For the Indian diaspora in the West, the decision of California regulators to sue Cisco Systems over a case of alleged caste discrimination against an Indian-American employee marks an inflection point. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing has gone ahead and filed a lawsuit even though US employment law does not recognise caste discrimination. Two Indian-American employees of the tech multinational company have also been named as defendants, and accused of harassing a principal engineer, “outing” his “lower caste” identity and then proceeding to retaliate when he objected. When the employee reported the harassment to the company, Cisco did not act, on the grounds that caste discrimination was not illegal.
When Indians go abroad, they not only carry their skills, aspirations and love for Bollywood and masala with them, but also entire frameworks of inequality, especially caste. A section of people of Indian origin in the US and UK, those who are identified as “lower caste” by birth, have for long pushed for an acknowledgement of the reality of the discrimination they face as a result. But the larger Indian diaspora, which is seen as a model minority and enjoys the protection of anti-discriminatory laws in these countries, has often pushed back against such legal recognition. Nor has there been a sufficient acknowledgement of the caste and class capital that shapes “merit”, and allows high-caste Indians to seek the American dream in far greater proportions than religious minorities or those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. The California government’s move, firstly, signals a welcome seriousness in acting against discrimination at the workplace. It is also a message to the Indian diaspora that regressive caste practices cannot be hidden under a broad religious or ethnic identity.
In India, the constitutional protections against discrimination on the basis of caste, religion or gender came from a vibrant freedom movement, and were strengthened further by the deepening of electoral democracy after Independence. Yet here, too, equality is still a long, arduous work in progress. Socio-economic inequalities, workplace discrimination and the acute lack of diversity in India’s private sector are issues that have festered for too long. Several studies have shown how people from “lower castes” and minorities continue to be trapped in low-paying jobs, revealing a systemic bias that has been left un-addressed through policy. California vs Cisco is a welcome acknowledgement but will not show a way, until the larger polity decides to take the next steps to tackle the equity deficit.
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