On June 30, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a federal lawsuit against tech multinational company Cisco for “discriminating against an engineer because he is Dalit”.

An Indian-American employee, referred to as “John Doe” in the suit, accused managers at Cisco’s San Jose’s headquarters of harassing him “because he is Dalit Indian, a population once known as the ‘untouchables’ under India’s centuries-old caste system”, the lawsuit reads.

For those who have been attempting to draw awareness to the pervasive practice of casteism among the Indian community in the United States, the complaint and the lawsuit that has followed are widely viewed as a landmark moment.

“This is the first civil rights case in the United States where a government entity is suing an American company for failing to protect caste-oppressed employees and their negligence leading to a hostile workplace,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs.

The organisation’s 2016 survey report “Caste in the United States”, which stated that 67% of Dalits reported being treated unfairly at American workplaces owing to their caste, was cited in the lawsuit.

Referring to the managers at Cisco, the lawsuit said “defendants Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella are from India’s highest castes. Because both knew [John] Doe is Dalit, they had certain expectations for him at Cisco.”

“Doe was expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where Doe held the lowest status within the team and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment… When Doe unexpectedly opposed the unlawful practices… defendants retaliated against him. Worse yet, Cisco failed to even acknowledge the unlawful nature of the conduct.”

In a statement saying it will defend itself against these allegations, Cisco also said “we have robust processes to report and investigate concerns raised by employees which were followed in this case”.

Soundararajan said the lawsuit is likely to have impacts on companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and thousands of Indian workers around the world. “It’s also a reminder that tech is not a neutral place when it comes to caste,” Soundararajan added. “Wherever South Asians go, they carry caste with them.”

‘Caste slurs’

“I had to report to Human Resources when other South Asians in my company used caste slurs on company forums,” said an individual who went by ‘KV’, according to a testimony from the Equality Labs Congressional Briefing in Washington, DC in May 2019.

“I told them there were laws against discrimination and that company policy required them to behave respectfully to all communities. Would they use the N-word for African Americans? Then why a caste slur for me? Luckily, I am a vice president in my firm, and when I reported the incident to HR, they shut down all the message boards and reiterated the company’s commitment to diversity. I was happy I had power then, but what of the many who do not, what of them?”

Karthikeyan Shanmugam, an independent consultant based in Santa Clara, California, who has worked in the US for six years, is a Dalit, and an executive committee member of the Ambedkar King Study Circle, said caste discrimination in IT workplaces is not unusual.

“Many Indian IT engineers here would rather have a non-Indian as a manager, because the fact is, Indian managers don’t always behave like corporate managers; they behave like feudal lords,” he said.

AKCS circulated a public form on July 2 to gather testimonies from Indian-Americans across the US about their experiences of caste in workplaces, which has gathered at least 40 testimonies so far, largely from the Bay Area.

The responses, accessed by Scroll.in, ranged from individuals asking other employees if they could join a team meet-up over the weekend, only to be rejected with the message that “it’s only for our community” and even micro-aggressive comments on “SC” attire, food and music choices, and skin colour.

“In countries like the UK and the US, anti-caste laws are necessary because we cannot change a casteist mindset overnight, but we can we can try and change casteist behavior,” said UK-based Meena Verma, Executive Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network.

As Indian populations have grown in the diaspora in the two countries over the last three decades, she said, so have caste biases. “Mindsets won’t change overnight, but people will have to follow the rule of law. That’s why there needs to be legislative protection in these countries.”

Need for legislation

An investigation into the incident at Cisco showed that Iyer had revealed to his colleagues that the Indian-American was Dalit, and yet the company took no action, saying caste discrimination was not unlawful.

Shanmugan thinks therein lies the issue. “The problem for a person like John Doe is that not only is the person of the oppressed caste not protected by the law, but they’re also vulnerable because Indian managers are predominantly upper-caste, [who] often denies the existence of caste.”

That, combined with the fact that those of a non-Indian descent do not always understand the complexities of caste mean that crimes of discrimination of this sort are not clearly defined in the US.

There have been efforts to include caste within the civil rights framework of the US, said Suraj Yengde, a Dalit scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“But also, as the Coalition of American Ambedkarites Organization says, this needs to be legislated. They are not just asking for caste to be included, but also demanding a specific anti-caste policy and law, ” Yengde said.

“They’re asking to make an independent legislation which takes into consideration the politics of how caste operates,” he added. “But the thing is: the Hindu lobby is so strong that they will very strongly refute it, if it’s not a united struggle.”

Cisco’s lawsuit would open the door for other groups across the US to begin adding caste as a protected category, and enable more such civil rights litigation.

American Ambedkarite groups suggest a variety of measures, including adding caste as a protected category to HR policies and training manuals, asking caste-specific questions in reverse feedback forms, and having a zero-tolerance policy for caste hostility in the workplace, particularly for companies with significant South Asian immigrant populations.

“[The Cisco] case is a call for all Indian techies to self-reflect, do better, and be more inclusive. The call for caste equity will not be denied,” Soundararajan said.