Rest of the World, 1/19/2022 by Raksha Kumar
hen Manoj began his first job at a tech company in Bengaluru in December 2015, he got off to a good start. On his first day, his boss sent him a box of chocolates, and colleagues chatted to him about their connections to his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
But on the morning of January 20, 2016, something changed. Manoj’s team leader greeted him with a smirk. At lunch, a colleague casually remarked, “I didn’t know you were a reservation guy.”
Within the Indian IT industry, “reservation” is almost a dirty word. It refers to a type of affirmative action in India that provides historically disadvantaged groups, such as oppressed castes, quotas in education and employment, with the aim of increasing their representation.
Manoj had not told his coworkers that he was a Dalit, a member of the most oppressed group in India’s traditional caste system. His colleague’s comment, he realized, must have referred to his recent Facebook post grieving the death of Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad, who had died by suicide in mid-January, following struggles with caste prejudice on campus. Manoj had concluded the post saying: “Vemula’s fate could be any one of ours.”
When his colleague referred to him as a “reservation guy,” it was not just because Manoj was supportive of the quotas for oppressed castes but because he had revealed himself to be a beneficiary of such quotas too. After that day, “I felt like a fish out of water,” Manoj said. “It was my first job, and I got a taste of what the tech industry was like.”
Manoj quit that company a few months later and currently works at a multinational tech corporation in Bengaluru. He requested anonymity for this story because his company contract forbids him from speaking to the media.
Such discrimination — sometimes subtle and sometimes direct — is rampant in India’s estimated $194 billion tech industry, according to 35 tech industry workers that Rest of World spoke to for this story. Many of them were hesitant to share their stories publicly for fear of backlash at their workplaces or a negative impact on their future career prospects.
Yet the idea of caste-based discrimination is rarely discussed in the Indian tech sector. “Caste discrimination is felt at a deeper level,” said Dhruva, a tech worker from a disadvantaged caste who works at a large edtech firm and was also granted anonymity for this story. “One need not say anything, but small actions, intonation, or even body language emit bias against the disadvantaged castes in the workplace.”
In India, caste is traditionally linked to professions; those who were born into a specific caste did a particular kind of job. Those considered to be lowest on this ladder, the Dalits, were relegated to doing “dirty” work, such as manual scavenging, and were pejoratively called “untouchables.” After India gained independence in 1947, the government introduced a reservation system to give Dalits, known officially as Scheduled Castes (SC), and indigenous communities, known as Scheduled Tribes (ST), greater access to education and government jobs. In the early 1990s, the country expanded the reservation system to include the middle castes, known as Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
As a result, opportunities in government employment for the dominant castes (or “General Category,” who make up about 30% of the general population) shrunk from approximately 73% to about 50%. “This pushed the dominant castes towards the rapidly growing IT industry, which was slowly coming out of the clutches of the government,” said Amandeep Sandhu, tech writer and author. “The sector still remains largely unregulated.”
Most IT companies in India are privately owned and are not required to comply with the government’s affirmative action policies. This cemented the view that entry into the tech industry was purely based on individual capability and that factors such as religion, gender, and caste were irrelevant. Given its close links to U.S. companies, the IT sector came with the promise of creating a level playing field where people could succeed solely on merit.
But in reality, tech did not make the world flatter. Instead, caste hierarchies replicated themselves within the industry. One 2011 report on caste in the Indian IT sector concludes “that caste is not disappearing from Indian society; rather, it is dramatically adapting to modern circumstances.”
IT, which employed nearly 4.5 million people in spring 2021, accounted for 8% of India’s GDP in 2020. “In India, working in the IT sector means one can rise up the economic ladder within the same generation,” said Murali Shanmugavelan, a faculty fellow at Data and Society, a non-profit research organization. Tech jobs are therefore highly sought-after.
There is no widely collected data that tracks diversity in the Indian IT industry when it comes to caste or other identifiers.
