Payal Mohta, South China Morning Post, October 4, 2020
In September, Japanese multinational tech company NTT Data said it was taking “appropriate action” against one of its Indian-born employees for sharing casteist slurs on Facebook.
Rashmi Agochiya, who reportedly worked at one of the firm’s American offices, identified herself as “high caste” and repeatedly denigrated “bhangis” – members of a caste in India that have been historically employed as manual scavengers or toilet cleaners.
“We are aware of recent unacceptable posts and are taking appropriate action,” the company said in a post on September 11. “NTT Data does not condone hate speech or bigotry of any kind.”
This was the second incident of caste-based discrimination that was exposed this year in the US technology sector – which has many employees of Indian origin.
In the mid-1990s, it employed close to 100,000 workers a year from India. In recent years, about three-quarters of the 85,000 H-1B visas approved annually have usually been held by Indian workers, mostly from the IT sector.
On June 30, California regulators sued Cisco Systems, accusing it of discriminating against an Indian-American employee by allowing him to be bullied by managers who were of a higher caste than him, including stonewalling the victim’s career progress for over two years.
The case was seen by activists as a watershed moment as US law does not recognise caste-based discrimination as illegal.
In India, the social order is based on an ancient hierarchical system derived from the Hindu religion. On top of the caste ladder are “Brahmins”, while at the bottom are “Dalits”, who carry out bonded labour and sanitation work considered to be spiritually polluting.
Discrimination on the basis of caste is prohibited by Indian law but crimes against lower caste citizens have risen in recent years.
According to a 2018 report by the National Crime Records Bureau, there were some 193,000 crimes committed against Dalits that year – more than six times the number recorded five years before. Of those, Dalits, who number about 200 million in India, were overwhelmingly victims of murder, assault and rape.
A 19-year-old Dalit woman died last week after she was allegedly gang-raped by upper caste men from her village in north India. This case and others sparked street protests and social media outrage.
“Wherever South Asians go, they take caste with them,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit-American and director of Equality Labs, a California-based human rights organisation. “Though there is a general culture of silence around caste, with people assuming that it does not exist [in the US].”
A report by Equality Labs in 2018 found that 67 per cent of Dalits in America have faced caste discrimination at the workplace, 40 per cent in schools, and 40 per cent at temples.
South Asians, who currently number 4.9 million, are the fastest-growing immigrant community in America, with about 80 per cent of people being Indian.
Nearly three dozen Dalit tech professionals – including present and past employees of firms such as Cisco, Deloitte and Infosys – agreed to share their experiences in the US, but all requested their full names not be used over concerns they would be stigmatised.
“Whenever there were Indian managers, they directly or indirectly asked me my caste,” said Kumar, a 53-year-old tech professional in the East Coast who has lived in the US for three decades.
“Once at a dinner with our white client, my boss began to praise the caste system in India as a way of assigning specialised roles to each individual,” said another tech worker in his mid-40s from Georgia. “I argued that he was wrong and that the caste system was a menace and stripped those who are lower in the social hierarchy of all dignity.”
Following the incident, he was told to return to the company’s headquarters in India due to “poor performance”.
“Most senior managers are Brahmins. So few people dare to fight the discrimination – you could lose both money and your visa,” said the Georgia-based worker who has lived in the US for the past 10 years. “I myself wouldn’t take the chances.”
In the Cisco case, the managers were Brahmins and the subordinate was Dalit. A 2016 study found that over 90 per cent of Indian migrants in the US came from dominant castes, making fair redressal mechanisms at work places with significant Indian populations almost impossible.
Most Dalit-American IT professionals said India’s prestigious technology universities, where there were no “checks and balances” against caste discrimination, were a “breeding ground” for casteism.
The upper caste students there usually formed strong alumni networks that continued to operate even overseas.
Casteism is also seen at US academic institutions, where one in three Dalit students report being discriminated against during their education, Equality Labs’ report showed.
“I often heard from upper caste students that it was ‘Brahmin’ intelligence that was being exported to the US,” said a California-based Indian graduate from Washington State University, who is in his early 30s and comes from a dominant caste.
Indian migrants of lower castes say their status affects their ability to socialise with the wider South Asian community.
“I’ve lived here for over a decade now, and still my wife and I have no friends because people know our caste identity,” said a Dalit tech worker in his early 30s who lives in a predominantly Indian neighbourhood in Jersey City. “It’s beginning to affect our kids now.”
The main reason why caste structures continue to exist in India and its diaspora is marriage – 95 per cent of Indians still marry within their caste.
“I don’t even want to try and date Indian-Americans sometimes,” said a Dalit-American sociology graduate in her late-20s from the East Coast. “Because at some point, you know you will face that caste question and then that discrimination.”
Discrimination by caste ultimately led to people upholding racist structures in the US as well, said Soundararajan of Equality Labs.
“Caste will always try to maintain its power and lean upwards,” she said. “So when [South Asians] move to another country, we map it to the systems in the US – ‘anti-Dalitness’ becomes anti-blackness.”
Those at the forefront of America’s anti-caste movement say there are many policy remedies that could protect the rights of caste-oppressed people.
Making caste a status protected by US federal law would be one of the biggest steps forward, which would enable caste to become one of the indicators of diversity within a company, and encourage human resources professionals and academic counsellors to undergo caste competency training.
Dolly Arjun, a Dalit-American who formerly worked as a paralegal in the US immigration sector, said policies needed to change at the borders, too.
“The immigration policy in the US is very classist. It’s biased to people who have had more access to privileges like education,” Arjun said. “That’s something lower caste folks or Dalits are already denied in their homeland.”
Meanwhile, as the fight against Indian caste discrimination goes on in the US, one Dalit-American is doubtful there will ever be a casteless society.
“It’s difficult to take caste out of people’s minds,” said Manoj, a 55-year-old tech worker. “It’s like a disease and you can’t treat millions of people for it.”