Aspiration and Reality: How caste-blindness undermines UK anti-slavery efforts

Speech to All-Party Group for Dalits, and Parliamentary Human Rights Group, Westminster, 24 May 2016

As director of Anti-Slavery International it is, from time to time, heartening to hear from senior members of the U.K. Government their intent that the UK should be a world leader against slavery.

Unfortunately these fine sentiments are hampered, possibly fatally, from the outset by some fundamental failures in domestic and international policy, most notably the failure to recognise the issue of caste as fundamental to both poverty and slavery for hundreds of millions of people in South Asia.

There is a lazy trope that is sometimes wheeled out in discussions of slavery, that anybody can be enslaved. Technically this is true, particularly if people are caught up in the cataclysm of war. But this disguises a much more fundamental truth: that generally those who are enslaved are from discriminated against groups: indigenous people in South America; migrants and refugees in Western Europe; Dalits and Adavasi in South Asia.

We have already heard in this meeting of the failure in British Government to confront the issue of caste in the UK itself. This is also a failure in UK’s development policy as exemplified by the Department for International Development’s withdrawal of aid from India on the presumption that the evolution of the Indian economy will lead to a it lifting all out of poverty.


Dr B R Ambedkar

This is a forlorn expectation in a society that Dr Ambedkar recognised was one where “Caste restricts opportunities. Restricted opportunity constricts ability. Constricted ability further restricts opportunity. Where caste prevails, opportunity and ability are restricted to ever narrowing circles of people”. In other words caste is not a recipe for economic justice let alone an end to slavery, in a region where the largest number of enslaved people reside.

The American historian, David Blight noted how in the pre-Civil War South of the United States even poor whites opposed the abolition of slavery because of the aristocratic privilege that it gave them. Dr Ambedkar identified that same aristocratic privilege in India when he recognised that the “caste system is not merely as division of labour, but a division of labourers”. And the sense of “aristocratic privilege” which emerges from this division of labourers facilitates the denial of rights to millions of Dalits.

In general slavery, poverty and injustice are systemic, not individual issues. This is never more true than when they are underpinned by caste. And this goes to the heart of the matter of slavery: Its elimination is a profoundly political issue. It is about power and exclusion from power. Those who are enslaved are excluded from power in part so they can be enslaved.

The attainment of civil rights and social justice that lead to an end to slavery are not inevitable achievements of economic development. They are often not even economically rational issues, particularly when those excluded from justice are from marginalised and discriminated-against groups.

Hatred and prejudice are irrational and visceral but they are not unconquerable. Proper law and policy can counteract them over time if properly implemented. But of course caste prejudice limits the implementation and the impact of decent law and policy.

We see this in India, for example, where there is much decent anti-poverty and anti-slavery law. Yet, corrupt police forces and overburdened court systems mean that such law is meaningless for those, such as Dalits and Adavasi, most vulnerable to slavery.


Child slaves in an Indian brick kiln, 2014

Prime Minister Modi’s stated intent to encourage inward investment by reducing factory inspections and permitting child labour, amongst other so-called labour market reforms, will of course reinforce the caste system and increase the risks of forced and child labour across India. This will, in turn, increase the likelihood that any goods or commodities produced there are tainted by slavery-like practices.

A short while ago Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, said that human rights is no longer a priority in the Foreign Office, and instead was supplanted by the”prosperity” agenda.

We see that reflected in the warm embrace the British government has given to Prime Minister Modi and the prospect of trade deals with an India whose supply chains are rife with forced and child labour.

In the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt effectively ended child labour in the United States by banning it in interstate commerce. To introduce comparable measures into international trade, as President Obama has just done in the United States, would give pause to those who currently profit across South Asia from the exploitation and enslavement of others that is enabled by the caste system.

If the UK truly wanted to be a world leader against slavery could begin by following President Obama’s suit and leading the European Union to similarly empower public officials to exclude the products of slavery from our markets.

Today there are many politicians and a few philanthropists who crave the title “the new Wilberforce”. But few demonstrate the most fundamental qualifications for that title: That is the moral courage and clarity of thought to challenge the vested interests and the national and international political-economic structures, such as caste, that enable so much contemporary injustice.

Until that happens the struggle to end slavery will remain unfinished, and that to end poverty will be a piecemeal affair, scarred by inequality and discrimination.

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