds of caste. It is discrimination arising from supposed Hindu religious belief, but what passes for religion is not always all it seems. Caste in no way relates to underlying and uplifting ethical Hindu teachings. It is simply questionable culture that has, over the years, managed to attach itself to Hinduism in much the same way as discrimination against women—

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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The caste system was established very early in Hinduism. The Sanskrit for caste is “varna”, which is also the word for colour. The noble Lord mentioned the Aryan conquerors, who were supposed to be lighter skinned. They wanted a division not only on the basis of who would do what but on the basis of colour.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon
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I thank the noble Baroness for that. I repeat: caste in no way relates to underlying and uplifting ethical Hindu teachings. It is simply questionable culture that has, over the years, managed to attach itself to Hinduism in much the same way as discrimination against women is seen by some as part of their faith.

The Sikh gurus were acutely aware of such negative cultural practices, and they openly discussed and criticised the prevalence of rituals, superstitions and cultural practices contrary to underlying ethical teachings. At a time when all religions all around the world were emphasising difference and exclusivity, the Sikh gurus stressed the importance of showing respect for sister faiths. The fifth guru, Guru Arjan, showed his respect for Islam by asking a Muslim saint, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple. The ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadhur, gave his life defending the right of Hindus to freedom of worship at a time of forced conversion by the Mogul rulers. At the same time, the gurus taught that people of all faiths must respect fundamental human rights and the equality of all people, including full gender equality.

While I have the greatest respect for a sister faith, I also believe that Hinduism without the old-fashioned concept of caste will be infinitely stronger. Similar negative cultural clutter exists in all our different faiths. Its removal would help religions work together for a fairer society, and it is in that spirit that I support this amendment.