- Home Secretary Theresa Mayconsidering whether to add the ancient Indian class system to British equality law
By Andy Dolan
Last updated at 11:50 AM on 18th August 2011
An Indian couple who met at a legal firm have become the first in Britain to claim ‘caste’ discrimination, saying they were forced from their jobs following their marriage.
An employment tribunal was told that solicitor Amardeep Begraj, 33, was from a higher caste than her husband Vijay, 32, the practice manager.
He belonged to the Dalits, formerly known as the Untouchables because of the nature of their work in roles such as cleaning, pest control or scavenging, and the lowest class of people according to the ancient Indian caste system.
Hand in hand: Amardeep Begraj and her husband Vijay are pictured outside the tribunal in Birmingham
Mrs Begraj has told the tribunal that a senior colleague warned her against marrying Mr Begraj because people of his caste were ‘different creatures’, while he was told his position at the firm was ‘compromised’.
The case throws a spotlight on how the hereditary caste system, for centuries used to categorise people according to occupation or social standing in India, has gained a foothold in a contemporary Britain where five per cent of the population originates from the sub-continent.
ANCIENT CASTE SYSTEM HAS STRONG ROOTS IN BRITAIN TODAY
Datingback to at least 1500BC there are dozens of different castes based on race and religion, with most of these represented across Britain.
Despitebeing outlawed in the Indian constitution during the last decade, experts say it is increasingly becoming a source of identity for young people today.
Children at a rural Dalit school in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh
For example Britain’s hugely popular banghra music scene was created by Jats, who were originally rural people who composed this type of music to celebrate the harvest in India.
Whilethe Brahmins, generally considered the highest caste because they were the most educated, hold meetings and group events so people can meet andmarry.
Home Secretary Theresa may is considering whether to add protection to those discriminated because of their caste to existing safeguards governing race, sex, religion and sexuality in British equality law.
Five Law Lords last year inserted a clause into the Single Equalities Act, passed just before the election, giving the Government power to forbid caste discrimination.
But the issue was then referred for public consultation and the Coalition is now considering responses.
Mrs Begraj, a Sikh, belongs to the Jat caste, an agrarian people from the Punjab. She and her husband met when both worked at Coventry-based solicitors Heer Manak and began dating four years later.
Mrs Begraj told the Birmingham tribunal she was warned by a senior colleague. ‘he said I should reconsider the step I was taking of marrying Vijay because people of his caste were different creatures. Marriage would be very different from dating. Vijay was told a number of times that his position had been compromised for entering into a relationship with me.’
She also claimed that her workload increased and secretarial support was reduced ‘as a punishment’, and she was paid less than colleagues.
The couple married at a Gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, three years ago, when a colleague raised a toast to ‘Jat girls going down the drain’.
When the couple had their first child, the firm did not send flowers, although this was standard practice.
Mr Begraj, who worked as a practice manager for the firm for seven years, was sacked last year. His wife resigned in January.
Last year the couple briefed a committee of the House of Lords, which swayed them to insert the clause in the legislation recognising caste discrimination. A subsequent newspaper story led to the couple’s car windscreen being smashed.
The tribunal will also rule on whether they were discriminated against on grounds of religion or race. Mr Begraj is claiming wrongful dismissal and his wife is claiming unfair constructive dismissal.
The firm’s management are said to consider the couple’s claims outrageous.
The tribunal continues.