KEY POINTS

  • Most Indian immigrants in the U.S. are from upper castes
  • Cisco employs a significant number of South Asians
  • Reports of caste-related workplace discrimination have periodically arisen in the U.K.

An employment discrimination lawsuit in California presents an entirely new type of plaintiff and defendant. While most workplace discrimination cases involve matters of race or religion or gender, a suit currently engulfing Cisco Systems (CSCO) concerns India’s ancient caste system – where your birth determines your outcomes in life.

In the summer, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or DFEH, filed a federal lawsuit against Cisco, alleging that two of its managers discriminated against an engineering employee because of his low caste.

The lawsuit alleged that the two managers – both Indian Hindus of high caste – at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters campus harassed and mistreated an employee who is a Dalit, or an "untouchable" in the parlance of India’s caste system.

As such, the complainant received lower pay, fewer opportunities, and was isolated in an office dominated by other South Asians of high caste.

“It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth,” DFEH Director Kevin Kish said. “Employers must be prepared to prevent, remedy, and deter unlawful conduct against workers because of caste.”

According to the suit filed in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, the two Cisco managers Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella – both high-caste Hindus – discriminated against an unidentified Dalit engineer referred to as “John Doe.”

The lawsuit stated that although de jure segregation ended in India, “lower-caste persons like Dalits continue to face de facto segregation and discrimination in all spheres.” Now it appears this practice has reached the far corners of the Indian diaspora.

DFEH noted in the complaint that most Indian immigrants in the U.S. are from upper castes – as are most of the South Asians working at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters. The Dalit complainant was the only low-caste employee in his department.

The “higher-caste supervisors and co-workers imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace,” the lawsuit stated.

When Doe’s supervisors and co-workers, Iyer and Kompella, subjected him to discriminatory treatment and a hostile work environment, he complained and they allegedly retaliated against him.

“Worse yet, Cisco failed to even acknowledge the unlawful nature of the conduct, nor did it take any steps necessary to prevent such discrimination, harassment, and retaliation from continuing in its workplace,” the suit stated.

Noting that Cisco employs a significant number of South Asians, the suit commented that the company was nonetheless “wholly unprepared to prevent, remedy, or deter the unlawful conduct against Doe or similarly situated lower caste workers.”

For example, Iyer, a Brahmin who hired Doe, alleged that Doe’s education at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology was gained through an affirmative action program in India.

At the time of the suit, Cisco spokeswoman Robyn Blum said the company would “vigorously defend itself.”

“Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all,” she said. “We were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies.”

A group of scholars called the Indian American Alliance Against Caste, or IAAAC, recently wrote to the CEOs of 25 large tech firms, calling for the end of caste discrimination.

“Caste-based discrimination has long been an unacknowledged problem in Silicon Valley and the U.S.,” IAAAC wrote. “The Cisco case names it and asks all of us to take it seriously. Caste discrimination is as toxic as race and gender-related discriminations. Neglecting caste is tantamount to allowing your company to be a hostile workplace.”

The letter added that "the Indian high-tech workforce … is overwhelmingly composed of 'dominant caste groups' who enjoy a 'traditional' social power and status over other caste groups. What this means is that every tech company is potentially a Cisco in terms of active caste discrimination at your workplaces.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit rights organization, compared India’s abuse of Dalits to the mistreatment of blacks in the U.S.

“Dalits have been really pushing the rest of the South Asian community that if you want to really show up for Black lives, you have to work on your internal hegemonies of caste and that will really change the way that you show up for all oppressed peoples,” Soundararajan said.

Yashica Dutt, a Dalit activist, wrote in the New York Times: “Caste prejudice and discrimination is rife within the Indian communities in the United States and other countries. Its chains are even turning the work culture within multi-billion-dollar American tech companies, and beyond.”

Dutt added: “Most Dalits in America still live with the fear of being exposed. But the pending California [versus] Cisco case is a major step in the right direction.”

Dalits from other leading Silicon Valley companies – including Google, a unit of Alphabet (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX), among others – have also reported cases of caste discrimination by higher caste Indians, VICE reported, although it is not clear if any of them have filed lawsuits.

“I think that every single tech company is vulnerable,” Soundararajan told VICE. “I think that the whole [Silicon] Valley is watching what happens with the Cisco case.”

Sanjoy Chakravorty, professor of geography and urban studies and global studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, told International Business Times that he was not aware of any other caste-discrimination legal cases in the U.S.

“Caste is not a relevant category in U.S. society,” he said. “So, there are no such policies in the U.S.,” to fight such discrimination.

Among Indians in the U.S., Chakravorty thinks caste prejudice is likely more prevalent among recently arrived immigrants.

“Immigrants often carry their cultural biases and values into their new lands, whereas it is more likely that Indians born in the U.S. would be more prone to the biases and values of their birth country,” he said. “That said, this is an assumption. Also, Indian-born people are far, far more numerous in IT than Indian-Americans.  The latter tend not to become engineers or IT people; the inclination towards medicine and law is much stronger. Moreover, the number of adult Indians born in the U.S. is a small fraction of adults who were born in India and now live in the U.S. So, caste discrimination is a story of Indian immigrants, not Indian-Americans.”

Andrew Melzer is a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp, a law firm that represents employees in workplace discrimination cases but is not involved in the Cisco litigation. He told IBT: “It is extremely disappointing that this type of discrimination is occurring in the United States in 2020. When it happens, the victims should be entitled to recourse and responsible employers like Cisco should be held accountable for their conduct.”

Melzer added: “We are not aware of any specific laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of caste. However, there is a strong argument that this form of workplace bias fits within existing protections against discrimination on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, and/or national origin. [DFEH] should be applauded for taking a stand and pushing the issue forward.”

Reports of caste-related workplace discrimination have periodically arisen in the U.K., which has a large South Asian community.

However, caste is not currently one of the protected characteristics under the British government’s Equality Act [of] 2010 – thus, caste discrimination is not explicitly prohibited in the U.K.

Nonetheless, about five years ago, a low-caste Indian woman received £184,000 ($239,000) in what is believed to be the U.K.'s first caste-discrimination case

Permila Tirkey, a low-caste woman from the Indian province of Bihar, was hired by an upper-caste Indian couple in the British city of Milton Keynes to work as a housekeeper and nanny.

However, Tirkey was forced to work 18 hours a day for as little as 11 pence (14 cents) an hour.

Her employers, Ajay and Pooja Chandhok, also forced Tirkey to sleep on a mattress on the floor, have no contact with her family in India and had her bank account controlled by the Chandhoks. Tirkey lived this way for more than four years.

Moreover, a government-commissioned report found evidence of widespread caste discrimination and harassment in Britain.