A House of Lords Debate on Poverty and Caste Discrimination in India: Continuing Foreign Interference in India’s Internal Affairs

This was contributed by IndiaFacts supporter Prakash Shah from the UK.

A debate on poverty and caste discrimination in India took place in the British House of Lords onWednesday 26 November 2014. While the debate ostensibly brought together the themes of poverty and caste, its implications range well beyond them to encompass the issues of foreign interference in India, reservations and, above all, proselytization, one of the top current political and social issues in India. India needs to raise the matter at the highest diplomatic level.

 Who took part in the debate?

The following members of the Lords spoke in favour of the question during the debate:

  • The cross-bench Peer, Lord Harries, a former Anglican Bishop, led the debate. He has shown a particular interest on the caste issue in India as well as the UK. He was the protagonist in moving the House of Lords to pass an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 to include caste as part of the protected characteristic of ‘race’ for the purposes of the Act. Among his many dignified positions, Lord Harries sits on the Steering Committee of the Woolf Commission on Religion in British Public Life.
  • Labour Lord Michael Cashman, former Member of the European Parliament, who recently co-authoredan unsuccessful attempt to pass a resolution against caste discrimination in the European Parliament.
  • Lord Alton, a cross bench Peer, an avowedly Christian Peer who holds an anti-abortion position, has written previously on faith and religion and has been appointed to two Roman Catholic orders of chivalry.
  • Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, Methodist minister and life Peer in the Lords, where he sits with the Labour Party. He has previously served as President of the Methodist Conference.
  • Lord Collins of Highbury, who is also a Labour Peer, has a trade union background and since 2013 speaks as Labour’s Spokesperson for International Development in the Lords.

cashman  harries

Three of these Lords have an overt Christian affiliation and agenda. Three of them are aligned with the Labour Party, while the other two are cross benchers. The Baroness Northover, a Liberal Democrat, who is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, represented the government. Lord Dholakia and Lord Loomba, both also Liberal Peers, supported her in the debate.

The context of the debate

It should come as no surprise that this debate took place in the ‘international development’ context and the timing was chosen because decisions will have to be made about British development funds for India. The way in which British development funds are distributed to India comes up for decision next year. The House of CommonsInternational Development Committee’s 2011 Report on The Future of DFID’s Programme in India notes that funds sent for development in India are to be revised after 2015. The Churches and their allies in the Labour Party probably see this as an opportunity to make sure they have some say in how those funds will be distributed after 2015, and how the Department for International Development will spend its money on India was mentioned several times during the debate. The Churches have key areas of vested interest in India that they do not want to lose.

The Indian government has no way of keeping track of how development aid is being spent, especially if it is done through the NGO network. A recent report prepared by the India’s Intelligence Bureau showed that parts of the NGO sector is known to act against development projects at the behest of foreign European funders, while the same Bureau has said that NGO’s tend not to fulfil their financial reporting requirements.

In light of the associations of those behind the caste and poverty debate, perhaps the Indian government and society should be alerted to its further implications. The 2011 report of the International Development Committee already indicated that funds would increasingly be channelled to get around Indian government control.The lack of state monitoring in India evidently means that Indian society could be influenced in any way that the Church organisations wish to in potential alliance with Western state forces. Interestingly, the 2011 report also admits that monies for development cannot be tracked by the British government either.

 The caste provision in the UK’s Equality Act

Caste is evidently among the key issues. Lord Harries’ role as the protagonist in the introduction of the provision adding caste into the UK’s Equality Act 2010 is already known. It is remarkable that as a person of cloth – he was then the Anglican Bishop of Oxford – introduced a measure that would most likely be used against people not members of his own faith, but which could potentially wreak havoc in diaspora Indian associational and economic life. In 2013, the lobby that he and others orchestrated also succeeded in amending the 2010 Act’s permissive power into an obligation upon the government to implement the law.

