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California closes caste discrimination case against Cisco’s Indian engineers amid Hinduphobia debate

Caste wars in California (Photo: IANS)

In a curious twist, the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) voluntarily closed a case it had filed against Cisco engineers Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella over alleged caste discrimination against an Indian Dalit colleague named ‘John Doe’.

The department, however, said that it will continue with litigation against the tech giant. A mediation meeting has been set up between Cisco and CRD for early May.

The case filed in July 2020 by John Doe (assumed name to protect identity of complainant) said that Iyer and Kompella discriminated and harassed Doe on the basis of his caste as he is a Dalit. The case said that because of caste discrimination Doe received less pay and opportunities and his complaints to Cisco’s human resources department went unheard.

As the case got widespread international publicity, numerous US-based groups – Ambedkar King Study Circle, Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, Boston Study Group, Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas, Dr B R Ambedkar International Mission Center, Ambedkar Educational Aid Society, Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha California, International Bahujan Organization CA, and Hindus for Human Rights – joined the fray.

The case filed by California also rested upon a report – ‘Caste in the United States’, written by US-born anti-caste activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Despite wide publicity for Soundararajan’s report, the judge hearing the Cisco case refused to accept it as evidence.

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A few Hindu organisations – the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) – found weaknesses in the case against Iyer and Kompella.

In a statement on its website, HAF said the Cisco case made global headlines, “with false claims about the Hindu religion and xenophobic depictions of people of Indian origin, eliciting widespread outrage in the Indian and Hindu American communities”.

Suhag Shukla, Executive Director of HAF, said: “Two Indian Americans endured a nearly three year nightmare of unending investigations, a brutal online witch hunt, and a presumption of guilt in the media after the CRD sullied their reputation alleging that they engaged in discrimination based on caste. We are thrilled that Iyer and Kompella have been vindicated along with our position that the state has no right to attribute wrongdoing to Hindu and Indian Americans simply because of their religion or ethnicity”.

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CoHNA went to the extent of saying that the case against the two Indian engineers “is bogus”. Facts that CoHNA has gleaned from court filings and publicly available information throws up interesting revelations.

In a public document, CoHNA says: “Iyer has remained publicly irreligious for over 20 years, yet the CRD assigns him a religion and caste. Iyer’s extended family consists of at least two relatives who self-identify as Dalit”, proving that Iyer was least bothered about caste and similar affiliations like race and prejudice.

The document also says that Iyer and Doe had been together at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), where they formed a long-standing relationship because of which Iyer recruited Doe at Cisco to work on a high-profile project.

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One of the most interesting, and also the least reported facts in the media, is that Doe earned several millions of dollars working for Cisco with Iyer and Kompella. Moreover, to incentivise his team, Iyer gave away millions of dollars of his own equity to employees including Doe. CoHNA says that Doe was among the highest compensated employees in the group yet he alleged caste discrimination.

Experts say that Doe and a handful of over-zealous activists seem to have led American lawyers up the garden path in a bid to target Indian tech-preneurs in the Silicon Valley. Once touted as a “landmark case” dismissal by California seems to have unraveled a litany of half truths and overt Hinduphobia in the US.

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