Posted on June 5, 2022

Google’s Plan to Talk About Caste Bias Led to ‘Division and Rancor’

Nitashu Tika, Washington Post, June 2, 2022

The rising Hindu nationalist movement that has spread from India through the diaspora has arrived inside Google, according to employees.

In April, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs — a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits, or members of the lowest-ranked caste — was scheduled to give a talk to Google News employees for Dalit History Month. But Google employees began spreading disinformation, calling her “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu” in emails to the company’s leaders, documents posted on Google’s intranet and mailing lists with thousands of employees, according to copies of the documents as well as interviews with Soundararajan and current Google employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation.

Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who comes from an upper-caste family in India, to allow her presentation to go forward. But the talk was canceled, leading some employees to conclude that Google was willfully ignoring caste bias. Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News who invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned over the incident, according to a copy of her goodbye email posted internally Wednesday and viewed by The Washington Post.

Soundararajan — who has given talks on caste at Microsoft, Salesforce, Airbnb, Netflix, and Adobe — said Equality Labs began receiving speaking invitations from tech companies in the wake of the George Floyd protests. “Most institutions wouldn’t do what Google did. It’s absurd. The bigoted don’t get to set the pace of conversations about civil rights,” she said.


In a statement, Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry wrote, “Caste discrimination has no place in our workplace. {snip}”

“We also made the decision to not move forward with the proposed talk which — rather than bringing our community together and raising awareness — was creating division and rancor,” Newberry wrote.

{snip} Many Indians have moved to the United States to work in tech companies, and several Big Tech CEOs are of Indian origin, including Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Twitter’s Parag Agrawal. Some employees allege the patterns of discrimination have been replicated within Silicon Valley companies.

Soundararajan, who is Dalit, spent years convincing policy teams at social media companies to include caste as a protected category in their hate speech policies. In meetings, company representatives seemed to have little understanding about caste, even though it impacted hate speech in their biggest markets, she said.


Through its advocacy on content moderation, Equality Labs developed a strong network of Dalit tech workers. After the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Cisco alleging caste discrimination, their phone lines were flooded with reports about bias and the group once again began collecting data. {snip}


Two days before Soundararajan’s presentation, seven Google employees sent emails to company leaders and Gupta “with inflammatory language about how they felt harmed and how they felt their lives were at risk by the discussion of caste equity,” according to emails sent by Gupta. Some of the complaints “copied content from known misinformation sites to malign the reputation of the speaker,” Gupta’s emails said — sites and organizations that have targeted academics in the United States and Canada who are critical of Hindu nationalism or caste hierarchy.


Then the controversy within Google migrated to an 8,000-person email group for South Asian employees, according to three current employees. After Gupta posted a link in the email group to a petition to reinstate the talk, respondents argued that caste discrimination does not exist, that caste is not a thing in the United States, and that efforts to raise awareness of these issues in the United States would sow further division. Some called caste equity a form of reverse discrimination against the highest-ranked castes because of India’s affirmative action system for access to education and government jobs. Others said people from marginalized castes lack the education to properly interpret Hindu scriptures around castes.