Ambedkar followers in Britain allege casteism in quake relief
Shyam Bhatia, London
April 15, 2001 15:35 Hrs (IST)
Government agencies in India have come under attack in London for allegedly failing to prevent caste-based distribution of aid to victims of the January 26 Gujarat earthquake.
The attack was launched Saturday evening at a function in India House to commemorate the 110th birth anniversary of the late Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar. It echoes criticisms that have appeared in some sections of the British media and which have also been voiced by pro-Dalit, or socially underprivileged, groups based in the British capital.
Chanan Chahal, the Federation of Ambedkar and Buddhist Organizations (FABO) spokesman in Britain, at a gathering that included the Indian and Sri Lankan envoys, claimed there was evidence of aid for Gujarat victims being blocked or delayed for caste reasons.
Chahal said, "The world communities have responded responsibly and compassionately to the Gujarat disaster...but we are receiving reports from the affected areas that compensation and assistance is once again being circulated on caste hierarchical basis. It is not being received by the needy, instead it is being received by whoever is on top of the caste ladder."
"We are proud to be Indians. But we ask his excellency to convey our disgust and approach the proper authorities to ensure that this distribution not be given on a caste basis." "Even the leader of the opposition has asked why the distribution of funds is on grounds of the caste system and not on grounds of need."
Earlier speakers praised Ambedkar as the architect of India's Constitution and the leader of the country's downtrodden and underprivileged masses. Chahal said reports from Gujarati families had been coming direct to FABO. "We have received hand written letters from families to say they have been mistreated. If people have relatives here they have written to them a well."
In London, other FABO members say caste discrimination is also widely practiced by Indians settled in Britain. FABO representative Arun Kumar from Bedford, 50 miles north of London, told IANS that a pub in Bedford represents the most famous example of casteism in Britain.
"This is a perfectly respectable pub," Kumar told IANS. "But if you ask for this pub by name no one will know what you are talking about. But ask for the chamaar pub in Beford and everyone will tell you how to get there."
A spokesman for the Indian High Commission said, "We have seen some allegations of discrimination. We are also aware of numerous other instances where communities have submerged traditional differences of caste and religion and have worked shoulder to shoulder in the relief and rehabilitation efforts."
"When the prime minister himself chaired the first meeting of the disaster relief committee, he directed all Central and state government agencies to remain particularly vigilant to ensure that there is no discrimination in the distribution of relief materials."
"The Constitution of India expressly forbids any discrimination on the basis of caste and it is inconceivable to say that government agencies could practice discrimination in the distribution of relief supplies."
"India also has a proud record of trying to redress centuries of inequity and oppression of the lower castes through a program of affirmative action that finds few parallels in the modern world."
The spokesman expressed regret that an event intended to pay tribute to Amedkar and recognize his enormous contribution to the framing of the Indian Constitution had been utilized by some individuals to bring up these issues.
The spokesman said, "It would have been better to check the correct position on these matters with the High Commission before bringing them up at a public forum. The challenge of rebuilding Gujarat is an enormous one and it is vital that the Indian community set aside such perceived differences of caste and religion to work towards the common good."