Landmark legislation to ban caste discrimination in Britain is being deliberately scuppered by the Conservative equalities ministers in charge of getting it on the statue book, leaked documents indicate.
Discrimination on the basis of caste was outlawed in April as part of the Equalities Act, after Business Secretary Vince Cable secured a last-minute amendment. The act was supposed to mean that the estimated 400,000 Dalits - so-called "Untouchables" - who live in the UK would finally have legal protection from discrimination by other Hindus.
But in a letter to Hindu groups opposed to the legislation shown to The Independent, equalities minister Helen Grant says that a safeguard in the act has been introduced so that the caste legislation can be removed from the statute book if reviews show it is not appropriate.
She urges the groups to submit evidence against the law to an ongoing consultation "as we remain convinced" that legislation is not necessary.
Politicians and equality campaigners say the letter appears to be a fishing exercise, designed to gather support for the view that the new legislation is not needed. They also believe it shows that she has already "pre-judged" the consultation.
In a letter the Alliance of Hindu Organisations dated 9 May, Mrs Grant says: "I made no secret at our meeting - and nor do I now - of my disappointment that it has been necessary for the Government to concede to making an order to include caste as an element of race in the Equality Act 2010.
She continues: "We remain concerned that there is insufficient evidence of caste based discrimination to require specific legislation. We also have concerns that incorporating caste into domestic law - even in the context of anti-discrimination - may send out the wrong signal that caste is somehow becoming a permanent feature of British society."
The letter goes on to outline the ways the law could be watered-down and eventually removed from the statute book. This concludes by saying: "because, as I have said, we do not believe or accept that caste and caste division should have any long-term future in Britain - we have introduced an additional safeguard into the Act. This is the ability to carry out reviews of caste legislation to see whether it remains appropriate. If it does not, we have the option of removing it from the statute book."
The issue of caste discrimination was a source of division in the Coalition, with Liberal Democrats broadly supporting the addition to the legislation and Conservative ministers opposed.
Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Avebury, has tabled a series of questions in the house about the delaying of the legislation and Grant's conduct. He said: "It's entirely improper that the minister who's supposed to be implementing the legislation - and initiating the consultation - is making it clear she's opposed to the whole process."
He added: "I think Helen Grant is doing her best to see the legislation doesn't see the light of day...I'm sure these consultations are delaying tactics; the whole thing smells of procrastination."
Meena Varma, director of the Dalit Solidarity Network UK, said: "Until this legislation is passed, the thousands of Dalits who say they are discriminated against in Britain will have no recourse to justice. Grant's tactic seems to be to kick the whole thing into the long grass until five years have passed and the Government can scrap the legislation altogether."
A Government spokeswoman said: "Parliament has said that legislation needs to be passed to make caste discrimination unlawful...We are not just committed to the eradication of any sense of caste discrimination, but to ensuring that caste itself does not become a permanent feature of British society.
To prevent this from happening we have included a measure that will allow for the new caste protections to be reviewed after 5 years, to see whether they remain appropriate and necessary."
A spokesman for The Alliance of Hindu Organisations said: "The Alliance is very pleased that the Minister for Equalities has taken the time to meet with them and has also invited them to submit their views to the ongoing consultation into the implementation of the new law on caste discrimination.
"The 800,000 strong Hindu population represented by the Alliance feels that they have not been sufficiently consulted up to this point and that a vocal minority has succeeded in forcing the government's hand with legislation that has not been properly thought through. They acknowledge the Minister's attempt to put this right. All sides in this debate, including the Alliance, are on record as condemning any discrimination on the basis of caste."
Case study: Solicitors accused of victimisation
Vijay Begraj, a British-born Hindu from the Dalit caste, is still waiting for a full hearing for his case of caste discrimination; it began in February but collapsed after the judge was handed information by the police which might prejudice the case.
Mr Begraj says he and his wife Amardeep faced caste-based discrimination, humiliation, victimisation and harassment because of their relationship. His wife is of a higher caste, as are the people who run Heer Manak, the Coventry solicitors where they both worked. He also gave evidence that he had been assaulted by relatives of the firm’s partners and called derogatory names relating to his caste.
The firm told The Independent they would not comment, but have described the claims as “ludicrous” and “outrageous”. Mr Begraj said: “Hindu groups say there’s no issue of caste discrimination in Britain but it’s nonsense.”