Shanti vividly remembers April 2015. She was working with a prominent IT outsourcing company in the US. A tech worker with more than 10 years of experience, she was excited and looking forward to a flourishing career.
One day the project she was working on was given to a new team, which was packed with Indians. Soon after, Shanti and two other team members were side-lined on the grounds that the project did not require extra members. She was then laid off with the two colleagues.
A former colleague told her later that the team recruited replacements immediately after their departure.
Shanti said her exit had nothing to do with her qualification or skills. It was because the Indians in the team preferred to work with members of their own caste, according to her.
Shanti belongs to a community in Tamil Nadu that is considered backward by the state government.
“I could have sued, but it would have taken a lot more toll on my mental health,” she said. She also did not have proof that it was a case of discrimination and she was not sure how her experience would be perceived by the industry.
Instead, she found a new job.
Caste discrimination in the tech world? Really?
At any other time, the experience of Shanti would probably have been met with disbelief. But not so much after a lawsuit was filed on June 30 by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing against US tech major Cisco on behalf of a Dalit employee for work discrimination based on caste.
The lawsuit accused two upper-caste Brahmins, Sundara Iyer and Raman Kompella, of harassing the Dalit worker, referred to as John Doe to protect his identity, in their capacity as managers. Cisco was sued for allegedly denying the worker, who immigrated to the US from India, raises and professional opportunities as well as making him “endure a hostile work environment”.
The Cisco lawsuit has now put the spotlight on caste discrimination that has long pervaded the Indian community in Silicon Valley and the tech industry in particular.
“Well, what else do you expect when Indians who grew up prejudiced and follow the caste hierarchy in India go the US,” asked Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit activist and scholar. “They would obviously follow the same practice there.”
Moneycontrol spoke to Shanti and a scrum of IT engineers to understand the prevalence of harassment based on caste in the tech industry.
Armaan, a senior executive with a top IT firm in the US, and from a minority community in India, said he has not faced outright discrimination thanks to his senior position. “But if you ask me if it exists, of course it does,” he said.
Armaan said it has been five years since he was last promoted despite handling million-dollar client accounts. Most of his peers who joined the company in the same role with him have gone on to head verticals. “I can assure you that there was no difference in terms of performance because till date I am one of the go-to persons for handling a crisis and challenging clients.” Armaan said.
Why then was he not promoted?
“My superior who is from a dominant caste promoted people who he related to, be it same community or caste and I was just not. When it comes to climbing the corporate hierarchy, the bias exists,” Armaan said.
This bias, tech workers who spoke to Moneycontrol pointed out, is subtle in most cases.
“There is not much empirical data to show the extent of discrimination,” said Karthikeyan Shanmugam, executive member, Ambedkar Kings Study Circle (AKSC), an organisation that is involved in educating people about caste discrimination. The organisation is currently collecting testimonies from Dalits in the US about the discrimination they faced.
Indians in the US
Indians began moving to the US in the 1990s riding the wave of an IT services outsourcing boom. Most of these happened to be engineers from the upper caste community in India.
Today, the number of Indians living in the US has grown exponentially; by 2017, there were about 4 million Indians living in the US, according to a 2019 report by the Strengthening South Asian Communities in America. Indians are the third largest immigration group in the US after the Mexicans and Chinese.
The Indian population is more striking in Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the US. According to the 2019 report, there were about 5 lakh Indians in California, accounting for 1.3 percent of the state’s total population and home to 20 percent of the total Indian immigrant population.
There is no clear data on how many of these Indians are Dalits. But according to the lawsuit against Cisco, only 1.5 percent of the Indian immigrants were from the Dalit community as of 2003. This number could very well have increased now.
As Ilaiah emphasised, these engineers landed in new shores carrying some horrid habits from home. “It (caste bias) is something all of us grew up with and continue to live with,” said Shanmugam of AKSC.
Journalist Yashica Dutt underscored how caste bias has taken root in the Indian tech community in the US in a powerful article in The New York Times. “Caste prejudice and discrimination is rife within the Indian communities in the United States and other countries. Its chains are even turning the work culture within multibillion-dollar American tech companies, and beyond,” she wrote.
A 2018 Caste in the Unites States report by Equality Labs revealed that 67 percent of Dalits surveyed in the diaspora reported being treated unfairly at their workplace because of their caste. Up to 12 percent of Shudras had the same experience.
The report also revealed that though Indians are by far the largest community to command a large payscale, there is a catch here. Close to 30 percent of Dalits and 25 percent of other lower caste people in the diaspora are still making less than $24,999 a year. But only 10 percent of Brahmins make less than $24,999 a year.
“Discrimination is as vast as the Indian population in the US,” said Ilaiah.
Indeed, divisions in the Indian community in the US run deep. Indians from one caste are a tightly-knit unit in the US, according to Shanmugam. So as one moves around in the same circle even in the US, they tend to gravitate towards the same community in workplaces as well, he said.
Even IIT and IIM graduates who are handpicked by the top US giants and IT firms to work in the US carry with them the bias, Shanmugam said. These divisions manifest at lunch breaks or informal team meetings, where there are large number of Indians.
That is what happened to T Kathiravan, a senior executive living in California. In his testimony to ASKC, which Moneycontrol reviewed, he shared how his direct manager from a dominant caste used a slur for Indian affirmative action policies and claimed that it would have destroyed any chances of education for his son back in India.
Tensions rise in the tech workplaces in the US — as it happens in India —when people from a community do not conform to caste norms. This too translates to discrimination, however subtle, both in workplaces and social life.
Take for instance learning music, especially Indian classical music, which has been dominated by the upper-caste community in India. AG Ramya, a Dalit living in California, said in her testimony to AKSC that she and her husband were enquired about their caste by the music teacher in the US when she wanted to enroll their daughter. The teacher told the family that only certain sects of people have the ability of master music, according to Ramya.
Devi, another tech worker, never fit in the US. For two years after she moved to the US in 2013, Devi, who has 15 years of experience, tried to take a stab at socialising with other Indians. She hosted parties, participated in community get-togethers and jumped from one group of Silicon Valley mothers to another.
“I just was not accepted,” reminisced Devi, who is from a community that the Tamil Nadu government has designated as backward class.
“Any group I go to, there are a standard set of questions I would be asked,” Devi explained. It was never what her caste was though, never that direct, she added.
“I would be asked if I have a Green Card, what kind of house I was living, if it was owned and if it had a lawn,” she said. “If answer to any of these questions is a no, I would be ignored totally.”
What is the solution?
Shanmugam said it has to start with sensitising the Americans, majority of whom are unaware of Indian caste system and think of Indians as a big monolithic group. “To understand more about workplace discrimination based on caste, we need to have empirical data on how people are being discriminated,” he added.
“Though discrimination may not always be obvious in workplaces, there is a tendency for upper caste leaning given that majority of the Indian supervisors are from this community,” he added.
The first step is to accept that such practices exist. “What we are trying to do is that urging these companies to recognise caste as operating similarly to race and gender as a source of discrimination and harassment and incorporate caste practices as unfair and punishable practice in their human resources policies,” Shanmugam said.
“Once that happens, we want to have caste-centric policy that will not only help Indian American citizens but also to global offices where caste has transported with South Asian employees," he said.The names of tech workers quoted in the article have been changed to protect their identity.