INDIA’S age-old caste system electrified the election campaign this week after an “urgent” Charity Commission probe into a Hindu charity was launched two days before voters went to the polls.
The National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) was accused of “breaching” the commission’s guidelines on Tuesday (5) by urging Hindus to vote for the Conservative party.
In an open letter published on the organisation’s website on Sunday (3), Satish K Sharma, general secretary, said: “The Tories are the only party which will not make caste discrimination a punishable offence.”
The Labour party has taken a diametrically opposing view to outlawing caste discrimination. A spokesperson for the Charity Comission told Eastern Eye on Tuesday it was aware of the letter posted on the NCHT website, and would be “contacting the charity to establish the facts of this matter as a matter of urgency”.
The NCHT open letter said: “Please note once again that this legislation [outlawing caste discrimination] has been instigated, supported and sustained by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat party, and both are now on record as confirming they will bring this legislation into force immediately.”
According to Sharma, the Conservatives were also the only party which had “consistently listened” to the Hindu community and whose members were “committed to repealing the caste amendment if re-elected”.
“British Hindus, Sikhs and Jains voting for Labour is now like turkeys voting for Christmas,” the letter said.
Barry Gardiner, chair of Labour Friends of India told EE: “Passing legislation to outlaw discrimination in the workplace on the basis of caste sends an important message of reassurance to anyone who may be coming to this country from the subcontinent.
Such discrimination will not be tolerated here. This is not something to be resisted.”
The Liberal Democrats have also “explicitly set out plans to outlaw caste discrimination” in their manifesto. “We reject any notion that the circumstances of someone’s birth should determine their future role in society, and would like to state as a matter of fact that the comments made by the National Council of Hindu Temples are quite simply not true,” a spokesperson for the party said.
Liberal Democrat peer Navnit Dholakia, told an audience at the recent EE election debate that he was personally against using a legislative process to deal with the issue of caste. He said it was the role of community leaders to investigate whether there was an issue and deal with the problem themselves.
The publication of the letter, which many in the community described as inflammatory, has exposed divisions among British Indians over the contentious issue of caste discrimination.
Others who have voiced astonishment at the move from the Hindu organisation said they believed Asian voters were more interested in issues such as housing, the NHS and worker’s wages.
The Charity Comission spokesperson said: “Charity Commission guidance on campaigning and political activity makes clear that a charity must not give its support to any political party or candidate and that all charities must ensure that their independence is maintained, and perceptions of independence are not adversely affected.”
What action should be taken will be decided once the charity responded, the commission said.
In the letter, which is addressed to “all members of the dharmic faiths & members of all British religious traditions,” Sharma said the NCHT had “remained fiercely distant from and independent of the political arena”, yet recent “sequence of acts of religious persecution of British Hindus by the parliamentary Labour party” prompted him to change the council’s stand.
The organisation acts as an umbrella group to Hindu temples and faith groups across the UK. Sharma went on to explain how Labour “had not listened to or come to the defence of Hindu, Sikh and Jains in the UK” by supporting changes to legislation making caste discrimination a punishable offence.
“Please note that this legislation, produced without genuine consultation with the targeted religious minority communities, is tantamount to religious persecution of Hindus, Sikhs & Jains and is in breach of the human rights of the minority Dharmic communities,” he said.
“This is NOT a recommendation for members of the Dharmic communities to vote for a particular party, but it would be unfair not to recognise that the Conservative party is the only principal party which has rejected the process whereby this legislation was forced thru [sic].
“The Conservative Party is the only party which has consistently listened to us and voted against this legislation and whose members are committed to repealing the caste amendment if re-elected.”
Sharma concluded the letter by urging the Hindu community to vote on Thursday (7) and consider how many Dharmic schools had opened under the coalition government compared to how few were approved under the previous government.
Sunny Hundal, a writer and journalist, who made a complaint to the Charity Commission, told EE: “I’m astonished that the NCHT is making such a statement, given that charity law and the lobbying act specifically forbids charities from making politically partisan statements.
“This was a law the Conservatives themselves passed and carry on. Hindu families across the UK will be much more interested in bread and butter issues such as housing, the NHS and wages, rather than getting involved in political campaigning from someone who is a member of the Conservative Friends of India.”
Under current legislation, discrimination on the basis of caste is not expressly prohibited in the UK. However, section 9 of the Equality Act 2010, requires the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race, thereby making caste discrimination a form of race discrimination.
The government previously indicated that this legislation would be introduced to parliament during this summer. Anil Bhanot, managing director of Hindu Council UK, said while Hindu organisations should facilitate debate through their manifestos to encourage voter participation and Hindu representation, they should not directly influence the voter to choose one party over the other.
“Some organisations are using the word dharma to suggest one party to be dharmic and another to be adharmic. Such an imposition makes a mockery of dharma.
The Hindu community is rightly upset about the caste legislation as it will put our communities in ‘boxes’ and can divide us, but dharma stands supreme to enable us not to let that happen, to keep our unity by our own dharmic behaviour of respecting others,” he added.
A spokesperson for BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden said: “We have been and remain apolitical. We have devotees who support different political parties. We are not part of the NCHT.”
The NCHT did not respond to a request from EE for a comment.