A suit filed against tech giant Cisco Systems for workplace discrimination against a Dalit engineer is likely to be a precedent-setting case that shines a spotlight on caste as a global phenomenon.
In a 1916 essay, Dr BR Ambedkar, the Dalit civil rights leader and chief architect of the Indian constitution, wrote that “if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”
Less than three months ago, a suit filed against a multibillion-dollar tech giant in California proved those words to be enduringly prophetic.
On June 30, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing regulators sued Cisco Systems Inc., alleging that the company failed to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation against a Dalit engineer – anonymised as “John Doe” – by two Brahmin employees, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, following two inconclusive internal reviews.
According to the complaint, as John Doe’s manager for two years, Iyer denied him bonuses and stalled his promotions after discovering the engineer’s caste. Cisco’s human resources department told Doe that “caste discrimination was not unlawful” and took no corrective action. Kompella, who took over as Doe’s manager after Iyer, continued to discriminate against him.
What makes the case groundbreaking is that caste is not recognised as a form of discrimination under US federal law, and Cisco is the first American company to be sued for it.
In response to the suit, spokesperson Robyn Blum told TRT World that Cisco “is committed to an inclusive workplace for all” and has “robust processes to report and investigate concerns raised by employees,” and that it “will vigorously defend itself against the allegations made in this complaint.”
As one of the world’s oldest forms of social stratification, caste prejudice is generally thought of as a problem unique to the Indian subcontinent, not a practice that festers in multinational offices.
Rather than being shed across borders, caste travels and reproduces itself within diasporic South Asian communities, speaking to the resilient and deep-rooted mindset that accompanies the practice.
“Wherever we [Indians] go in the world, we tend to take our two things with us: one is chilli and pickle, and the other is caste,” Meena Varma, Executive Director at the International Dalit Solidarity Network, told TRT World.
“In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is coming from a western lens, we forget that Dalit lives haven’t ever mattered for three thousand years.”
How caste manifests
Dalits, meaning “broken but resilient” and formerly known as “untouchables,” exist outside the three millennia old Hindu caste system traditionally made up of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.
An all-encompassing cosmology that conflates occupation and purity into a single social system, caste has the ability to determine every aspect of one’s life, from where you can work to who you can marry.
Dalits and Adavasis, India’s indigenous tribal population, by virtue of being outside the caste hierarchy, are designated the lowest rung in society and are forced to endure structural apartheid – from profound socio-economic injustices, segregated schools and temples, denial of public amenities, to brutal violence at the hands of “upper” castes.
Caste discrimination still remains highly visible and contentious in India, where it has been constitutionally prohibited since 1950 and systems of historical redress through affirmative action policies have been put in place.
An advocate at the Supreme Court of India, Kiruba Munusamy recalled how after taking up a dismissal case early in her career, she was singled out for her appearance and her pronunciations. She felt her case was not taken seriously by the judge.
“I realised how the courts discriminate against Dalit lawyers,” she told TRT World.
As the first in her family to become a lawyer, Munusamy is acutely aware of institutional biases that accompany her profession.
“The majority of judges in the Indian Supreme Court are of Brahmin or upper caste background, and the appointment system does not allow for inclusivity. There is no mechanism to analyse judicial biases.”
Spirituality is used to legitimise discrimination, too.
“Take the concept of karma for example – whatever you experience in this birth, is the result of your actions in a previous birth. If you are born a Dalit, that means you did not follow Dharmic principles in your past life,” she added.
While caste-based prejudice in places like the US might not be as overt as in India, it becomes transplanted wherever South Asian immigrants find themselves.
“Given the reality that a large segment of the Indian American population was born and socialised in India, we see a more direct replication of caste-based practices and discrimination,” Sangay Mishra, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drew University, told TRT World.
A few findings conducted in recent years have been able to shine a light on a prickly issue that many in the diaspora tend to shun from addressing.
