After case against Cisco, US group gathers evidence against caste discrimination in Silicon Valley

Bengaluru | Mumbai: A technology workers’ association in the United States is collating evidence from Dalit workers about alleged discrimination they have faced from Indian colleagues, to spread awareness about such practices in the industry and to usher in changes to employment practices.The Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC) in California initiated the move following the US State’s lawsuit against networking technology company Cisco Systems for allegedly denying professional opportunities to an unnamed software engineer, based on the individual’s caste.The case between the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), an agency of the State of California, versus Cisco Systems Inc and individuals Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, is ongoing. ET has reviewed a copy of the case.“Employees have no avenue to raise issues of caste-based discrimination at workplaces,” said Karthikeyan Shanmugam, executive committee member, AKSC and Tech Workers Coalition (San Jose), Santa Clara. “We are collecting testimonies from more professionals. So far, nearly 60 people have come up and a majority of them are from technology companies.”The coalition intends to provide the evidence it collects to the DFEH and aims to bring in changes in employment practices that count discrimination against a person based on caste as unlawful.In June, DFEH charged Cisco with engaging in “unlawful employment practices on the bases of religion, ancestry, national origin or ethnicity, and race or color against complainant ‘John Doe’ (a legal term to protect the name of the individual) and after he opposed such unlawful practices, the company retaliated against him.”The California state authorities also claimed that the networking technology company “failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent such unlawful practices in its workplace, as required under Fair Employment and Housing Act.”In the lawsuit, Iyer has been accused of informing his colleagues that the unnamed defendant had studied at an Indian Institute of Technology (it was not specified which) through affirmative action.The defendant alleged that he was demoted and isolated from other colleagues after he confronted Iyer.Kompella, who had the ability to recommend employment actions for those on his team including the defendant, has been accused of supporting Iyer in the defendant's isolation from colleagues, in the lawsuit. Cisco has said previously that it acted in compliance with its own policies and all concerned laws. The company has said it would defend itself against all allegations. The lawsuit against Cisco has galvanised more IT professionals in Silicon Valley to express their experiences over caste discrimination. The case has also ignited conversations on caste identity in technology companies among professionals.“The incident (at Cisco) illustrates both the casual and commonplace presence of everyday caste-based practices at the workplace, and the more conscious practice of caste discrimination pervasive in the US amongst Indian Americans, Indians and South Asians,” AKSC said.The US is home to more than 4 million Indians, according to US Census data, with a significant number of technology professionals moving there following the IT outsourcing boom of the 2000s.Murali Shanmugavelan, a supporter of AKSC based in the UK, said that AKSC has received encouraging responses and that HR managers were taking note of such incidents. “They (AKSC) are hoping to get more examples. AKSC is probably going to see if there is a pattern to such incidents,” he added.Industry experts said caste-based discrimination in the Indian IT industry has been prevalent but has not been brought out into the open.“These kinds of incidents keep happening but are less talked about. There are not many Dalits in the IT industry and they are surrounded by a majority of upper caste employees or superiors,” said Carol Upadhyay, social anthropologist and associate professor at the School of Social Sciences in the Bengaluru-based National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). “They may not feel confident to protest such treatment”.The lawsuit has also sparked conversations on caste identity at the workplace in Cisco India.“The case is definitely being discussed on internal chat platforms. It has probably created some awareness. There should be no room for a caste or regional bias,” a Cisco employee based in Bengaluru told ET, pleading anonymity.Nitin Kumar, CEO of Silicon Valley-based self-healing software startup Appnomic, said the human resources policies of organisations should specify a zero-tolerance approach towards caste-based and race-based discrimination.“There are phrases used more with subtle derogatory meaning than praiseworthy tones to reference or stereotype people from certain states or regions,” Kumar said.