Cisco caste bias lawsuit in US: Ambedkar International Centre files brief with court

After Cisco was sued for caste discrimination, it filed a motion to strike, which will be coming up for hearing next month.
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In July 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued Cisco and former managers in the company after a Dalit Indian-American employee alleged they were discriminated against on the basis of caste by the managers. The tech major objected to the lawsuit filed by the DFEH and moved a motion last October to strike it down. This is scheduled to be heard in March. 

Prior to the hearing, the Ambedkar International Centre, a US-based non-profit, and a host of other signatories have filed an amicus curiae brief with the court — where they are not a party to the case but as a party which has an interest in the outcome of the case. Nineteen organisations and scholars have supported the brief.

In its application, Ambedkar International Centre said the brief makes it clear that caste is hereditary and a form of ancestry discrimination, which is forbidden by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). “Casteism is also a form of race and colour discrimination,” the application states. 

“May a California employer discriminate against an employee because he was born a Dalit — that is, a member of India’s ‘untouchable’ caste? Defendant Cisco Systems, Inc. asks this Court to rule for the first time that such casteism in the workplace is legally permissible,” it states. 

Stating that American law and society promote the idea that people can rise socially and economically regardless of what they inherit at birth, it says casteism is “diametrically opposed to the assumptions underlying the Fourteenth Amendment and American civil rights law, including the FEHA.” 

“Casteism is just as illegal under those laws as other forms of descent-based discrimination that are more familiar to Americans,” it states.

To make its case that caste is a form of is a form of ancestry discrimination, the brief stated that Dalit status is inherited from one’s parents and ancestors, and that a person being targeted is not because of any action or inaction but because the person happened to be born to be Dalit parents. “Similarly, eligibility for India's caste-based affirmative action programs is determined primarily by ancestry.”

Casteism is a form of ancestry-based discrimination and is illegal under the FEHA says.

Secondly, to show that it is a form race and colour discrimination, the brief states that this is in part because it only poses a threat to South Asians. It went on to add that caste status is correlated with skin pigmentation, and that “Dalits tend to have darker complexions than members of higher castes”.

“The relationship between caste status and skin color is another reason that Dalits struggle for equal opportunity fits within the tradition of American civil rights law. It is no coincidence that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared himself an untouchable: he saw direct parallels between the plight of the Dalits and that of African Americans in the Jim Crow-era South,” the brief read.

The California DFEH had filed the case in July 2020 in a US federal court naming Cisco and two former managers as defendants seeking to bring caste discrimination under the umbrella of unlawful discrimination banned by civil rights legislation enacted in 1964 that does not specify caste. Court documents listed Sundar Iyer, a "distinguished engineer at Cisco," and Ramana Kompella as defendants in the case.

DFEH alleged that "managers at Cisco's San Jose headquarters campus, which employs a predominantly South Asian workforce, harassed, discriminated, and retaliated against an engineer because he is Dalit Indian."

The complaint said that Cisco failed to acknowledge the unlawful discriminatory practices and did not "take any steps necessary to prevent such discrimination, harassment, and retaliation from continuing in its workplace."


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