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.