The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley
The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley
Indian immigrants from Dalit backgrounds are rising up against caste discrimination at their workplaces in the United States.
By Yashica Dutt
Ms. Dutt is the author of the memoir, “Coming Out as a Dalit.”
- July 14, 2020
Cisco Systems headquarters in San Jose, Calif.Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
On June 30, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing regulators sued Cisco Systems Inc., for discrimination. The cause was not, like most workplace discrimination lawsuits, based on race, gender, age or sexual orientation. It was based on caste.
The lawsuit accuses Cisco, a multibillion-dollar tech conglomerate based in San Jose, Calif., of denying an engineer, who immigrated from India to the United States, professional opportunities, a raise and promotions because he was from a low caste, or Dalit, background. The lawsuit states that his Indian-American managers, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, who are described as high-caste Brahmins, harassed the engineer because of their sense of superiority rooted in the Hindu caste system.
Many Indian-Americans reacted with disbelief that a giant corporation in Silicon Valley could be mired in caste discrimination. For Dalit Americans like me, it was just another Wednesday.
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.
Caste is the gear that turns every system in India. “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. He was prophetic.
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. The Cisco engineer, whose complaint led to the lawsuit and who identifies himself as a Dalit, has not been named in the lawsuit.
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.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, I 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 us. “They openly discussed their caste and would ask questions to figure out my caste background.”
Higher caste Indians use the knowledge of a person’s caste to place him or her on the social hierarchy despite professional qualifications. “I usually ignored these conversations,” the Dalit worker added. “If they knew I was Dalit, it could ruin my career.”
According to the lawsuit, Mr. Iyer, one of the Brahmin engineers at Cisco, revealed to his other higher-caste colleagues that the complainant had joined a top engineering school in India through affirmative action. When the Dalit engineer, the lawsuit says, confronted Mr. Iyer and contacted Cisco’s human resources to file a complaint, Mr. Iyer retaliated by taking away the Dalit engineer’s role as lead on two technologies.
For two years, the lawsuit says, Mr. Iyer isolated the Dalit engineer, denied him bonuses and raises and stonewalled his promotions. Cisco’s human resources department responded by telling the Dalit engineer that “caste discrimination was not unlawful” and took no immediate corrective action. Mr. Kompella, the other Brahmin manager named in the lawsuit, replaced Mr. Iyer as the Dalit engineer’s manager, and according to the suit, “continued to discriminate, harass, and retaliate against” him.
In 2019, Cisco was ranked No. 2 on Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Diversity. The technology giant got away with ignoring the persistent caste discrimination because American laws don’t yet recognize Hindu caste discrimination as a valid form of exclusion. Caste does not feature in Cisco’s diversity practices in its operations in India either. It reveals how the Indian information technology sector often operates in willful ignorance of the terrifying realities of caste.
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. According to a 2018 survey by Equality Labs, a Dalit-American led civil rights organization, 67 percent of Dalits in the Indian diaspora admitted to facing caste-based harassment at the workplace.
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.
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.
Those words also governed my life until 2016, when I decided to publicly reveal my caste identity and “come out” as Dalit. Growing up “passing” as a dominant-caste person in India while hiding my “untouchable,” caste I lived in the same fear that stops most Dalits from articulating their harassment and asserting their identity in India and the United States.
The overwhelmingly higher-caste Indian-American community is seen as a “model minority” with more than an average $100,000 median income and rising cultural and political visibility. But it has engendered a narrative that is as diabolical as it is in India: insisting that they live in a “post-caste world” while simultaneously upholding its hierarchical framework that benefits the higher-caste people.
Ranging from seemingly harmless calls for “vegetarian-only roommates” (an easy way to assert caste purity), caste-based temple networks that automatically exclude “impure” Dalits, and the more overt and dangerous arm twisting of American norms — right-wing Hindu activist organizations tried to remove any mention of caste from California’s textbooks in 2018 — caste supremacy is fiercely defended, almost as a core tenet of Indian Hindu culture.
Yet after decades of being silenced, Dalit Americans are finally finding a voice that cannot be ignored. 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.
Yashica Dutt is an Indian journalist and the author of the memoir, “Coming Out as a Dalit.”
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The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley