It will come as a surprise to legislators in the United Kingdom to realize that protections afforded to India’s Dalit people, formerly known as “untouchables,” are not applicable in the U.K.

Discrimination on the grounds of the caste system, which is mainly associated with Hinduism and is a religious and social hierarchy, is technically illegal there. The Indian government has made halting, inadequate but genuine attempts to enforce its own laws.

It should not, however, be any great surprise to find that the a system of belief that has governed the minds and hearts of a people for thousands of years should survive an Air India flight to the U.K.

Hidden Apartheid – Voice of the Community, the latest report from the Dalit Solidarity Network U.K. (DSN), has revealed that the majority of Dalits living in the U.K. believe they are victims of caste discrimination.

So the move to tackle caste discrimination in the U.K. is very timely. Perhaps it will, as campaigners hope, send a message to India as well. But there should be no doubt as to the nature of the battle that is to be fought, or the questions it raises about the relation of religion to the state.

Challenging the ability of someone to act on their most cherished beliefs on the basis that a liberal Western democracy deems it wrong may be necessary, but it is not a pleasant pill to swallow.

Of course the abuses chronicled in a recent front-page story of The Baptist Times are just that, and they should not be tolerated. We should have enough confidence in our culture to be able to state this categorically, and take whatever legal steps are necessary to ensure that, in this country at least, they are stopped. But religions ought to be encouraged to reform themselves. What is imposed by external powers will breed resentment and do nothing to change minds and hearts.

The plight of India’s Dalits is leading many of them to convert to Christianity. In our faith they find the spiritual liberation that is denied them elsewhere. It is this success that has led to the outbreaks of violence in Orissa, India, as well as elsewhere, which have seen so many tragic deaths.

Here, too, is played out the struggle between freedom of conscience and the forces of reaction. But God made us to flourish, to choose freely, and not to be judged by anyone other than himself. The glorious liberty of the children of God is a gift, but it is also a quest; it is to be accepted and striven for wherever there is oppression and injustice.

Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times.

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