Art for Not Your Server.
Attendees at a 2019 rally for Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. | Shealah Craighead

Not Your Server

A tech company touts “inclusion,” while facing accusations of caste bias in the workplace

Attendees at a 2019 rally for Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. | Shealah Craighead
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Dressed in a polo shirt and standing in front of a video camera in an otherwise deserted office, Chuck Robbins appears defeated even as he announces a “new purpose” for his company, Cisco Systems: “to power an inclusive future for all.” Released in early June, the video’s ostensible purpose was to declare the tech company’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Toward the end of the sad little performance, Robbins pledges $5 million to charities that fight racism and discrimination.

The video is how Cisco Systems wants to present itself: a woke company led by a middle-aged white man who is committed to the very American quest for racial justice. One can almost believe it—almost. But on June 30, almost exactly a month after Chuck Robbins made his pledge, the public was granted a look into the company’s dirty innards. On that day, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a Title VII civil rights lawsuit against Cisco Systems.

The complaint, filed on behalf of an unnamed plaintiff who is an engineer at Cisco, alleges that the engineer was “expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where [he] held the lowest status within the team, and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment,” allegedly because of his status as a Dalit Indian. The employee also claims to have been harassed, discriminated against, and retaliated against at the San Jose campus of Cisco Systems.

According to the advocacy group Equality Labs, which works against caste-based discrimination around the world, caste is “a system of religiously codified exclusion, that was established in Hindu scripture. At birth, every child inherits his or her ancestor’s caste, which determines social status and assigns ‘spiritual purity.’” Hindu origin myths say humans were created from parts of Brahma’s body and should be allotted different status because of these origins. In modern India, there is a long history of activism demanding the abolition of caste. But the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen a revival of caste prejudice. According to Kapil Komireddi, author of the book Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, “the New India [Modi] has spawned . . . is a reflection of its progenitor: culturally arid, intellectually vacant, emotionally bruised, vain, bitter, boastful, permanently aggrieved and implacably malevolent . . . where savagery against religious minorities is among the therapeutic options available to a self-pitying majority frustrated by Modi’s failure to upgrade its standard of living.” Caste in India, as Komireddi recently expressed it to me, “is a form of sick communal solidarity premised on the degradation of others. It gives solace to worthless people who know they are worthless.”

Many of India’s greats, not least Gandhi himself, have failed to consistently condemn caste. In the current Modi-dominated India, the resurrection of Hindu nationalism has birthed a resurgence of casteism that may have waned during earlier secular periods of history. While India has complex legislative formulas to uplift the lower castes, the extent to which the system is ingrained in the Indian worldview would make it difficult to excise, even if there was the political will to do so.

But the California DFEH, the fair employment agency, does have the will to pursue the Cisco worker’s case, one of the first of its kind in the state. The fact that they chose this route is significant. Speaking as someone who has worked on civil rights cases under Title VII, it is unusual for an agency to file a complaint under its own imprimatur. A more common thing is to simply ask the plaintiff to pursue his or her own case while promising organizational support. For an agency to do this on behalf of the aggrieved party suggests their acknowledgement of a pattern of such complaints at the workplace.

What is happening within Cisco’s ranks is a microcosm of what is happening in India itself and hence also in the Indian diaspora in the United States.

The suit comes at a particularly bad time at Cisco, whose employment strategy resembles the challenges confronted by contestants on the recent Netflix game show Floor is Lava. The floor at Cisco seems perpetually perilous, with frequent layoffs a routine part of business. And Cisco is astonishingly glib about this. In late February, when the country was not yet in lockdown, the company announced that it was laying off a number of employees without specifying how many. Then, in April, it happily joined some other tech companies in a “no layoff” plan for the duration of the pandemic.

Cisco Systems is an American company that has had a presence in India since 1995; there is a large South Asian workforce in the company’s San Jose headquarters. In a sense, what is happening within its ranks is a microcosm of what is happening in India itself and hence also in the Indian diaspora in the United States. Paying lip service to Black Lives Matter while allegedly condoning caste-based hierarchies within its ranks is representative of Indian-American attitudes. In recent years, the Indian diaspora has filled arenas with people cheering for Narendra Modi, in Trump-style mega rallies. In September 2019, tens of thousands of Indians poured into an arena in Houston to celebrate Modi’s re-election and to pledge their support to Donald Trump. It makes sense, for according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, 90 percent of the Indian immigrant population is made up of dominant and upper-caste Indians, who have been further empowered under the Modi administration.

Modi-style Indian nationalism has resurrected the caste system as it tries to mold India into a Hindu state, rather than the secular democracy that it once was. Indian-Americans, many of whom are avid supporters of this project, perhaps including some within Cisco Systems, did not see the contradiction between demanding all the rights a religious minority is owed while in the United States and actively working to legitimize a hierarchical society based on caste back in India.

To understand the deep roots of caste in India, one need only look at the country’s sanitation problem, which is directly related to ideas of caste purity. In their book Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, authors Diane Coffey and Dean Spears describe the role caste plays in India’s lack of modern sewage disposal. According to a UNICEF and WHO report, 53 percent of Indians defecate in the open (compared to less than 10 percent in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo), leading India to having one of the world’s worst infant mortality rates (with 150 out of 194 countries ranking better than India). The reason behind this is caste; because the business of emptying latrine pits is considered dirty and polluting, it is the work of the lower castes. But some Dalits and other lower castes have refused to do the work anymore. The result, Coffey and Spears note, is that open defecation often pollutes the water supply, spreading disease, killing babies, and causing stunted growth.

Sadly, this understanding of caste is what some migrating Indians bring with them when they move to the United States. To work on a basis of equality with a lower-caste “untouchable,” whose ancestral legacy is understood to be carrying fecal matter, does not accord with their worldview. The consequence is the sort of system that appears to have existed at the San Jose office of Cisco Systems. As Equality Labs has said, South Asians take their caste wherever they go, a fact underscored by the group’s 2018 report, which says two out of three Dalits surveyed experienced discrimination at the workplace, and 60 percent reported being the butt of unwelcome jokes and teasing and harassment based on their caste.

The California action against Cisco Systems may be the start of a new era in which caste, like race, is listed as an immutable category that cannot be the basis of any hierarchy within any company. The challenge for California’s fair employment agency is huge: caste is not recognized in American law, and for this reason it is difficult to make an anti-discrimination case based on caste. Litigation around caste in the American legal system has sometimes involved immigration issues. The best known Supreme Court case involved a Sikh plaintiff who demanded that he be declared white and be given American citizenship because he was “a high caste Aryan of full Indian blood.” Ironically, plaintiff Bhagat Singh Thind’s demand, while not legally helpful in the case against Cisco, exposes just the sort of entitlements that lie at the heart of caste prejudice—not to mention the urgency of preventing its proliferation in the United States.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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