Dalits fight back against discrimination in Silicon Valley

The Cisco logo is seen at their booth at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo

NEW YORK – For Dalits, who have silently faced caste discrimination in America, even after emigrating from India, a lawsuit by the state of California against multi-billion dollar technology conglomerate Cisco is a moment to savor. They can hope change is around the corner, if the verdict – in the first such case in US history – goes in the favor of an unnamed employee, who is a Dalit by caste.

The lawsuit by California regulators allege that two Cisco managers, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella – who are Brahmins – discriminated against an Indian American employee because of his Dalit caste.

The employee reported Iyer to human resources in November 2016 for outing him as a Dalit to colleagues, reported Reuters. Iyer allegedly retaliated, but Cisco determined caste discrimination was not illegal and issues continued through 2018, the lawsuit states.

Dalit writers and scholars and activists on caste discrimination have now highlighted the case, citing their own experience in America.

Yashica Dutt, author of the memoir, “Coming Out as a Dalit”, writing in The New York Times, this week, noted that Dalit, which means “oppressed,” is a self-chosen identity for close to 25 percent of India’s population, and it refers to former “untouchables,” the people who suffer the greatest violence, discrimination and disenfranchisement under the centuries-old caste system that structures Hindu society.

“If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian Caste would become a world problem,” B.R. Ambedkar, the greatest Dalit leader and one of the architects of the India Constitution, wrote in 1916.

Dutt says that “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 multibillion-dollar American tech companies, and beyond.”

From the mid-1990s, American companies, panicking at the feared “millennial meltdown’ of computer systems, were hiring close to 100,000 technology workers a year from India. An overwhelming majority of the Indian information technology professionals who moved to the United States were from “higher castes,” and only a handful were Dalits, she pointed out.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Dutt participated in a video call with about 30 Dalit Indian immigrants. A Dalit information technology professional on the video call spoke about moving to the United States in 2000 and working at Cisco between 2007 and 2013. “A large percentage of the work force was already Indian,” he told the attendees, she writes in the Times. “They openly discussed their caste and would ask questions to figure out my caste background.”

In “The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” a 2016 study of people of Indian descent in the United States, the authors Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh estimated that “over 90 percent of migrants” came from high castes or dominant castes.

“In the backdrop of caste supremacy in the Indian diaspora in the United States, when higher caste Hindus often describe and demonize Dalits as “inherently lazy/ opportunistic/ not talented,” even apparently innocuous practices like peer reviews for promotions (Cisco and several other tech companies operate on this model), can turn into minefields, ending in job losses and visa rejections for Dalits,” Dutt wrote.

The fear of retaliation if outed as a Dalit remains high through, Dutt explained, as she says that “Almost every Dalit person I spoke to in the United States, after California filed the lawsuit against Cisco, requested to remain anonymous and feared that revealing their identity as a Dalit working in the American tech industry filled with higher-caste Indians would ruin their career.”

Recounting her own experience, she says: “I was able to come out as Dalit because after moving to New York and avoiding Indian-only communities, for the first time, I was not scared of someone finding out my caste. Finding comfort and inspiration in movements like Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name and the tragic institutional murder of a Dalit student activist in India, I was able to understand and acknowledge that my history was a tapestry of pride, not shame.”


Most Dalits in America still live with the fear of being exposed. But the pending California vs. Cisco case is a major step in the right direction.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American artist and activist, and founder and executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, writing in The Washington Post, this week, reiterated her experience of caste discrimination in America: “…casteist slurs, untouchability practiced on me and my family, and aggression from police while protesting for our rights. When I came out as a Dalit-American woman, I faced rape and death threats that were part of campaigns to intimidate me. This violence forces many caste-oppressed people into silence.”

In 2016, Equality Labs conducted the first survey on caste discrimination in the United States, helmed by Dr. Maari Zwick Maitryei and Soundararajan. Surveying more than 1,500 respondents, they uncovered a problem that was much larger than they expected: One in four Dalits surveyed reported facing physical and verbal assault, one in three faced educational discrimination, and two in three workplace discrimination.

“This is why California’s caste case is so pivotal. The Cisco case opens up ramifications not just in California, but for all American companies with Indian employees in India and the United States that could face new legal scrutiny – particularly technology companies,” she wrote in the Post.

“All the elements of a hostile workplace exist for caste-oppressed Americans in Silicon Valley, which is often referred to within these networks as “Agraharam Valley,” invoking the part of an Indian village in which Brahmins, or members of the dominant caste, reside. The cycle begins in “premier” Indian educational institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, where dominant castes make up the majority of professors and students and where, as professor Ajantha Subramanian writes, successes are attributed solely to merit without acknowledgment of caste-based structural advantages. As a result, Dalit professors, students and workers face systemic discrimination, bullying and ostracization,” she adds.

Dalit women in tech face another series of challenges. One engineer reported to Equality Labs that her department supervisor discovered she was part of the Valmiki Dalit caste whose members, called “manual scavengers,” were often forced to clean up excrement. Her supervisor shared this with her team and they started ridiculing her, even asking her to clean up after team meetings. She left that workplace after she was sexually harassed by one of her supervisors, and believes she was targeted in connection to the prevalence of caste-based sexual violence in India, she writes.

Soundararajan says that “there is much more that U.S. and global institutions can do to address caste discrimination, including adding caste as a protected category in civil rights laws and company policies; conducting audits of caste and religious bias; implementing training and zero-tolerance policies for hostility in the workplace; and investing in scholarships, training sessions and coaching for caste-oppressed employees to thrive and advance.”


Encouraging news comes from a survey by Pew Research Center, which finds that many of the values of the feminist movement in America have been accepted across the political spectrum in the United States, even among Americans who don’t personally identify as feminists. The survey about gender equality comes 100 years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

For example, a majority of Democrats and Republicans – whether they identify as feminists or not – say it is very important for women to have equal rights with men. Similarly, majorities in both partisan coalitions support adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the survey analyzed.

The survey comes as scholars and commentators debate the impact of feminism on women’s rights and broader American culture. Some argue that feminism has become universal and that the values and principles of women’s equality and empowerment have already been adopted to a large extent by society, no longer requiring identification with the label of feminist.

Feminists, for instance, are much more likely than non-feminists to say the country has not gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men (74% vs. 39%). Feminists are also more likely to say the bigger problem is people not seeing discrimination against women where it really does exist, rather than people seeing discrimination against women where it really does not exist. About eight-in-ten adults who identify as feminist (81%) say not seeing discrimination is the bigger problem, compared with 53% of non-feminists, according to the Pew survey.


It noted that feminists are far more likely than non-feminists to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. Overall, Democrats and those who lean Democratic are more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say gender equality is very important, and they are more than twice as likely to say the country has not gone far enough in giving women equal rights (76% vs. 33%). And while most Democrats (85%) say the bigger problem is people not seeing discrimination against women where it really does exist, a much smaller share of Republicans (46%) say the same.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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