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The shame of being 'untouchable' in Britain

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The shame of being 'untouchable' in Britain . Date: 12/10/2007

News Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com

On Thursday, Britain gets its first play on the caste system still alleged perniciously to operate within the local Sikh community. 'The Fifth Cup', which gets its first outing in Birmingham, is about 15-year-old Amrit Singh whose family moves home from one British city to another, in order to make a fresh start.

But the Singhs find themselves relentlessly pursued by the sibilant hiss of that ancient marker imported from the Mother Country - low - caste origins. They are shunned by the local Sikh community, which presumably counts itself too high-born to consort with dalits. The family unit comes under intolerable strain. Amrit struggles to understand the unfairness of inherited alleged unworthiness, despite living in a 21st-century meritocracy where class distinctions may still matter but certainly not caste.

The play is a debut production from Caste Away Arts, a new Midland's-based theatre company. It says its aim is "to tell the story ...like it is ...of those that have been 'cast away' from society because of their caste, race, religion or circumstances..." More to the point, 'The Fifth Cup' is written by Rena Dipti Annobil and Reena Bhatoa, both of whom claim to have been at the sharp end of casteist discrimination here in Britain.

Bhatoa says she was "completely oblivious to what caste (I was)" till she turned 13. It was only after Sikh schoolmates repeatedly asked her that she sought clarification from her parents. "I discovered I was an untouchable... (I was) called nasty names, called an untouchable..." It was a devastating revelation.

Welcome to caste-ridden Britain, home to 1.3 million Indians, many of whom still scour marriage bureaux listings and adverts in the Indian press for the appropriate Ravidasia, Ramgarhia, Lohar, Lohana, Mochi, Mistry, Shah/Vania or Tank/Shatria spouse for their sons and daughters. Suman-online is a point-and-click matrimonial service that proudly claims to be the web-child of "the pioneers of Asian matchmaking in UK and Europe, namely Suman Marriage Bureau (established 1972)".

Those who run it admit British Indians still "don't want to marry into a lower caste. We also find that those who originate from a lower caste prefer to meet someone of the same background because they know that they may be victimized because they are of a lower caste". But the killer fact is Suman's estimate that only 25 per cent of British Indian marriages take place across caste barriers.

Many believe even the hippest bit of our exported fusion culture - bhangra rap - is tainted by casteism. Punjabi Bhangra is seen as an unceasing anthem celebration of jat pride with noted BBC DJ Bobby Friction recently noting it is full of "songs about jat pride, about the life of a jat ... jat nationalism is running rampant in bhangra music now to the point where every bhangra album that comes out in Britain has at least one track that alludes to the power of the jats".

So are we - the Indian abroad - really so regressive that our organic lived reality is almost exactly as Dr Ambedkar gloomily described decades ago when he said "wherever a Hindu goes, he will take his caste system with him".

As my colleague Chidanand Rajghatta noted on these pages on December 9, the Indian-American's "dharma of diversity" means "no Indian state or group or caste is too small or too big to form a representative association in America. So, we have everything here from NAMA (North American Manipuri Association) to BANA (Bhojpuri Association of North America), from the Bruhan Maharashtra Mandali to the Bangla Samaj." He went on to lament, "Oh, how they multiply and divide".

Castewatch UK, an activist organization set up four years ago to combat caste discrimination in Britain, believes this is the exact hideous truth of the Indian's life here, though political correctness keeps it securely hidden. Perhaps 'The Fifth Cup' will blow the covers.

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