The scourge of caste discrimination extends large, making its way into every structure of society.
In April 2022, when Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and director of Equity Labs --- a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits, or members of the lowest-ranked caste --- was scheduled to deliver a speech at Google on Dalit History month, she was called ‘Hindu-phobic’ and ‘anti-Hindu’ by the employees of the tech giant. And eventually, the talk was cancelled opening discussions around Google and perhaps its apathy towards caste talks.
Going two years back, in the summer of 2020, several employees of large tech firms like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Cisco came forward with harrowing tales of workplace discrimination, including being paid less, denied promotions, and mocked for their caste background.
In her recent speech, Kshama Sawant, the Indian-American socialist politician who pushed the caste discrimination ordinance passed by the Seattle local government last week, alleged that caste discrimination is prevalent in some of the major tech giants.
Sawant said that she was able to achieve this historic feat despite tough opposition mounted by a group of Indian-Americans, whom she described as "right-wing Hindus", resistance from the tech companies, and almost no cooperation from the Democrats.
"As far as the tech sector is concerned, I can also share that it really runs the spectrum, all the way from IBM to Google, Amazon, Cisco and Microsoft,” she said.
In the summer of 2020, John Doe, an Indian Dalit working for Cisco, a US-based digital communication tech company, spoke about the harrowing experiences he was facing based on his caste. He would often be denied opportunities, increased pay and equal treatment by his managers and co-workers. Incidentally, his managers were Indians who belonged to the higher caste.
When the matter was brought to the surface, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing brought suit against Cisco and pulled up the management for indulging in unlawful employment treatment.
Doe’s story soon resonated with many other workers across several big tech companies in the US and soon a report of workplace discrimination roiled Silicon Valley. Eventually, a group of more than 30 Dalit women engineers in a conversation with the Washington Post revealed the rampant caste bias in big tech companies and urged them to be an inclusive workplace.
“The millennia-old structure of caste discrimination and the systemic oppression of Dalits, which has been described as a system of “apartheid,”9 the “(c)onstancy of the (b)ottom (r)ung,”10 and reduction to the “lowest of the low,”11 a fixed position that followed Doe and these thirty women engineers halfway around the world,” a 2020 journal Title VII and Caste Discrimination reads.
Time and again, the contours and impact of the caste system have found their way back into every aspect of social and corporate structure often leading to a discourse that caste discrimination knows no capitalism or socialism. It is deep-rooted everywhere.
In her recent speech Sawant also said, "I would imagine that if there is more momentum around this issue if you're able to win more big trees on this issue, we will probably see more and more evidence of this type of thing happening in other spheres as well, whether it's education or more in social settings."
But the question remains, how is the same possible when the ‘big trees’ are often guarded by their own social values and deny to address the hesitation around caste and social issues?
Here, we must look back at how Google came under fire following the dismissal of Soundararajan’s talk.
In a report in June 2022, the Washington Post wrote how ‘the rising Hindu nationalist movement that has spread from India through the diaspora has arrived inside Google, according to employees.
According to the report, company employees started spreading “disinformation” about Soundararajan, including allegations that she was “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu”. The information was based on documents “as well as interviews with Soundararajan and current Google employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity”.
“During this time, opponents to caste equity internally circulated disinformation about Soundararajan and Equality Labs to derail the civil rights event until its ultimate cancellation,” Equality Labs said in a statement.
Google News senior manager Tanuja Gupta and an employee of Google for nearly a decade, who had invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned over the cancellation of the talk.
“In the process of doing my job and promoting caste equity at the company, I saw four women of colour harassed and silenced. The reality is that these are not isolated events, this is a pattern,” Gupta said in her letter that was accessed by the Post.
Soundararajan had also written to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, an upper-caste Indian, to allow her presentation and discussion, but all in vain.
The discussion was initiated in the aftermath of the murder and death of George Floyd that had sparked a worldwide debate over the woes of racism in the west. And at that time, Equality Labs began receiving speaking invitations from tech companies including Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Adobe, and so on.
However, in her interview with the Post, Soundararajan said that most organisations would not do what Google did. “It’s absurd. The bigoted don’t get to set the pace of conversations about civil rights,” she said.
Several reports underlined how numerous employees within the company expressed the view that any talk on caste discrimination was offensive to them as Hindus, and made them feel unsafe. They were perhaps “threatened”.
As observed, the caste system is rooted in Hinduism. And it continues to live in modern Hindu practice. Although there is an effort to thwart the evil of castes, true Hindu beliefs eschew it.
Following the Cisco row, Apple updated its general employee conduct policy in 2020 to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste, which it added alongside existing categories such as race, religion, gender, age and ancestry.
Two years after that, in 2022 the big tech became an early leader in policies to rid Silicon Valley of a rigid hierarchy that's segregated Indians for generations.
The new policy perhaps came as a somewhat relief that goes beyond the US’s laws of discrimination that, until then, did not explicitly ban casteism.
However, it can only be viewed as an example of anti-casteism and racism which otherwise results in the fortification of exploitative structures.
As the journal, Title VII and Caste Discrimination goes, “ But modern Hindu practice continues to recognize and entrench caste in religious and social practice and interaction, and people suffer oppression and discrimination on the basis of caste.”