It was in fact a case in the U.S., rather than India, that recently brought the issue to the world’s attention. In June 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against American tech conglomerate Cisco alleging discrimination against an Indian Dalit engineer — listed as “John Doe” in the complaint — over his caste. The engineer, who had immigrated from India to the U.S., alleged that two of his dominant caste co-workers, also Indian immigrants, harassed him. In fall 2021, the case was voluntarily dismissed, and was later refiled at the state level, where it is still ongoing.
But even as the case makes headlines in the U.S., the tech industry in India remains quiet on caste bias. Anil Wagde is a member of the Ambedkar International Center, a U.S.-based organization which advocates for democracy in Indian society and which was admitted as an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” in the Cisco case. He suggests that caste has seeped into the Indian psyche so much that unless something drastic happens, no one takes note. “No one cries for those who die every day,” he told Rest of World.
In addition, “many people are blind to their privilege,” said Carol Upadhya, professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.
The barriers for historically oppressed castes to enter the tech industry start early. Access to quality primary education is not uniform across all communities. Those at the top of the caste hierarchy are mostly economically better off and can afford English-language schools, with better faculty and facilities, whereas many poorer people are schooled in regional languages, said Rajesh Ramachandran, senior lecturer at Monash University, Malaysia. This means that many dominant caste children get a head start.
Dalit engineering Ph.D. student Jyoti Lavania and her brother were first-generation graduates in their family. “Let alone coach me on how to enter IT, no one in my family could help me with basic mathematics or English during my school years,” she said. Her parents had struggled through secondary school. This is true of many Dalit families, explained Prashant Tambe, a social activist who founded an IT and commerce college called Modern College in Nagpur. “Many are first-generation literates; they have no help at home,” Tambe said.
Faced with such difficulties, many Dalits settle for non-engineering degrees. “A B.A. or a B.Com. [Bachelor of Commerce] can be done in their own language, at a college that is easily accessible to them,” Tambe said. (Engineering degrees are largely taught in English.)
Technology colleges are often set up in urban areas, which means those living in villages have to commute long distances to access them. Though most engineering colleges offer residential courses, they are out of reach for students from poorer backgrounds, not to mention that a technology degree is costlier — approximately three times more expensive than a B.A., for instance.
Reservations, which mean that schools or colleges must accept a certain number of Dalit students each year, were designed to ensure greater opportunities amid such inequalities. But the system doesn’t always work as intended.
The prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, come under the government mandated quota of 27% reservation for OBCs and 15% and 7.5% for SCs and STs, respectively. But this does not necessarily ensure diversity at these elite institutions.
In December 2020, in response to a Right To Information application filed by student organization Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, IIT Bombay said 11 departments – including four engineering departments – at the institute did not admit a single student belonging to Scheduled Tribes between 2015 and 2019. Two departments did not admit any SC students at all. IIT Bombay did not respond to a request for comment.
Admission into an IIT is seen as a ticket to a “better” life, as these colleges are ranked among the top engineering institutes globally and attract the top recruiters from across the world each year. But even if Dalit students overcome the challenges of their early education to get into an IIT, they often deal with resentment and caste prejudice.
According to a documentary organized by a student group, 18 Dalit students in premier institutes of higher education in India died by suicide between 2007 and 2011 after being victims of caste-based discrimination.
In 2021, a video of an associate professor at IIT Kharagpur verbally harassing reservation students in a preparatory class sparked outrage about how minorities are treated in India’s elite institutions.
Wagde, who was admitted to the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta in 1996, said one professor suspected that his original contribution to a key project was not his own. “They could not believe a reservation candidate could do well,” he said.
When students from less privileged backgrounds manage to cross the multiple hurdles in higher education, they hit the next roadblock: securing jobs.
“Since Hindu upper castes constitute almost 67% of engineering and technology graduates, it would not be surprising to find that upwards of 70% of the IT workforce are upper caste,” wrote Carol Upadhya in her 2007 paper “Employment, Exclusion and ‘Merit’ in the Indian IT Industry.” Most reputed companies visit only premier engineering colleges for campus recruitments, and the interviews include written tests and group discussions in English.
