It was reported last month (July) that the State of California has sued Cisco Systems, a worldwide leader in IT and networking, saying that an Indian-American engineer faced discrimination at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters because he belongs to the Dalit or lowest caste.
Dalits, once called “untouchables”, have long been at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy. Inequities and violence against Dalits have persisted in India for decades even after India banned caste discrimination in 1948, not long after it gained independence from the British. But the system continues to persist till today with devastating social effects.
High-caste supervisors accused of abusing Indian-American employee
The Indian-American engineer was said to be working in a team at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters with the other engineers who are Indian immigrants. Except for the Indian-American, the rest of his Indian immigrant team mates were said to be of higher caste, according to the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
The lawsuit noted that the ancestry of the Indian-American employee is of Dalit caste and that he has a darker complexion than the rest of his non-Dalit Indian immigrant team mates.
The “higher caste supervisors and co-workers imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace,” the lawsuit said. It added that the engineer was allegedly “expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where [he] held the lowest status within the team.”
The State of California alleged that Cisco’s treatment of the Indian-American employee violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. “It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth,” said Kevin Kish, California’s director of the fair-employment department.
Two men who were Cisco managers and higher-caste Indians, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, are named in the suit for discriminating against and harassing the Indian-American employee. The employee received less pay, fewer opportunities and other inferior terms and conditions of employment, and when he opposed “unlawful practices, contrary to the traditional order between the Dalit and higher castes, [the] defendants retaliated against him,” the lawsuit said.
Apparently, when the employee contacted Cisco human relation department, Iyer retaliated by taking away the employee’s responsibilities and made other changes that reduced his role. Iyer then made him feel isolated from his coworkers by telling others to avoid him.
Cisco accused of not taking steps to prevent discrimination of Indian-American employee
After Iyer stepped down, Kompella replaced him. It was alleged that Kompella “continued to discriminate, harass, and retaliate” against the employee, including “giving him assignments that were impossible to complete under the circumstances”.
Cisco did not take steps to prevent the discrimination of the American even after multiple investigations, the lawsuit further alleged.
In a statement to the media, Cisco said that it is committed to an inclusive workplace. It refuted the lawsuit, saying that it has “robust processes to report and investigate concerns raised by employees”, and that it is in compliance with all laws and its own policies. The company said it would vigorously contest the allegations.
Cisco spokeswoman Helen Saunders declined to say whether Iyer and Kompella are still at Cisco.
Many large Silicon Valley companies employ large number of Indian nationals
According to Reuters, many large Silicon Valley employers do employ thousands of Indian immigrants, “most of whom were born Brahmins or other high castes”.
CNN also reported that Cisco employs a large number of Indian nationals. The company is said to be among the top 20 recipients of H-1B work visas (equivalent to Singapore’s Employment Pass) last year, with Indian nationals accounting for more than 70% of H-1B visas granted by the US each year.
Despite being officially abolished, caste continues to be a pervasive issue even among Indians in the US. According to a 2018 survey by civil rights group Equality Labs that was cited in the lawsuit, 67% of Dalits “reported being treated unfairly at their workplace because of their caste.”