Monthly Archives: July 2020

Californian case of caste-based discrimination re-awakens the need for specific legislation in the West

28th July 2020

For those who doubt the existence of caste-based discrimination among the South Asian diaspora, a case in America has revealed just how insidious it is.

California regulators have decided to sue Cisco Systems over alleged caste discrimination perpetrated by two Indian-American employees against a third. Whilst US employment law doesn’t include caste discrimination, The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has filed a lawsuit against the tech company, claiming that they did not act on the victim’s report of harassment. Cisco have argued that caste discrimination is not illegal, but perhaps this might encourage a landmark ruling, much like that of Tirkey v. Chandhok in the UK (which was the first piece of case law on caste-based discrimination), to press for changes to the law. At the moment, the DFEH will sue for violations to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (arguing that Dalits’ darker skin represents colour discrimination) and to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (which argues that as caste discrimination is primarily a Hindu practice, it is covered under religious discrimination).

The case involves two Cisco supervisors, both ‘so called higher-caste’ Indians. The first supervisor ‘outed’ one of the employees as a Dalit and told colleagues that he attended the Indian Institute of Technology through affirmative action (reservation). When the victim contacted the HR department wanting to file a discrimination complaint, the supervisor, in effect, demoted the claimant. Furthermore, the supervisor went on to disparage this employee to his co-workers and suggested that they avoid him, leaving him isolated. Then, having stepped down from his role, the supervisor’s replacement ‘continued to discriminate, harass and retaliate’ the employee, and gave him assignments that were impossible to complete. Consequently, he was forced to receive less pay and fewer opportunities.

The Californian government have been brave in making this move: it has demonstrated how serious it is about discrimination in the work place, and sends a clear message to the Indian diaspora that caste discrimination can’t be hidden behind religious or ethnic discrimination.

The US-based Ambedkar International Center (AIC) has written to the DFEH, explaining that this case is just ‘a tip of the iceberg’. In India, Dalits make up approximately 16% of the population, but as the AIC state: ‘After surviving through mental and physical agony, less than 2% [of] untouchables rise to level to get an opportunity to come to the US. These 2% [of] migrant Indians are very talented, hardworking and sharp techies, majorly from the top institutions of India.’

However, the press that the Cisco debacle has created has had some positive effects: ‘We have people from 30 companies reaching out and more folks are coming on board as they try to move their companies to address this issue proactively, given how large the scope and the scale of the problem is,’ said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs in the US. In the absence of legislation at this particular moment in time, perhaps the onus should be on encouraging companies to include caste in their inclusion and diversity policies, so that at least employees are aware of what is considered unacceptable behaviour.

DSN-UK director Meena Varma commented on the case in, stating that ‘In countries like the UK and the US, anti-caste laws are necessary because we cannot change a casteist mindset overnight, but we can we can try and change casteist behaviour … people will have to follow the rule of law. That’s why there needs to be legislative protection in these countries.’

The question is how this case can also encourage change in the UK. Several cases have been brought to the courts, but because of the nature of our legal system, a number have been dropped due to the high costs involved, or because a settlement has been reached before the case could be concluded, or the case has been dismissed because there is no clear legislation on caste-based discrimination and so must be tried using different parameters such as racial discrimination, which do not address the unique issue of caste. If there were a body of successfully tried cases from countries with South Asian diaspora, governments might finally recognise the existence of caste-based discrimination and adopt a more accepting attitude towards making statutory changes. We are unlikely to be fortunate enough to have a local government body that takes action as the State of California has, but it would be a significant win if we did.

Despite legal protection in India against caste discrimination, Dalits still have difficulty in entering the higher echelons of power. Thus emigration to the West is seen as an opportunity to succeed on a level playing field, where caste should, supposedly, be irrelevant. The mindset of superiority from a minority of dominant caste diaspora has no place in the US or the UK, however it appears that only specific legislation against caste-based discrimination will give Dalits the global protection that they need on the scale that they need.

DfID and FCO to be merged

9th July 2020

On 16 June Boris Johnson announced that the Department for International Development (DfID) will be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), under the rebranded department name of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. Due to be formally established in September, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will head up the new department while International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan will remain only until the merger is completed.

Why does this matter?

Well, let’s start with the fact that no consultation was made with the UK’s international development and humanitarian sector, who firmly believe that DfID is the most transparent and effective way for spending Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the benefit of the poorest. If that wasn’t quite enough, the government have ignored the recommendations of independent aid scrutiny bodies, including the International Development Select Committee. While DfID has an excellent reputation as an independent body that uses its expertise to make significant improvements globally (including on education, health, social services, environmental protection, sanitation and most recently assisting in dealing with the current Covid-19 pandemic), the FCO has been criticised for using UK aid to advance security and diplomatic interests, rather than directing it to reduce poverty. And herein lies the problem: transparency. In the 2018 Aid Transparency Index, DfID received a ‘very good’ rating of 90.6, whilst the FCO received a ‘poor’ rating of just 34.3. This year’s figures have kept DfID as ‘very good’, coming 9th out of 47 organisations; in contrast, the FCO, although lifted to ‘fair’, comes out in 38th position

The government has argued that the UK’s aid policy is too detached from its foreign policy and that the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid has left DfID with a budget five times that of the FCO. Furthermore, the PM believes that the money should be spent more strategically to protect British values from overseas threats and prevent funding being given to potentially corrupt countries. On the other side of the argument, there is concern (including from MPs on all sides of the political spectrum) that the more political FCO will have a negative effect on the specific poverty reduction goals and work on the ground that DfID so successfully achieves, by diverting resources to support British interests based on political strategy.

Having worked with DfID for many years, DSN-UK is extremely concerned by the change. They have been champions in addressing social exclusion and the rights of the poorest minorities, notably in India, and have been open to allowing input from us and other NGOs. In 2005 we pressed the department to include caste discrimination in their programme on Social Exclusion, particularly in regard to Nepal and India, and were delighted that joint initiatives with the World Bank ensured support for Dalit NGOs. More recently, in 2016, we made a joint submission with the Asia Dalit Rights

Forum to have ensure that the issue of caste-based discrimination was included in their Sustainable Development Goals. Our relationship with DfID has allowed us to make a genuine difference to the lives of Dalits.

Taking the opportunity during the 22 June House of Lords question time on Covid-19 and supply chains, Baroness Northover, asked a particularly pertinent question: ‘My Lords, with the downgrading of DfID, how do the Government now plan to enhance the rights of the many vulnerable women and girls working in supply chains, or the Dalits of both sexes in south Asia?’ Disappointingly, the only reply was that the department was not being downgraded. DSN-UK is proud to have put its name to a statement released by BOND and signed by 191 organisations, which clearly states our objection to this merger. We believe that DfID’s independence is crucial and that the UK is at risk of losing our internationally renowned position on overseas aid and consequently our ability to bring our influence to bear on the most pressing matters that the global community faces.