CISCO Lawsuit: Evidence of Indian-imported Casteism in Silicon Valley

[This is a post by Minnah Abraham, Contributing Editor and Shreya Singh, Contributing Member]

“There is one caste….the caste of humanity”

Dalits in India, the so-called untouchables, are always seen at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India, which is stagnated and not fluid. Much after caste segregation being banned within the country, disparities and violent discriminatory practices have always been inflicted against Dalits and still continue at different levels.

A few months ago, a suit against CISCO, a multinational technology company in Silicon Valley in the USA by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), ensued for the wrongful discrimination against a Dalit Indian, by two of his Indian-origin superior co-workers. The CISCO event received a lukewarm response from India and US alike, even so much as calling the whole affair as nonsense, leaving the complainant abashed for playing the victim. The Civil Rights Law, 1964 prohibits discrimination only on the basis of race, colour, sex, national origin and familial status. As this case is still under litigation, the California government is pushing to increase the scope of this Act and include ‘caste’ as a substantial issue in the US laws.

Stressing on the global issue of casteism affecting communities in Asia, Middle East, Africa and in various diaspora communities, the very caste-based discrimination and violence contravene the basic principles of universal human integrity and equality, for this concept differentiates between ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ age-old categories, which is unacceptable in today’s world. When there is an apparent element of a sense of hierarchy or any sort of manifestation of caste, that deprives oneself of human dignity, this goes against the principles of upholding the human rights of persons belonging to ‘national or ethnic, religious minorities’ as recalled in Human Rights Resolution 2005/79. The annihilation and eradication of those practices will ensure people, a sense of unity and solidarity and gives them a humane way of living, relating to one another. 

A survey commissioned by Equality Labs, a South Asian- American human rights start-up on “Caste in the United States” statistically proved the significance of caste discrimination in American society. The survey resulted that two-third of members belonging to the lowest caste (Dalits) faced caste-based discrimination at their workplace in America. Scholar and social activist Suraj Yengde, working with a non-profit organisation in the US, argues that caste discrimination has been a part of the US since the 1980s and has hardly been addressed by the US media activists. He stated that “People have resisted in private and in public in their own ways. Even hiding one’s caste is a way of fighting caste.”

What happened in the case of CISCO, refers to ‘transnationalization’ of caste, or in simple words, importing casteism to the US. In the words of Paik, “caste distinction is deployed by Brahmins to frame their own merit and put down Dalits as people who do not make it to the merit list at IIT and are got in through ‘scheduled caste’ reservations.” In spite of abolishing the so-called ‘untouchables’ and the Dalit system, which stands lowest in the Indian caste hierarchy of Hindu communities and its practise has extensively prohibited under Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, it failed to stop this vicious cycle of violence. What is worrying is that the attacks have gone up manifold in the last decade, in spite of stringent laws and emergence of hidden stories on caste-based discrimination by Dalits Indian in light of CISCO lawsuit. As B.R Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution and a great political leader once stated, “If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian Caste would be a world problem.”

The case of CISCO astonishingly brings to light how the Indian communities living, portrayed as educated and skilled in pursuit of the American dream, emphasising in reality, the deep-seated caste-based beliefs which they hold on to, are still undetected.

What can be done?

The questions come to the mind as to how India has failed to implement stringent changes in abolishing the casteism fever which has shamelessly has spread to other nations; Is it the lack of proper implementation of rule of law towards holding the wrongful accountable, inability to understand the transcendence of morality above the particularities of politics play and respect toward a legitimate democracy, legally holding all the stakeholders, ranging from any persons of caste, creed, gender, and religion to persons holding positions, be it government officials, elected party leaders, corporate entities answerable to the laws of the country, accountable to each and every one of the Indian citizens. 

Thirty years have gone past since the Mandal Commission recommended inclusive changes towards the eradication of caste discrimination and recognizing the socially and economically backward classes. One of the most popular recommendations of the Mandal commission report, which still exists today, is the well-debated Reservation Policy in public/government jobs as well as educational institutions. Upon elaborating the report, one might come to a conclusion, not much of the effective inclusive strategies were brought into implementation. Listed below are the notable ones that could still be brought into the light, not to forget the farmers’ bills which, of course, resulted in angst and dissatisfaction among the farmer’s society. 

1. The financial assistance to the Agricultural sector  – As most fall in this category consisting of village artisans (skilled/unskilled), landholders, tenants and labourers, it is essential to introduce policies to ensure the concerned Dalit community is able to participate in the fast-paced economy, with the provision of support and financial incentives

2. Creation of employment in the Private sector for youth from backward classes – It is imperative to revive the private sector and manufacturing units to attract the youth towards employment positions rendering them a potential advantage towards growth. This, on the other hand, will lessen demand for job creation in the public and government sector.

International EU laws have another way of tackling the discriminatory practice, knowns as the principle of subsidiarity which amazingly calls for community-wide inclusive measures ensuring the minimum protection standards set against the practice of discrimination in all Member States. This extends not just in the employment sector, but in the healthcare, social sector and education. Recognising and implementing the practice of equal treatment, especially in the work sector, affirming European Commission’sRenewed Social Agenda: Opportunities, Access and Solidarity’, where each person in the society, irrespective of differences is seen as being of equal standing, without any interference from discrimination of any sort of perception of artificial barriers, which often holds oneself to take a step back and depriving the rightfully inherent opportunities. 

It is a peremptory time to consider the consequences of not paying attention to casteism reflected in the society within India and its spread toward neighbouring countries. This can render an opportunity to bring forth institutions, collaborations, nationally and internationally to work toward achieving a respectable community at global level, leaving the next generation without having to fear being able to express or practise at his/her own accord. 

Concluding remarks

The CISCO case has been filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 1964 which prohibits discrimination only on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex and national status. Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the issue regarding caste discrimination. However, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) mentions the prohibition of bias based on ancestry which can open gates for interpretation by the court and include caste-based discrimination. This can be a ray of hope to the Dalit community living in the US and help them break the shackles and escape from this nightmare.  

In order for the Dalit community to cope up with these societal drawbacks, it is necessary to sensitise the public and spread awareness about the existence of caste-based discrimination in the American workspace. Corporates and non-profits in the US, especially tech companies which recruit South Asians at a large scale must have an understanding of Caste in general. There should be regular training organised for the Human Resources Department to address issues related to different levels of Caste Discrimination in American companies with South Asian employees.  

The existence of the Indian caste system is not recognized in the US and therefore, it’s not written in the US laws to prohibit caste-based discrimination. This gives the opportunity to Indian communities, who have transported to the US to exploit the very system, Indian founding fathers of Constitution are seeking to protect and eradicate the ancient notions of a hierarchical society. Although the discriminatory notions of racisms and casteism, which seeks to dignity, based e, colour, gender and hierarchical classes have a long way to go across the nations, the lawsuit against CISCO can set a precedent. This unfolding of events can act as a catalyst to bring an awareness of caste-based discrimination and how a perfectly structured modern, rational, and educated people are prone to slipping to old ways. 

A question arose in my mind while reading this article, i.e. when the claimed condition of Dalits in their native country is not so well, how can we expect another nation altogether to treat them well? If possible, highlight more on the fact that how the Indian state is not reacting to something like this.