By Chandrima Banerjee

When R Murali and his wife volunteered for a non-profit in Fremont, California, they were asked to assign children who had signed up for a cultural programme to groups on the basis of their interests. Then one day, they got a call from a group in charge. Could children from a specific caste be assigned to the group? It would be “easy to coordinate with parents”, the person said.

Murali and his wife did not entertain the request.

While the case against network systems giant Cisco — which is being sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for workplace discrimination after a Dalit engineer alleged harassment by two employees who belong to dominant castes — remains pending, testimonies like Murali’s are being put together by the California-based Ambedkar King Study Circle in an attempt to speak up about the prevalance of caste privilege in the US.

Last week, the Ambedkar King Study Circle launched a signature campaign asking US companies to include “caste” as a basis of discrimination in their policies. “So far, there have been 464 signatures. We aim for 1,000 within another week, after which it will be sent to the HR representatives of various companies,” S Karthikeyan, executive council member of the group, told TOI.

The testimonies, collected through Google Forms, speak of a prevalent blindness to caste privilege — a parent was told by a teacher that only “certain sects” have the ability to master music, a person was told by his boss that affirmative action in India would have “destroyed” his son’s chances at an education in India, while another was told by a colleague that the 2016 caste-based “honour killing” of Shankar in Tamil Nadu was justified.

“The location has changed, but practices remain the same … If you’re from a dominant caste, you won’t feel it. But if you come from an excluded caste, you see how it works. And the white managers and bosses are just happy not to be called racists. So they say, ‘you do you’ … Policy-level change is what we should aim for,” Dr Suraj Yengde, Dalit activist and academic at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, told TOI. But that takes time and is often difficult to see through. “In the UK, they had come up with a bill for equality against caste. But at the very final moment, when it was going to be written in law, the government backed off. They literally threw away the work of a few years by activists, lobbyists, academics, members of parliament.”

Some strides have been made. Last year, for instance, Brandeis University in Boston became the first in the US to recognise “caste” as a basis of discrimination. “We started a caste crash course. We developed statements, collected evidences and experiences from people who had a lot to say about caste privilege in the US … In December 2019, caste was introduced in the non-discrimination policy at our university, which is a big step,” Jaspreeet Mahal, a researcher at the university and a board member of the Ambedkarite circle, Boston Study Group, told TOI. “If people from the US hear a singular narrative about Indians or South Asians, they won’t just know about what oppression exists in between.”

Yet, it remains a largely unacknowledged problem. “There is very little understanding of caste among Americans who are not South Asian or who have no knowledge of South Asia … Public life in diasporic communities is dominated by upper caste groups, which sometimes engage in false representations of the history of South Asia and the atrocious role of caste there. At other times, they shamefacedly pretend to have left caste behind,” Dr S Shankar, professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa who has often written about the problem, told TOI. “I would even go farther and say that caste plays a role even before Indians become Indian Americans in that caste determines which Indians become Indian Americans and under what circumstances. And once they do, caste provides a vital social network for advancement for those with caste privilege, as the Cisco case shows.”

The California lawsuit says Cisco is among the top five H1-B visa users in the US, over 70% of whom are from India. “Outside of San Jose, Cisco’s second largest workforce is in India,” it adds.

The company, meanwhile, denied any discrimination ever took place. Responding to TOI over mail, a company spokesperson said, “Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all. We have robust processes to report and investigate concerns raised by employees, which were followed in this case dating back to 2016 and have determined we were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies. Cisco will vigorously defend itself against the allegations made in this complaint.”ve determined we were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies. Cisco will vigorously defend itself against the allegations made in this complaint.”

Courtesy : TNN