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California scraps caste bias case against Cisco engineers; company still being sued

The California Civil Rights Department dismissed its case against two Cisco engineers who allegedly engaged in caste bias. It is maintaining its lawsuit against Cisco as a whole.
The Cisco logo during the first day of Mobile World Congress 2023 at the Fira de Barcelona in Spain.y
California has dropped its case against two Cisco engineers accused of discriminating based on caste. Litigation against the tech company as a whole continues.Davide Bonaldo / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images file

The California Civil Rights Department has voluntarily dismissed its case alleging caste discrimination against two Cisco engineers, while still keeping alive its litigation against the Silicon Valley tech giant.

The two Cisco supervisors, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, were accused in the department’s lawsuit of discriminating and harassing an employee on the basis of caste — a division of people based on birth or descent. That case was dismissed by an order of the Santa Clara Superior County Court last week. The employee belonged to the Dalit community, a group that is at the bottom rung of the caste system which took root and evolved in India and elsewhere in the subcontinent.

The Civil Rights Department sent a statement to The Associated Press on Monday saying the case against Cisco “remains ongoing.”

“We will continue to vigorously litigate the matter on behalf of the people of California,” it said, adding that it remains committed to “securing relief and ensuring company wide, corrective action.”

A Cisco spokesperson declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

California’s lawsuit against Cisco, filed in July 2020, alleges that the Dalit engineer received less pay and fewer opportunities and that the defendants retaliated against him when he opposed “unlawful practices, contrary to the traditional order between the Dalit and higher castes.” The engineer worked on a team at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters with Indians who all immigrated to the U.S. as adults, and all of whom were of high caste, the lawsuit stated.

The caste system in India and other South Asian countries, as well as the diaspora, places Dalits at the bottom of a social hierarchy. In 1948, a year after independence from British rule, India banned discrimination on the basis of caste, a law that became enshrined in the nation’s constitution in 1950.

The lawsuit against Cisco and its engineers fueled a movement against caste discrimination led by groups such as Oakland, California-based Equality Labs. This lawsuit has also been named in groundbreaking actions including the first-in-the-nation ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council in February to include caste in its anti-discrimination laws. Last month, California State Sen. Aisha Wahab proposed a bill, which if it passes, could make the state the first in the nation to outlaw caste-based bias.

The South Asian community has been sharply divided on this issue. Some groups such as Hindus for Human Rights and Hindus for Caste Equity say such a safeguard is necessary to protect vulnerable community members from caste-based discrimination in housing education and the tech sector where many hold key roles. Advocates and other groups say caste discrimination is pervasive in several South Asian communities and the diaspora, across religious lines.

However, other organizations such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America oppose such policies arguing that they will specifically target Hindus and Indian Americans who are commonly associated with the caste system. These groups also maintain that there is no clear data to show that such discrimination exists, and that caste is covered under “national origin” making it unnecessary to carve out a separate protected category.

The Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissing its case against the two engineers is a vindication for activists who have held the position that “the state has no right to attribute wrongdoing to Hindu and Indian Americans simply because of their religion or ethnicity,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.

“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,” she said.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit-led advocacy group, said last week’s action “does not change anything” including the fact that the Cisco case “has given so many Dalits the courage to come forward with their stories about caste discrimination in education, the medical and tech industries.”

“This is not a loss, but progress,” she said. “The Dalit community owes (the engineer) and the Civil Rights Department gratitude for having the courage to bring such a historic case forward.”

A mediation conference between Cisco and the California Civil Rights Department has been set for May 2.