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As Indians, are we too thin-skinned about caste inequity than is good for us? Official attempts to keep it off the global agenda have lost conviction as the world’s cradle of digital innovation, that techscape along America’s west coast which throbs with techies of Indian origin, grapples with this desi concept from a staff perspective. Going by our past record, word of Apple Inc’s adoption of an explicit policy that bars caste discrimination within this company based in California is likely to split opinion in India. As reported, not only is caste named, a staff training module explains the need of this ban to employees who are not familiar with the concept. Apple’s code of conduct was updated a while ago to place it on a list that includes race, religion, gender, age and ancestry as markers that must not mark any individual apart for unfair treatment. Such a corporate spotlight on a touchy issue might disturb those who have sought to keep it privy, a matter for us to resolve among ourselves at home. But this position has been weakened by attitudes of desi origin in the US forcing major businesses to reckon with hereditary labels that are invisible to most Americans but can still be visibly unfair to folks at the receiving end.

Awareness of caste in America Inc has been low. In mid-2020, however, human resource chiefs must have sat up and taken notice when California’s job regulator sued Cisco Systems on behalf of a techie who alleged that his career had run into a barrier put up by company superiors of higher caste. This lawsuit was an odd case and attracted all the more attention for it. America’s federal Civil Rights Law of 1964, invoked by the prosecution, bars mistreatment on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex and national origin. Caste prejudice made news as yet another scourge to be dealt with. Apple’s policy tweak to shield its workforce diversity can be traced to around the same time. As the chatter over caste has grown louder in the US, other tech majors such as IBM are observed to be moving likewise. This is amid signs of diasporic resistance to how openly the issue is aired. Recently, reports emerged of a divide within Google over a talk to be given by a leader of Equality Labs, a caste-focused advocacy group that did a survey in 2018 which revealed a large proportion of Dalits in the US faced caste bigotry at their workplace, schools and temples from others of South Asian descent. Indeed, the scope for denial of such a problem has shrunk in recent years, especially since Sujatha Gidla’s 2017 book Ants Among Elephants won critical acclaim and a readership in the US.

India has a record of testily framed responses to what’s often seen as an internal matter. In 2001, at the United Nations Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, for example, our government roundly rejected calls to have caste discussed. It did not fit into the topic at hand, our foreign minister then had argued, as the point of those talks was to ensure that “states do not condone or encourage regressive social attitudes" and not to “engage in social engineering within member states." While views vary on whether UN huddles should ponder a social malaise that’s particular to India and Nepal as Hindu-majority countries, we shouldn’t let hackles go up each time it’s identified abroad as a problem. Caste has gone global, taken so by our diaspora, and we should not carp about its ill effects being called out. Let’s be part of the solution instead.

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