The United States of America had little experience of the South Asian caste system. That is until the CISCO Systems Inc case emerged. The episode is now setting the pace for America’s lawmakers to understand how the fight against caste oppression is similar to the US fight for civil rights. United States-based think tank Ambedkar International Center (AIC) is leading the way along with nineteen other organisations and renowned scholars.
AIC has filed an amicus curiae brief opposing Cisco’s demurrer and motion to strike, which are scheduled for hearing on March 9, in a civil rights lawsuit against itself by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for workplace caste discrimination.
Last year, the department regulators sued Cisco Systems Inc, accusing the company of practising discrimination, harassment and retaliation against a Dalit engineer – anonymised as “John Doe” – by two Brahmin employees, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella. This was followed by two inconclusive internal reviews by Cisco’s human resources, which told Doe, “caste discrimination was not unlawful”.
AIC along with others filed an amicus brief in court, drawing to their attention that caste-based discrimination is unacceptable under their own local laws, like FEHA, which is California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act that “protects employees against discrimination based on a number of protected characteristics, including ancestry, race, and color”.
Sanjay Kumar, president of the Ambedkar International Center, said in a statement on the occasion of filing the brief, “The Ambedkar International Center Inc. (AIC) intends to lead this effort, in order to send a clear message to the corporate world that any discrimination based on caste especially at the workplaces will not be tolerated. This case will set an example and strengthen the core values of the constitution of the United State of America.”
He added, “This fight is not against any individual, group, religion, or people of any specific caste, it is a fight for equality, liberty, respect, justice, and everyone should embrace it. There should not be a place in this world for any kind of racism and/or discrimination of any sort. It was the dream of both of our great leaders Dr. Ambedkar and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
An AIC member and employee in an IT firm in the US, Anil Wagde, told News18.com, “We being the victims of the caste discrimination wanted to help the court to understand how real caste discrimination is. We will work to include ‘caste’ as a discriminatory criteria in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, of the US.”
The thought is guided by the Bostock v Clayton County case, where the Supreme Court held that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination barred employers from discriminating against gay and transgender workers “because but for these workers’ gender, they would not face discrimination”, said the brief.
The same reasoning can be applied in the CISCO caste-based discrimination case, AIC believes, as the brief highlighted: “if John Doe had not been a South Asian, he would not have been subject to caste-based discrimination.”
In the US, the lawmakers drafting FEHA back in day were not informed or aware of the caste system that still exists in India but the law has provisions, which can reject the practice of caste-based discrimination in America. The point made by the petitioners in the amicus brief highlights that. “American law and society promote the idea that people can rise socially and economically regardless of the characteristics they inherit at birth. Casteism — the notion that certain people are born into a lowly station in life and must be kept there by social, economic, and political oppression — is diametrically opposed to the assumptions underlying the Fourteenth Amendment and American civil rights law, including the FEHA.”
The brief further says that casteism is just as illegal under those laws as other forms of descent-based discrimination that are more familiar to Americans.
“Though the FEHA’s drafters may not have had the South Asian caste system in mind, they sought to encompass all forms of discrimination unrelated to merit — as evidenced by the fact that the FEHA lists fourteen protected characteristics. Casteism implicates at least three of those characteristics: ancestry, race, and color,” it said.
The petitioners in the brief inform the lawmakers that caste membership defines individuals by their biological descent, and discrimination that follows after that can enable the court to dispose of Cisco’s motions.
“Casteism is a form of ancestry-based discrimination; it is therefore illegal under the FEHA. Casteism is a form of race and color discrimination,” the AIC said. The brief said that casteism is considered a form of racial discrimination under international human rights law, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
“The United States is a signatory to that treaty, and the FEHA should be interpreted in harmony with it. Caste ism is a form of race-based discrimination in part because it only poses a threat to South Asians,” said the petition.
While concluding it says American civil rights law has little experience with the South Asian caste system, “but it is very familiar with the idea of caste: the notion that some people are born to low stations in life in which they are forced to remain.”
“The intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was to abolish caste legislation, and the intent of civil rights laws such as the FEHA was to abolish casteism of all kinds in the private sector. By banning employment discrimination on the basis of ancestry, race, and color, the FEHA bars employers from discriminating against a worker because he is a Dalit,” it said.
AIC will form a Joint Action Committee with advocacy organisations and hold a press conference on February 27, virtually, ahead of March 9.
Additional signatories to the Ambedkar International Center, are Ambedkar King Study Circle, Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, Boston Study Group Inc, “Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas, Dr BR Ambedkar International Mission Center, Ambedkar Educational Aid Society and Guru Ravidass Sabha, etc.
Some prominent names are: Kevin D Brown, Richard S Melvin (Professor of Law, University of Indiana Maurer School of Law), Ajantha Subramanian (Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University), Shailaja Paik (Associate Professor of History, Yale University), Annapurna D Waughray (Reader, Manchester Law School, Manchester Metropolitan University), among others.