The Cisco Case Could Expose Rampant Prejudice Against Dalits in Silicon Valley

Networks of upper caste professionals work in tandem to keep out those they see as inferior.

San Francisco: Over 20 years ago, a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay figured that a classmate was a Dalit. The discovery was made when the student didn’t see the boy’s name on the general merit list, and so figured that he had been admitted to the prestigious institution via reservations, India’s affirmative action programme.

Decades later, when both men made it to the Silicon Valley headquarters of the tech multinational Cisco, the “upper” caste staffer carried the knowledge of the other man’s “lower” caste with him and even passed on the information to colleagues at work. Last week, Sundar Iyer, the man who “outed” the other man’s caste, found himself at the centre of a civil rights lawsuit filed by the California government, which accused Iyer, his colleague Ramana Kompella and Cisco itself of unlawful employment practices.

While the lawsuit is the culmination of years of investigations, it couldn’t have come at a more significant time. While caste discrimination has never been a major public issue in the US, the lawsuit comes at a moment when the country is confronting racial discrimination, giving the Cisco case a sharper edge.

A number of Dalits in US tech companies point to the irony of their casteist colleagues supporting Black Lives Matter while continuing to suppress Indians from so-called lower castes.

While caste discrimination among Indians in US workplaces is not new, tech companies largely ignored the practise, primarily because, in strictly legal terms, it is not unlawful.

Also Read: US Ambedkarite Groups Extend Support to Cisco Employee Who Allegedly Faced Caste Discrimination

A Dalit person contracted with an American multinational told The Wire that his offer letter talked of not allowing for discrimination on the basis of race or religion, but made no mention of caste. When he broached the subject with human resources (HR), he was told that the offer letter was for all geographies and that caste was not a global issue. Ironically, he says that even Indian MNCs in the US issue offer letters mentioning race and not caste.

California’s lawsuit will now make it hard for companies to ignore caste as a discriminatory practice. While the US has no specific law against the Indian caste system, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed the lawsuit against Cisco using a section of America’s historic Civil Rights Act. The Act is an outcome of the movement led by African Americans in the 1960s to end oppression and segregation.

The lawsuit accuses Cisco of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity and race/colour. The company is also charged with violating California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The lawsuit calls Cisco’s actions willful, malicious, fraudulent, and oppressive.

More than 90% of Indian immigrants to the US are from the upper castes, says the lawsuit, adding that the complainant, John Doe (a pseudonym widely used in American litigation) was the only Dalit in a team of upper caste Indians.

When contacted, Cisco spokesperson Robyn Blum sent The Wire an official statement, which says, “Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all. We have robust processes to report and investigate concerns raised by employees which were followed in this case dating back to 2016, and have determined we were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies. Cisco will vigorously defend itself against the allegations made in this complaint.”

Meanwhile, the lawsuit against Cisco paints a picture of an anything-but-robust system to deal with caste.

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

The case against Cisco

In October 2016, two colleagues informed John Doe, a principal engineer at Cisco, that his supervisor, Sundar Iyer, had told them that he (Doe) was from the “Scheduled Castes” and had made it to the Indian Institute of Technology via affirmative action. “Iyer was aware of Doe’s caste because they attended IIT at the same time,” said the case.

The suit says that, when confronted by Doe, Iyer denied having disclosed his caste.

In November 2016, Doe contacted Cisco’s HR over the matter. Within a week of doing so, Iyer reportedly informed Doe he was taking away Doe’s role as lead on two technologies. Iyer also removed team members from a third technology that Doe was working on and reduced his role to that of an independent contributor and he was isolated from his colleagues, the lawsuit says. In December 2016, Doe filed a written complaint with HR on the matter.

He also complained that Iyer had made discriminatory comments about a Muslim job applicant.

According to the suit, Cisco employee relations manager Brenda Davies’s investigation notes on the case showed evidence of caste-based discrimination, and yet she closed the case on the grounds that caste discrimination was not unlawful. The lawsuit says that her investigation notes even have Iyer admitting to outing his colleague’s caste by saying he was not on the “main list” at IIT.

The case says that Doe, who was further isolated and repeatedly harassed at work, called for a re-investigation. HR official Tara Powell reopened the investigation in April 2017. In a damning indictment of Cisco, California government investigations show that, despite employees telling Powell that Doe was being treated unfairly though he was technically competent, that Iyer was trying to push Doe out of the company, and that witnesses feared retaliation from Iyer if they spoke out against him, Powell closed the investigation on grounds that she could not substantiate any caste-based discrimination against Doe.

In February 2018, when Kompella became the interim head of engineering for Cisco’s team after Iyer stepped down, the lawsuit said he continued to “discriminate, harass, and retaliate against Doe by….giving him assignments that were impossible to complete under the circumstances.”