That the legislation has not yet been implemented, given the outrage since expressed by Indian Hindu, Sikh and Jain organisationsand critique of the case for legislation, has caused some anxiety to that ‘pro-lobby’. Not surprising therefore that Lord Griffiths and Lord Collins used the debate to raise the matter of the British legislation not being implemented. Lord Griffiths said that “There is a diasporic presence of Dalits in the West – not as much as in the East but at least a significant presence – and the vulnerability of Dalits, as people without caste, to things such as trafficking, slavery, bonded labour and so on is a concern for all of us. Therefore, we should not limit our attention to the Indian Government”. Acknowledging that the matter went “slightly beyond the remit of this debate” and that it was “not necessarily the responsibility of the noble Baroness”, Lord Collins pointedly ended his statement by asking when the consultation period for the legislation would conclude, presumably so that it would be implemented.



Caste as a vehicle for raising the issue of poverty in India

Despite what Lord Griffiths said, the end game concerns what the Churches want to do in India. India is indeed the central reason for internationalizing the issue through UK legislation, within European Unionand United Nations fora. Ideas of the caste system were first generated in Christian accounts because of the non-conversion of the Indian population. Although there was no relationship between the economic circumstances of people and earlier accounts of the ‘caste system’, the social science accounts of that ‘system’ secularized the theological accounts by equating the morally degraded state of the Indian population (because they followed a false religion) to economic backwardness.

The caste system became theexplanation for economic backwardness. 1200 years of exploitation by the colonizing powers, first the Muslims and then the Europeans, seemed to slip into the background. This colonised understanding led to the passing of legislation in independent India setting quotas in government jobs and education places for Scheduled Castes and Tribes as well as for Other Backward Castes. Although meant to be temporary, they were kept on as election considerations outweighed considerations of disadvantage, and merit sacrificed for votes, leading to a currently dysfunctional state educational and employment sector in India. And people wonder why India is so badly run.

Interestingly,Muslims and Christians do not qualify for reservations in central government legislation. After all, as the Orientalists had led people to believe, the caste system was the result of and justified by the religion of Hinduism. As Lord Cashman mentions, without explicitly mentioning Hinduism: “we also have to deal with the tricky notion of religion as an excuse or a reason. No religion can be an excuse or a reason imposed on another -or on 250 million – to diminish them and rob them of their civil liberties and human rights.” While Lord Cashman dares not mention Hinduism as the cause and justification for the caste system, it does not take a person of a great knowledge of India to guess what he has in mind.

 Links between Churches and Dalit organisations

Conversion to Christianity takes place disproportionately among those listed as Scheduled Tribes and Castes under Indian law. There are many stories of how people today hide the fact of conversion, even by retaining their original names, so that they can continue to benefit from government reservations. But Christian Churches are also aware that this understates the number in their flock and still acts as a block to proselytization. While the official term is Scheduled Tribes and Castes, the political usage refers to Dalits, although no-one will be able tell you precisely who a Dalit is.

LordsCashman and Alton, for instance, quoted liberally from the reports of various Dalit organisations in India and abroad, such as the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Indian National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, the Dalit Freedom Network and others cited in the Human Rights Watch report. Lord Cashmanmay be aware that the International Dalit Solidarity Network, with whom he expressed a “privilege and pleasure” to work within the European Parliament, is funded by a range of Christian bodies (including ComitéCatholiquecontre la Faim et Pourle Dévelopment (CCFD), DanChurchAid, Cordaid, ICCO, Christian Aid, FinChurchAid, HEKS (Swiss Church Aid)), the governments of Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, as well as the EU. The Dalit Freedom Network, cited by Lord Alton, is described in its Wikipedia page as “an evangelical Christian organization”.


Perhaps they rely on the gullibility of the British, European and Indian population about their real interests in India. After all stereotypes about Hinduism and its caste system have already spread deep into European common sense ideas of India. Perhaps that is why the unaccountable reports of such organisations, liberally cited by the Lords during the debate in November, continue to write as if the indices on poverty, exploitation and crime against Dalits have a direct correlation to caste status and are explained by the trope of the ‘caste system’.

If indeed those Dalit activist organisations which act in India and which have pressed for the UK legislation are in essence Christian organisations, with proselytization in India being a priority for them, perhaps the British and Indian public has a right to know about it.

The UK and India’s legal connection

It becomes clearer why the debate in the UK on the caste provision in the law is a proxy for a larger debate occurring in India. The Churches and their Dalit stooge organisations have to tread a narrow and contradictory path. They have to simultaneously maintain that the caste system, the cause of all their ills, is rooted is the false religion of Hinduism and yet also convince others that as Christians they should be entitled to reservations which reward them regardless of ability or merit.

The Explanatory Notes to section 9 of the UK’s Equality Act, while linking the idea of caste to Hinduism also state that it exists beyond that to cover “the thousands of regional Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim or other religious groups known as jatis”.

In this way, the UK legislation can be seen as legitimizing the extension of the idea of caste beyond Hinduism. The implications for India should be evident. It can be argued that since the UK has extended its legislation to Christians, India should do so too. So we have Lord Alton saying the following:

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that it is the right of anyone to hold the religion of their choice. Over the past several hundred years, many Dalits have changed their faith in order to come out of oppression and discrimination based on caste. Ironically, only untouchable Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are considered “scheduled castes” and therefore registered castes with entitlements to state support, such as protective mechanisms under various pieces of legislation and quotas for places at university and for employment in government services. Freedom of religion is a value for society as a whole. It is universally agreed that the internal dimension of a person’s religion or belief should enjoy absolute protection. Have the Government spoken with the new Indian Government about whether they uphold Article 18?

The message to India is clear. It if does not extend the system of reservations to Christians it will be in violation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. And this more subtle indication by Lord Griffiths sweetens the pill:

The question of religion has been raised; indeed, three of us here have known religious affiliations. I think the last thing that any of us would want is for us to be heard, as members of the Christian faith, pointing the finger at people of another faith. I do not think that it is a question of faith at all. Certainly, I do not think that the Christian community is free of involvement in the problem that we are discussing, and we should recognise that.


The implication is that Christians are also subject to caste discrimination, thus justifying their claim to caste quotas in India. Instead of supporting the scaling back and dismantling of a system of quotas that has not worked for India’s development, Christian (and Muslim) lobbyists are working to extend it by seeking rewards based not on merit and ability but on mere membership of a group. Such a system would not be supported anywhere in European legal systems but is thought fit to be further entrenched in India by British parliamentarians and their Indian clientele.

 Should Indians be concerned?

Indeed, Indians should be very concerned. The debate carries an extremely patronising and condescending tone towards the India’s people and government, despite the occasionally sweet sounding words about how India is so “incredible” and “amazing”. British members of the Lords cite Indian leaders of the past and present, including Gandhi, Ambedkar, Manmohan Singh, and PM Modi to justify the case they want to convey. This is a classic ventriloquist’s technique of making the colonised speak the language of the coloniser even when the former have not intended it to be so.

The debate is based on the idea that India is a ‘basket case’, a legitimate object for development aid, and that she needs to be taught lessons in implementing laws. Age old tropes about India’s ‘caste system’ which were created by European theologians continue to be invoked as if they are a true description of Indian culture, and all alleged ‘facts’ are to be explained by the persistence of a caste system. India’s religion naturally remains at fault for transmitting the virus of caste.

It is amazing that in the 21st century a former colonizing power can still address a country like India in the manner the debate exemplifies. Above all, the debate represents the conviction among many in the West that India’s age old traditions remain a legitimate target for vilification and attack, that Indians should be converted to Christianity en masse, and that foreign interference in India should thus continue by remote control from London, Brussels, and Copenhagen. While ‘colonial consciousness’ evidently persists in Britain, should India not be raising these matters at the highest diplomatic levels?