It may seem bizarre that the caste system, a centuries-old system that organises and stratifies human society, continues to play a heavy role in deciding which Indians prosper and which don’t within a space many consider to be an uber-meritocracy — the US tech landscape.
A recent lawsuit against two Indians, filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing on behalf of another Indian, has made waves over the past few months for all the wrong reasons. It has illuminated how the Indian caste system has terrorised one of the most marginalised groups in India.
Except, this time, it is happening in the US tech industry, a place that people normally associate with egalitarianism and a thirst for talent regardless of colour, race, religion, or any other creed.
Caste is a 2,000 year-old system for classifying society in the Indian subcontinent — or whatever other definition that can be used for the geographic spread that was depleted and then amputated by British colonial rule.
In this stratification, the priests — or the “Brahman” class — were at the top, the warriors or “Kshatriyas” came next, the merchants or “Vaishyas” formed the third tier, while labourers, artisans, and servants, known as “Shudras”, came last and essentially served the other three castes. Of course, it’s not so simple — in reality, there are over 5,000 castes and over 25,000 sub-castes in India, spawned by sheer geographical, cultural, and religious diversity.
What is homogenous across the country, however, is another category that exists completely outside of the caste system, on a rung so low that if you were forced to come up with the worst moral and physical degradations that you could think of, they would in all likelihood pale in comparison to what has transpired in India over centuries and continues to do so today.
These people that are deemed to be on the lowest rung are the Dalits. Self-named, Dalit means “oppressed”, but they are also referred to by Indian society as “achoot”, or, “untouchable”. Dalits have historically been involved in occupations such as working with leather, cleaning sewers, or killing rats and were therefore considered “spiritually impure”.
Not so long ago, if a Dalit saw a higher caste walking down the road, they would have to flung themselves to the ground to not contaminate the upper caste (UC) person with their shadow. Violaters would be beaten, often to death, and incredulously, they still are today.
All across India, Dalits — who comprise at least 25% of the population, or a staggering 400 million people — are barred from drawing water from the wells of UCs. Dalit children are either denied education or cannot study with UC peers; their villages are separate and hence, they are forbidden from walking through upper caste ones; they cannot eat where UCs eat; they cannot pray where UCs pray and God help them if they marry out of their caste. Their woman and children are physically and sexually abused on a serial scale.
If a person is born as a Dalit, they will die a Dalit, and their children are almost certainly destined to a life with no upward mobility.
While many scholars contend that the caste system became more inflexible under the British, who transformed it into a rigid, more easily governable structure that privileged Brahmans even more, others say this narrative is just an attempt by upper-caste Indian Americans to rewrite history books and erase any mention of Dalit oppression. While the British Raj did have a complex, destructive effect on caste, India’s pre-modern history was also most definitely defined by castes.
Coming back to the lawsuit, it focuses on a Dalit engineer — John Doe for the lawsuit’s purposes — who has twenty years of experience in software development that was placed under the leadership of Sundar Iyer at Cisco.
Iyer was a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and grew up in Bombay as an upper-caste Indian. He also completed his PhD at Stanford, founded two companies that were both acquired by Cisco, and has been named MIT Innovator of the year. A man of science and reason, and a person who places a premium on ideas, you would imagine.
Much like Iyer, John Doe also graduated from IIT.
The lawsuit alleges that the upper-caste Iyer recognised John Doe and instantly began ridiculing him in front of all the other higher-caste Indian employees at Cisco, saying that John Doe was a Dalit and only got into the engineering school because of affirmative action, which India implemented in 1980 under the then-Prime Minister VP Singh.
When John Doe indicated to Cisco’s human resources team that he wanted to file a complaint, he was allegedly told by the department that “caste discrimination was not unlawful”. Soon after, John Doe found himself demoted from his lead role on two projects. The lawsuit says that for two years, Iyer waged a sustained onslaught against John Doe’s career. He isolated him, didn’t give him any bonuses, and thwarted any chances for promotion.
Then, in a tragic double-whammy, Iyer was replaced by Ramana Kompella, also an upper caste engineer, who in a not-so-remarkable coincidence — considering how heavily networked upper-caste Indian techies are — also went to IIT. 90% of Indian immigrants in the US are upper caste. He was one year behind Iyer for his studies and also went to Stanford. Kompella eventually went on to teach at Purdue before leaving for Google, and then worked at Cisco.
If John Doe thought his salvation had finally arrived, he couldn’t have been more mistaken. The same pattern of intimidation allegedly continued under Kompella.
“Because both knew Doe is Dalit, they had certain expectations for him at Cisco,” the lawsuit alleges.
“Doe was expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where Doe held the lowest status within the team and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment because of his religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/colour.”
Cisco has vehemently denied any of this. “Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all,” the company said in a statement to online news site thewire.
“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.”
So far, neither Iyer nor Kompella have come forth with public statements about the lawsuit.
The lawsuit immediately opened up a wave of stories by Dalit techies who detailed their persecution in the US by high-caste Indians. At least 250 Dalit techies working in firms such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Netflix have reported instances of harassment, humiliation, bullying, and career-halting interventions by high caste Indians.
One Dalit woman who is from the Valkimi caste, whose occupation historically has been to clean up excrement, was humiliated by her Indian co-workers and asked to clean up after team meetings as some sort of sick joke. Another Cisco hand who worked there between 2007 and 2013 said his peer group discussed their own caste identities incessantly and were constantly trying to figure his out.
Dalits are still looked at as essentially subhuman, genetically inferior, and lazy by most upper-caste Hindus. This has been a special societal coding, effortlessly passed down from generation to generation.
You may be designing the hottest network switches or AI visual interfaces and have graduated from the most elite institutions, but that has not made a difference on how people have been conditioned to think when it comes to what cradle of caste people are disgorged from.
So, when a tightly knit club of upper-caste Indians get together, you can be assured that there’s a good chance that team composition for prized projects, promotions, and bonuses will only be for the chosen ones.
Meanwhile, the life of Dalit engineers are stalked by the daily terror of being outed.
Bullied, humiliated, with careers in tatters and H-1B visas revoked, their history continues to be a living nightmare.
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