Tech Industry or Caste System? Legal Case Sheds Light on Discrimination

Almost three years after a Dalit engineer in California filed a case against Cisco and his two supervisors for caste discrimination, the state’s Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissed the case against the two Cisco engineers but decided to keep the lawsuit against the tech giant.

The action comes as awareness of caste discrimination increases in the United States. Last February, Seattle became the first-ever city in the US to outlaw caste-based discrimination.

California also made history when state Senator Aisha Wahab introduced a law prohibiting caste discrimination. If passed, it would be the first state in the US to ban caste discrimination.

Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, the two higher-caste Cisco engineers involved in the case, allegedly discriminated against and harassed an employee because of caste, a division based on birth and descent. 

The Dalit engineer who filed the lawsuit in July 2020 recalled how he received less pay and fewer opportunities and how the defendants retaliated against him when he called out the “unlawful practices, contrary to the traditional order between the Dalit and higher castes” in the company.

The lawsuit also stated that the Dalit engineer worked with a team in Cisco’s San Jose headquarters with Indians who immigrated to the US as adults, and all belonged to higher castes.

Last week, the lawsuit was scrapped upon the Santa Clara Superior County Court orders. The employee who filed the lawsuit belonged to the Dalit community, located at the bottom-most part of the Indian caste system.

Despite the decision, however, California’s Civil Rights Department told the Associated Press last April 10th through a statement that the case against Cisco “remains ongoing.

“We will continue to vigorously litigate the matter on behalf of the people of California,” The state’s Civil Rights Department said, adding that the department remains committed to “securing relief and ensuring company-wide, corrective action.

Although the Cisco caste discrimination case fueled awareness and action against caste discrimination, which led to significant developments in Seattle and California, many in the South Asian community are still sharply divided.

Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said that the case is proof for activists who believe that “the state has no right to attribute wrongdoing to Hindu and Indian Americans simply because of their religion or ethnicity” is reasonable, adding that the two defendants “endured a nearly three-year nightmare of unending investigations, a brutal online witch hunt and a presumption of guilt in the media.

On the other hand, Equality Labs' executive director and founder, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, said that the case’s dismissal “does not change anything,” including the fact that the Cisco case “has given so many Dalits the courage to come forward with their stories about caste discrimination in education, the medical and tech industries.

This is not a loss but progress,” Soundararajan said. “The Dalit community owes (the engineer) and the Civil Rights Department gratitude for having the courage to bring such a historic case forward.

Cisco and California’s Civil Rights Department are scheduled for a mediation conference on May 2.

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