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Tuesday, 29 September 2020 10:49

At home or abroad, India's caste system comes to the fore

At home or abroad, India's caste system comes to the fore Pixabay

The US state of California has sued networking giant Cisco claiming that one of its Indian employees, who belongs to the lowest caste on the Indian caste system, faced discrimination from his superiors, both Indian and from a higher caste.

The man on whose behalf the California regulator has acted has not been named. A report in the Los Angeles Times said he had about two decades experience and worked as part of a team at Cisco's headquarters in San Jose.

The two men against whom the case has been brought have both been named as Cisco supervisors and higher-caste Indians, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompell.

India has a deeply entrenched caste system with Brahmins at the very top and others below. At the bottom of this system are Dalits or untouchables.

This writer has had first-hand experience of how the caste system operates, having lived and worked in an Indian village for nine months in the 1980s.

The lawsuit says: "Higher caste supervisors and co-workers imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace."

The regulator alleged that the way the man was treated violated Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

iTWire confirmed from Cisco that the case, which the LA Times wrote about on 22 July, has yet to be settled, and sought the company's reaction.

A Cisco spokesperson said: "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."

Commenting on the case, Rajiv Rao, an Indian who writes for American tech site ZDNet, pointed out that since news of this case was made public, "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."

A large percentage of the Indians who have gone to the US to work in the tech or other industries are from higher castes. A recent article in The Wall Street journal pointed out that both Sundar Pichai, the head of Alphabet, and Indira Nooyi, who was the head of Pepsi, were both Brahmins from Tamil Nadu.

The mother of Democrat vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris is also from the same caste.

In the WSJ article, writer Sadanand Dhume has given a detailed account of the Indian and Tamil Brahmin diaspora.

Rao commented: "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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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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