- Calling it a landmark case, Dalit American activist urges Indian techies to “self-reflect, do better, and be more inclusive.”
The state of California has sued Cisco Systems, a multinational technology conglomerate headquartered in California’s Silicon Valley, for allegedly letting an employee face caste-based discrimination. The lawsuit, filed on June 30, by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleges that the unidentified engineer, belonging to the Dalit community, was alienated from his team members and was not allowed to progress in the team. The lawsuit says Cisco’s treatment of the employee violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
The lawsuit names Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, both high-caste Indians, and former employees of Cisco, who worked with the complainant in the San Jose office as supervisors, for discrimination and harassment. “The higher caste supervisors and co-workers imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace,” the lawsuit alleges, and notes that the Dalit employee has a darker complexion than non-Dalit Indians.
According to the lawsuit, when the Dalit engineer opposed the treatment, both Iyer and Kompella allegedly “retaliated against him” by reducing his role on the team, isolating him from colleagues and giving him assignments that were “impossible to complete under the circumstances,” the lawsuit claimed. The lawsuit also accused Cisco of failing to take “corrective action,” even after multiple investigations.
In India, Dalits, who have traditionally been considered untouchables, account for about 16.6 percent of the population, according to the 2011 Census figures. But published data about their socio-economic condition indicate a very sorry state of the community. Dalits’ control over the resources, for example, is less than 5 percent, and close to half of the population lives under the poverty line, and 62 percent are illiterate. A substantial number among its lowest sub-castes clean toilets and human excreta with bare hands while others are engaged in agricultural work, are landless or nearly landless laborers.
The caste-based prejudice doesn’t seem to evade those who have immigrated to the U.S. either. A 2017 report conducted by Equality Labs, a civil rights group, revealed that 67 percent of Dalit Americans felt they were treated unfairly at their workplaces. The report, ‘Caste in the United States — A Survey Of Caste Among South Asian Americans,’ showed the prevalence of caste discrimination, not just in the workplace, but on campuses as well. It revealed that one in four Dalits experienced physical assaults, two out three, work place discrimination, and one in three, discrimination in education.
Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, calls this a “landmark” case. “It is the first civil rights case in the United States where a governmental entity is suing an American company for failing to protect caste oppressed employees and their negligence leading to a hostile workplace,” she told this writer.
She says the case “is a reminder that tech is not a neutral place when it comes to caste.” And also a reminder that “the power of dominant caste networks in tech departments has created hostile workplaces and uneven outcomes for Dalits who enter these discriminatory workplaces.” The case will have “ramifications, not just in California but also for all American companies who do business with Indian employees, and will impact their practices in their localized offices in India,” she observes. “So it can have an impact on firms like Facebook, Google. Twitter, Microsoft, etc., and would impact thousands of Indian workers around the world. This case is a call for all Indian techies to self-reflect, do better, and be more inclusive as the call for caste equity will not be denied.”
Soundararajan and her colleagues at Equality Labs and other Dalit American activists believe that the Cisco case will set the precedent. “The lack of having caste as an explicit category has meant that prosecutors have to shoehorn the issue of caste within protections of religion, race, and ancestry,” Soundararajan notes. “This case would open the door for many civil rights groups across the U.S. to begin adding caste as a protected category and would allow the mechanisms of more such and civil rights litigation.”
Although caste does not operate here like it does in India, Soundararajan says it is still forms a part of Dalit and Bahujan lives. “Caste is so deeply alive in the diaspora and it impacts so many parts of the Indian American experience.”
A March 2019 report in India Abroad on social exclusions of Dalits in U.S. colleges noted how caste discrimination against Dalits and other lower castes has found its way to college or university campuses as well. Through anecdotal experiences Dalit students from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and at UMass at Boston shared then, it was evident that Dalit students faced discrimination in institutions with large population of South Asians students. They confessed that most non-Dalit students, including Indians born and raised in the U.S., have vague and sometimes erroneous ideas about the life of Dalits in India.
The Hindu Point of View
Dalits activists point fingers at dominant caste networks which they say “have continued to benefit from the reforming of their caste privilege networks here.” These networks are also accused of actively pushing “aggressive agendas that are harmful to our communities back in India.”
Highlighting the dichotomy of Hindu teachings and the inequality in parts of Indian society predicated on the “caste” of one’s birth, the Hindu American Foundation released a report in 2011.Titled ‘Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste.’ The report noted that Hindus in the diaspora, and many Western seekers “eager to immerse themselves in the Hindu way of life,” see a glaring dichotomy in the vast gap between the religious teaching of divinity inherent in each being and the continued social reality of discrimination and inequality in parts of Indian society predicated on the “caste” of one’s birth — a striking contrast between Aham Brahmasmi (“I am that Divine”) and untouchability.
It acknowledged that caste-based discrimination does exist in many parts of India today and that caste-based discrimination fundamentally contradicts the essential teaching of Hindu sacred texts that divinity is inherent in all beings, although attempts are being made to “actively promote” authentic interpretations of Hindu sacred texts, affirming that the solution to caste-based discrimination lies in an adherence to core Hindu teachings. The organization also says it feels that claims about caste discrimination against Dalits in the U.S. are often overblown.
Call to Action
Contrary to HAF’s narrative, Soundararajan says that data and personal stories of caste oppressed people point to this urgent problem. “It is time that we address this issue structurally and in the United States we will have a strong pathway for doing so.” Noting that it is “a lack of political will that creates the crisis of caste apartheid,” she notes that “the time has come to realize the failure of the India government to prevent caste discrimination and atrocity is not due to the lack of legal frameworks but by the structural obstruction of dominant caste networks to implementing the rule of law.”
She says, “an American civil rights team in the largest state of the United States (California) impartially reviewed the discrimination of the Dalit complainant, and found that it amply met the parameters for failure to protect Dalit employees. It is a shame on India that an American state could do what the Indian government has failed to do for 40 years since ratifying Ambedkar’s constitution.”