Priyanka Mogul: tackling caste discrimination one documentary at a time
India’s caste system is a centuries-old social hierarchy which determines what job you can do, who you can marry, and how you’re treated based on what group your family falls into. The system divides India’s population today due to the social discrimination that comes with it, and the laws are so inherent in the culture that many believe it is even affecting the British Indian community in the UK. This has led some British Indians to call on the UK government to introduce laws that protect against caste discrimination, while others deny that there is a problem at all.
Priyanka Mogul is a freelance journalist and newbie filmmaker, reading for her Masters in Emerging Economies and International Development at KCL. Last year she shot her documentary, ‘Caste Aside’, following the controversial fight to legislate on caste discrimination in the UK, making it an aspect of the Equality Act 2010. Following considerable backlash from the British Indian community, Priyanka released it in November 2017.
Priyanka’s website outlines the two sides of the debate: “While some members of the British Indian community believe that… [it]… would shine a negative light on the Hindu community and create social tension, others believe that caste legislation is a necessary protection for victims.”
After years of debate in government, there was a public consultation which closed in September 2017, and a decision is still yet to be made.
To catch a preview of the documentary watch the trailer.
How did the idea for the documentary come together?
I’d never heard of it happening in the UK until October 2015 when I covered the protests surrounding the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to London and spoke to members of the Indian community about caste discrimination in the UK. I wanted to write an article about it, but I realised that there were so many different dimensions and complexities to the debate that I couldn’t cover all aspects of it in just one article. When I left my full-time job in October 2016, I began looking into the idea of making a feature-length documentary about the topic.
Have you ever been affected by caste discrimination yourself?
No. My family came to the UK from India 10 years ago, so I was never integrated into the Indian community and this culture. When I was interviewing people for the documentary, they repeatedly asked what religion I was. I’m not Hindu, and this made people curious. It was a bit of a shock.
Have you been faced with animosity from people on either side of the debate?
Yes! I’ve been accused of bias and Christian propaganda, people have said I’m being paid by them; but why would I want to do anything that would tarnish my community? One guy tweeted that I was an ‘idiot’ spouting Christian propaganda and that I ignored his views on the issue. I did invite him to be interviewed for the documentary, but he declined. So it’s difficult to engage when they don’t want to be engaged with. Sometimes I wish I’d never gotten involved, I’m always being discredited, and I’m afraid of being yelled at in the street. But I’m glad it’s out there and educating people.
You say people called you biased, why do you think this is?
Only two of the six anti-legislation activists I asked agreed to the panel; it’s harder to talk about it if they don’t voice their opinions. No-one wants to say the Indian community is discriminatory; we want to talk about it. I want to hear from the opposition, but they don’t want to talk; they say I’m biased, but how will I understand their side if they won’t speak to me? Those who are pro-legislation were passionate about it, and it’s only because it’s these people who have opened up that they have a greater presence in the documentary – it’s not by design. You have to listen to both sides of the debate and be unbiased; you have to give everyone an equal platform.
What are your thoughts on caste discrimination?
Two people in the documentary say they’ve faced discrimination – how can I look them in the eye and say I don’t believe them? I wasn’t there. It’s not on the same level as it is in India, but it’s still bad. It’s not a Hindu problem, and I don’t like the religious side of the debate, but we can’t ignore that it happens. The controversy of questioning it takes away from the main issue at hand. People are scared to admit what their caste is out of shame; we owe them this platform.
What will legislation on caste discrimination achieve?
It will help people to talk about it and provide protection. The law won’t affect discrimination in the personal sphere, that is, discrimination in social circles. But it will look at discrimination in education, employment and the provision of goods and services. It’s been delayed in Parliament since 2007, nobody knows what’s going on. I understand they’re nervous about the inevitable backlash, but they need to make a decision. I’ll be very surprised if something is done in the first quarter of 2018.
How can we start to educate people on the issue?
It’s an issue which lacks recognition in the UK. It doesn’t only affect members of the Indian community, but those of Pakistani, Nepalese and Muslim communities too. A girl I interview in the documentary was discriminated against on the playground, and her teachers didn’t spot the issue. There needs to be training for those who work in the community (teachers, doctors) – they need to be aware and know how to spot signs. Politicians need to be educated on it too to make an informed decision on legislation.
How could students in particular become more involved in raising awareness?
It’s important to make victims feel comforted; engage with your South Asian societies and ask them if anyone has experienced it at uni. Ask your uni if they’re aware of the legislative battle as they play a big role in students’ lives.
What would be one piece of advice you’d give to a student wanting to do something similar?
Speak to those who your project will impact first; talking to the victims will base it on what they see as the issue rather than what you see. It has to be unbiased. Also, set up a Twitter and Facebook account for your project, as this is the best way to spread your message.
Do you plan on shooting any other documentaries?
I would love to make documentaries full time, but am leaning towards the charity sector. I’ll be planning a new documentary soon, but it would be alongside a full-time job so I can fund it.
When can we next catch a screening of Caste Aside?
Our next screening will be at SOAS in February.
Please note that the above interview has been paraphrased when transcribed for ease of reading. None of the above is a direct quote from Priyanka.
All photos are the product of Peacock Moon Productions.