On June 30th, 2020, the U.S state of California filed a lawsuit against the tech company Cisco for discriminating against an Indian-American engineer based on caste. It was filed against the company's San Jose headquarters campus, which has a workforce predominantly of South-Asian origin.
The lawsuit was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for discriminating against the employee on the grounds that he belonged to the population that was once known as the ‘untouchables’ under the caste system of India.
The Indian American employee who preferred to stay anonymous named two employees Sunder Iyer and Ramana Kompella, for harassing and discriminating against him based on caste. The two named employees work as supervisors at Cisco and belong to a high-caste.
The suit says that the engineer was allegedly forced to accept the caste hierarchy in the workplace, and when he refused to do so, they isolated him, decreased his role in the team, and reduced his salary. They even retaliated against him and assigned him to work with deadlines that were impossible to meet.
It is alleged that Iyer told other workers that the employee was Dalit and gained entry into the Indian Institute of Technology through affirmative action. The lawsuit further went on to accuse Cisco of failing to take ‘corrective action’ despite multiple investigations.
The Department of Fair Employment and Housing cited this as the civil rights violation of the engineer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, sex, colour, religion and national origin.
Though the law doesn’t explicitly state discrimination with regards to caste, it does prohibit workplace discrimination that is based on arbitrary factors. Currently, the case is still pending, and Cisco says it intends to ‘defend itself’.
Though this is America’s first case against the caste system, it doesn’t mean it is a new problem, and neither is caste-based discrimination an exclusive issue of Cisco. This issue has been widely prevalent across numerous workspaces in America.
“This is the first civil rights case in the United States where a government entity is suing an American company for failing to protect caste-oppressed employees and their negligence leading to a hostile workplace,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs.
Equality Labs is an organisation that seeks to fight against the issue of caste in the United States. The organisation’s survey in 2016 titled ‘Caste in the United States’ found that 67% of Dalits living in America have faced verbal or physical assault at their workspace based on their caste.
The same survey also reports that one in three Dalit students suffered some form of caste-based educational discrimination in the States. Dalit women too face their own set of challenges in workspaces. In addition to facing slurs that are manifested in caste, they are often subjected to sexual harassment in connection to the prevalence of caste-based sexual violence in India.
The lawsuit against workplace discrimination at Cisco has made several Dalit employees across America to come forward and speak up about the harassment they have been subjected to due to their caste. This is why California’s case is especially significant as it sheds light onto the sheer scale of this caste-based discrimination at both the work and educational spaces.
It is a landmark case as it shows that there is a need to include caste in the protected category and enable more such civil rights litigations. It formally recognises the existence of caste elements at work and educational spaces that form the breeding grounds for systematic discrimination, bullying and ostracisation to thrive.