“Cisco’s training was deficient in that it did not adequately train managerial employees on workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, nor did the company prevent, deter, remedy, or monitor casteism in its workforce,” says the lawsuit.

Also Read: A Historic Congressional Hearing on Caste in the US

A 2018 report on caste in the US by Equality Labs, an Ambedkarite South Asian organisation, found that 67% of Dalits reported being treated unfairly at their workplaces. The report was cited in the lawsuit against Cisco. “The Cisco case is the tip of the iceberg. It is not an isolated case of harassment by an employer, but the symptom of a much deeper malaise,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist and executive director of Equality Labs told The Wire.

The detailed harassment documented in the lawsuit gives a clue why more people do not complain of caste discrimination.

The lawsuit reminded Raj, a former Cisco employee, of all the instances of casteism that he faced but did not document over the last 20 years at tech companies in American, because he never thought caste discrimination would be taken seriously. Raj is not his real name. Like most Dalit engineers that The Wire spoke to, he wishes to remain anonymous.

In the interest of career growth, he largely avoided working with Indians. “I did have one Indian-American boss, but since he did not grow up in India, he was very liberal and I had no problems with him,” says Raj.

Mohan, another Dalit techie, never experienced caste-based discrimination at work over the past 16 years in the US. This is because he never had an Indian boss. Those who did have Indian bosses found that revealing their views on caste could adversely impact their career, and sometimes even cost them their jobs.

Samir was once unable to hold back from expressing his views on caste at work. “At the time, I was a top performer at work. One day, a client mentioned the Indian caste system in a meeting. My upper caste boss tried to defend the caste system, saying it was actually good for India. I couldn’t control myself, and blurted out that while he may be upper caste, for us lower castes, the caste system was a curse.”

Samir says his appraisal was impacted by the revelation of his caste, his rating in the company slipped and he was transferred out of the US, to the company’s Indian office. “In a matter of minutes, everyone at work got to know my caste,” he says.

Many Dalits said that once a person’s caste was made public, the word spread rapidly through close-knit upper caste networks.

Samir, who went to the same IIT as Sunder Iyer and John Doe, said that he was ragged the moment he stepped into the hostel on account of his caste. The discrimination he faced in US tech companies was like a throwback to his college days.

Many Dalit students in IITs say they have faced caste-based discrimination. Photo:

Soundararajan of Equality Labs repeatedly points out that caste discrimination isn’t about isolated instances of an employee and manager. “Dalit employees are dealing with upper caste networks that operate across companies and share information with each other. So Dalits fear not only retribution from one person or company, but from an entire network that cuts across companies, severely affecting career prospects. These networks form a virtual noose around Dalits, throttling their potential to rise in their careers,” she says.

Vijay, (not his real name), an upper caste techie who is anti-caste, has first-hand knowledge of exclusionary upper caste networks. “Many of these closed upper caste groups were formed in Indian colleges, and remained so even after moving to the US. I used to be in a college WhatsApp group that was a sanitised savarna echo chamber,” he adds.

Vijay, who formerly worked with Microsoft, recalls being on an email discussion forum for Indians, which, in 2006, suddenly went from bashing reservations to bashing lower caste people, who, they claimed, don’t send their children to school. He says the forum even talked of eugenics, claiming upper caste people were genetically superior at intellectual work while lower castes were good at physical work.

He says a Dalit co-worker complained to the company HR, which shut down the forum. Eventually, even when it reopened, it was always supervised by the Microsoft HR department, he says.

How Dalits are ‘vetted’ for work

It’s little wonder, then, that many Dalits do not want to reveal their caste at work. But, of course, this does not prevent the upper castes from trying to find out. While some last names immediately give away a person’s caste, many don’t. So Dalits find themselves being constantly probed to reveal their caste.

One common way Indians is to figure a person’s caste out is by inviting them for Hindu religious worship sessions, such as the satyanarayan katha, at a temple. Raj declined such an invitation from a Brahmin colleague. “At the time he did not know my caste,” says Raj. He says the Brahmin then patted him on the back in a seemingly casual gesture, but one that he felt was actually meant to check whether he was wearing a janeu, a ‘sacred thread’ worn by the dwija castes. “Once he figured my caste out, he immediately stopped socialising with me. Dinner invitations stopped too.”

Mohit was used to questions about his caste being posed in India. His last name, which ends in “kar” does not immediately give away caste. In India, he was often asked whether he was a “kar” as in Tendulkar (a Brahmin) or “kar” as in [Dr B.R.] Ambedkar.