One is a 2016 study called “The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” which estimated that over 90 percent of migrants of Indian descent in the US came from higher caste backgrounds.
In the first ever examination of caste in the US, a 2016 survey commissioned by Equality Labs, a South Asian American civil rights organisation, presents a snapshot of those at the receiving end of casteism by validating their lived experiences through quantifiable data.
Drawn from 1,200 respondents, 26 percent of Dalits said they endured physical and verbal assault based on their caste, 41 percent reported facing discrimination in education institutions, 42 percent felt unwelcome at their places of worship, and 67 percent testified to being treated unfairly in their workplace.
Over half of Dalits surveyed were worried about being “outed” – a profound fear due to the personal and professional consequences revealing one’s caste can have, whether it’s being rejected from cultural or religious spaces, losing professional networks, or at the receiving end of pernicious bullying and slurs.
The Ambedkar King Study Circle, a Silicon Valley-based Dalit community organisation, curates a page of testimonials where individuals anonymously share their experiences in anecdotes, offering a window into the manifold indignities lower-caste Indian immigrants in the US are subjected to.
Raj N., a Palo Alto-based consultant whose name has been changed upon request, echoed why the stakes around caste secrecy are so high in the diaspora for Dalits like himself.
“Upper castes frequently demonise lower castes as unintelligent, lazy or ill-fated, and that conscious or unconscious bias can carry into the workspace,” he told TRT World.
“For many Dalits in industries dominated by Indians like the IT sector or where Indians are prevalent in higher management, the likelihood of them being upper caste is very high. Disclosing our caste could create a hostile work environment or even be career suicide.”
In many instances, it isn’t uncommon to find upper caste South Asians actively attempting to unveil their co-workers’ caste.
Methods can be subtle and manifest in various ways: from asserting caste purity through questions about food habits (Dalits are generally non-vegetarian while Brahmins are vegetarian), which Hindu gods are worshipped, mannerisms, skin colour, and even dialect.
Another intrusive technique is to identify the “Upanayana” or “janeu” – a white sacred thread worn across the torso by Brahmin men.
“I remember an incident after joining a software company, one of my co-workers who was a Namboodiri [Malayali Brahmin] slid his hand across my back. He was stealthily trying to detect if I was wearing the sacred thread,” recalled Raj N.
While such means of sleuthing can sometimes be weak proxies for discerning caste, a surname often serves as evidence for identification.
Speaking to TRT World, Dr. Gajendran Ayyathurai, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies in the University of Göttingen, points to how the recruitment of new employees in workplaces where caste is entrenched can be inflected by the prejudices of Brahmins who are in control of the hiring process.
“Irrespective of the qualifications for the advertised jobs, candidates with [Brahmin] names such as Sharma, Iyer, Iyengar, Chaturvedi, and so on have an undue edge over those who do not possess such caste-flaunting names,” said Ayyathurai.
IIT-Silicon Valley pipeline
Referencing the Cisco suit, Mishra highlighted that some of the discriminatory patterns are similar to practices in India. One is the stigma of caste-based reservation, common in Indian education institutions.
“The person [John Doe] in this case was clearly outed as someone who got into IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] through affirmative action,” said Mishra.
During Cisco’s first review, Iyer is alleged to have divulged to Doe's colleagues that he was not from the “main list”, thus publicising Doe’s caste identity as someone who was the beneficiary of a reservation policy.
The IITs, India’s premier public technical universities, enjoy a strong reputation in the US tech sector. The IIT-Silicon Valley pipeline features caste prominently.
Ayyathurai describes the IITs as “the fiefdom of Brahmins in independent India” and function as a vector for what he designates as “Global Brahminism,” or the “global ascendance of local racism and casteism” to take root in international firms.
He alluded to Harvard anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian’s statement that IIT was a misnomer for “Iyer Iyengar Technology” (Iyer and Inyegar being Tamil Brahmin castes). These very IITs, Ayyathurai suggests, have drained India’s subsidised educational facilities while essentially promoting affirmative action for Brahmins, who make up 5 percent of the population but end up segregating 95 percent of Indians at IIT.
“Such Brahmin-IITians eventually arrive and run Corporate America with their own caste-groups as green card-holding Brahmin-IITians of the Indian diaspora.” To this end, Ayyathurai maintains that Corporate America bears responsibility for providing the IIT brood with “diversity and merit masks” to conceal their caste privilege.
He additionally observed that Brahmin-favouring diversity policy is apparent in American Ivy League universities, where upper caste academics flourish with critiques of colonialism and racism, while simultaneously camouflaging their "brahminhood" by identifying themselves as people of colour.
This obscuring of caste, both by those who bear the burden of shielding the trauma of their caste identity to avoid social ostracisation, and those who downplay their caste privilege to uphold a meritocratic “model minority” status, can make caste bias difficult to weed out and combat.
That Cisco, ranked second on Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Diversity in 2019, could manage to skirt alleged episodes of caste bias exposes the efficacy of mechanisms that private corporations put in place to ensure an inclusive work culture.
More importantly, American HR departments are able to ignore legitimate grievances because the law does not distinguish caste as an exclusionary practice.
Beginning to address this blind spot must then start with regulation.
“Caste is a deeply entrenched mindset and it’s not going to disappear overnight,” Varma said.
“If you have caste discrimination legislation, you have to change your behaviour,” she stated, drawing a parallel with anti-racist legislation. “They will have to think twice if it’s against the law.”
As someone who campaigned to add caste in the legislation of the UK Equality Act 2010 – originally introduced by the Labour government and now in limbo under the Conservatives – Varma remarked how the Cisco suit demonstrated the need for legal precision on the matter.
“Cisco’s rather dubious argument that there is nothing on caste in their discrimination policy, so therefore they can’t follow it up, shows that clarity is absolutely essential.”
For now, British anti-discrimination legislation remains short of being all-encompassing.
“In the UK, the Cisco case could be a turning point for us. Basically, the government says that they believe caste is covered under race.”
“But it’s not a race issue. Those doing the discriminating are more or less the same race. And it’s not always a religious issue either, though it can be entangled. It can take place amongst any religious group, whether you’re Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or Muslim,” Varma explained.
Ayyathurai believes that the “unprecedented” Cisco case is a “watershed moment” which “will show how Brahminism is not a local but a global phenomenon,” and one with far-reaching implications across the Indian diaspora as well as in India, where an anti-caste judiciary is yet to emerge.
While legal mechanisms are important in preventing casteist practices, stringent measures implemented against it in the workplace need to be incorporated as well.
The Indian American Alliance Against Caste (IAAAC), a coalition of prominent community-based organisations representing Dalits in the South Asian diaspora, has urged for a proactive approach to addressing caste-based discrimination in a letter to CEOs of the 25 largest tech firms in the US.
The group recommended protections in a company’s workplace harassment policies and naming caste as a factor in bias training and recruitment efforts were paramount.
Ayyathurai added that “workplaces should not have meat restrictions in their canteens and dining areas in deference to brahmanical vegetarianism.”
“Diversity has been a welcome policy for caste-Indians so far in the west, but hereafter it has to be for the recruitment of those who declare themselves anti-caste Indians as employees, faculties, and students.”
For Raj N., not talking about caste is itself a privilege, analogous to white people who say “I don’t see race” to avoid dealing with structural racism from which they benefit from.
“Casteism, racism or sexism cannot be isolated individually, they are injustices built into the very foundation of our societies,” he said. ”Savarna [upper caste] Hindus who like to claim we live in a ‘post-caste’ world are either being intentionally dismissive or willfully delusional.”
“Caste oppression can be abolished if South Asians acknowledge it. That’s the first step before we can begin to dismantle and eventually annihilate it.”
After elevating the insidious contours of caste into the public’s crosshairs, maybe John Doe will now force that important conversation to take place in both boardrooms and bedrooms.