In the US, questions can be less direct. Four years ago, at a corporate lunch in New York, soon after receiving a high position at an MNC, Mohit was munching on chicken tandoori when an upper caste senior executive expressed surprise that he was not vegetarian. Vegetarianism, long associated with upper caste purity, is often used to figure a person’s caste out. Over time, Mohit has learned how best to answer such questions. “I said that I would eat anything that moved, but my parents were vegetarian.” In other words, he was suggesting that he was born into a Brahmin family. While this is untrue – he is a Dalit and his parents are not vegetarians – it’s a lie he repeats for the sake of his career.

“After grappling with an oppressive caste system, it can be traumatic for Dalits to be surrounded by assertive upper castes, particularly when alone in a foreign country. While the caste system is prevalent in India, at least you have your family to support you there,” says Raj.

Many upper caste Indians in Silicon Valley make it a point to identify the other person’s caste. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ben Loomis CC BY 2.0

Maya Kamble (an alias she uses for communication), a tech employee on the US east coast, declined an invitation from a colleague to attend a Hindu religious worship session, saying she was Buddhist. Her colleague said nobody in India was ever born Buddhist, implying that Buddhists in India were largely lower caste Hindus converts. “My colleague was wrong about her assumption. I was born Buddhist. Both my parents converted to Buddhism before I was born,” she says.

This wasn’t the only time Kamble was reminded by her colleagues that she belonged to a caste once considered “untouchable”. One day at work, she found her manager struggling with a technical problem. “When I offered to help, my manager, who is upper caste, said I was jinxed, and should not touch the project as I was ill-fated.”

Shailaja Paik, associate professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, likens the modern-day expression of the centuries-old Indian caste system, to the mutation of a virus. At a time when the world is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, she feels the caste system is an even more dangerous malaise – “a shape-shifting virus than travels across continents and mutates over time.”

Also Read: An Invisible Virus Highlights the Virulence of an Age-Old Visible Virus

Paik, who has extensively researched the oppression of Dalits, talks of the transnationalisation of caste, as Indians carry the baggage of caste across oceans, with dominant oppressor castes trying to recreate structures of power and privilege.

“Caste distinctions are deployed by Brahmins to frame their own merit and put down Dalits like John Doe as people who do not make it to the ‘main list’ at IIT and are from the ‘scheduled castes’, highlighting and emphasising that they (Brahmins) are inherently intelligent and superior while Dalits have less intellectual capacity,” says Paik, adding that the Cisco case in California is a direct replica of the caste hierarchies and inequalities prevalent at the IITs.

“When a Dalit like John Doe navigates the system, makes it to the IITs and even manages to get into Silicon Valley’s tech companies, he is still mocked for being someone who does not make it to the “main list”, and continues to be seen as inferior, just like his caste has historically been viewed. No matter what a Dalit does, it’s never enough,” says Paik.

Ashok, a former Cisco employee who grew up in the slums of India and made it to the same department at IIT as John Doe and Sundar Iyer, talks of just how rare it is for Dalits like himself to rise up the hierarchy and do well in life. Ashok wears a watch with Ambedkar on it. However, he does steer clear of conversations on caste with his superiors at work.

Anil Wagde, who also grew up in an Indian slum, recalls the time, in 2004, that he and other Dalits in Silicon Valley put up posters at Indian shops announcing celebrations for Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. “I refused to put my name on the poster for fear that people I worked with would get to know my caste, and would then respect me less,” he said. His fear came from the discrimination he had faced as a student in India. “The way roll calls were structured while taking attendance in college immediately gave away a person’s caste,” he said.

A portrait of Ambedkar. Credit: PTI/Files

The financial cost of caste discrimination

Dalits talk of the opportunity cost of not being part of upper caste networks.

“Many companies fill vacant positions with internal referrals. Upper caste Indians have the first-mover advantage and misuse the system of internal referrals to fill posts with people from their caste. In addition to excluding Dalits, this system also excludes Blacks and other minorities,” says Raj. Dalits are often afraid to speak of harassment because of company peer review systems for appraisals and promotions.

While there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence on caste in the US, anti-caste organisations are increasingly aware of the need for more data on the subject. This was particularly evident in 2015, when Hindu groups in California lobbied for the removal of caste from California textbooks.

Dalit activists were locked in battle with Hindu groups at the time. “When we shared our stories with the California textbook board, officials told us that they believed our stories, but that we needed more than anecdotes of discrimination to prove our case,” says Soundararajan. This is what inspired Equality Labs to conduct its 2018 study on caste in the US. “We were able to map the anecdotal evidence to the data,” she says. The Equality Labs report was cited in the Cisco lawsuit and was used throughout the US to help American Human Rights commissions, immigration courts, domestic violence agencies, and Congress to understand caste discrimination.

The case is significant and will be landmark one to establish what the American legal system thinks counts as discrimination. It is being watched closely by Indian Americans in the tech business and could potentially have wide repercussions, at the very least making companies more aware of how they should modify HR practices to include such behaviour as a discriminatory.

Anahita Mukherji is a US-based journalist.