“I was asked to speak about demonetization during my group discussion,” said Varun, who graduated in 2021 and works in a small software firm based in Gurugram. “I froze for several minutes, unable to speak.” Varun, who requested anonymity because his company policy forbids him from speaking to the media, studied in an engineering college in the northern Indian state of Haryana. It is not that he was unaware that Prime Minister Narendra Modi – in an attempt to curb ‘black money’ – had banned 86% of the country’s banknotes in November 2016; however, he was more familiar with the Hindi terms for demonetization — notebandi or vimudrikaran. “If they had asked me to talk about notebandi, I was capable of giving them a speech for hours,” he said.
After the group discussion, there are personal interviews. When Tambe, who would later found Modern College, conducted interviews, he “personally invited students from oppressed castes to come to the interview,” he said. “Almost 90% don’t turn up for interviews, as they fear their English-language skills are not up to the mark.”
For senior roles, alumni networks and other connections become useful. Most hiring managers are from premier institutions, and they tend to look for graduates from similar institutions, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of U.S.-based Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs. “If you have crossed paths with them in their careers somewhere, they trust you more,” she said.
In older industries, family ties, village bonds, and caste have long played a role in securing jobs. The IT sector claims to have ushered in merit-based hiring instead of nepotistic practices. “But, if the tech industry largely limits itself to urban, English-speaking, upwardly mobile recruits, they have just repackaged older forms of nepotism,” said Data and Society’s Shanmugavelan.
Most tech recruitment happens through referrals, said Vinod A.J., the general secretary of the All India Forum for IT Employees, adding that “this is how people from the same communities climb up the ladder.”
However, if the tables are turned and a Dalit specifically recruits Dalits, it is not received the same way. Chandru (who requested anonymity as he is not authorised by his company to speak to media), who was born to a Dalit family, has a senior management position in one of the top software companies in India and set out to hire six people for their office in the central city of Pune. “I got referrals from people I trust and recruited them based on their abilities,” said Chandru.
Senior management in his firm was furious that the six people he recruited were Dalit, Chandru said. Six months later, when their probationary period was over, Chandru said that all six were asked to leave. Rest of World has sought a response from the company in question.
Even within tech companies that hire a more diverse staff, a stratification of roles has manifested. “While graduates from the IITs and other premier institutions land the best jobs [in multinational corporations and the more challenging technical jobs in reputed companies], those from tier-two and -three colleges tend to be slotted into the more routine and low-end jobs,” Upadhya wrote in her study. For instance, several of the large Indian software services companies prefer to hire students from tier-three campuses rather than from the top-ranking colleges. As one HR manager put it to Upadhya, they require “guys who can just sit and code and not ask questions.”
Take into account the support staff, said Tambe, who is currently conducting a diversity study for a multinational tech firm, and a different picture emerges. “Count the drivers, cleaners, housekeeping staff etc.,” he specified, “and the numbers of Dalit and Adivasi (Scheduled Tribes) recruits will increase.”
Even after having overcome the many obstacles in education and hiring by getting a position in a tech company, employees from oppressed castes can still face discrimination.
Hemant, an employee at a pharma tech company, used to work at a Chennai-based software firm whose leadership was predominantly Brahmin — those at the top of the caste hierarchy. “My surname can pass off as a Tamil Brahmin surname, so I wouldn’t know if I faced positive discrimination because of that in my last company,” he said, speaking anonymously because his current company still has business ties with his previous employer. “The only time they found out about my caste was when we went out for team lunches and I ate nonvegetarian food.” Many dominant caste communities follow vegetarianism. Hemant said he was not ostracized because of his food choices, but he could sense that his colleagues perceived him differently from then on. “I was not a part of the pack anymore,” he said. His coworkers began having team lunches without him.
In the north Indian city of Noida, Shilpa, also speaking anonymously, worked in a family-run technology firm for six months. During this time, her boss made lewd comments and often came uncomfortably close to her. “I would have gone to the HR, but his relative was running the department,” she said.
Shilpa felt that the sexual harassment she experienced was partly due to the fact that she belonged to an oppressed caste. Dalit women face a double whammy of discrimination, as they carry the burden of both caste and gender bias, said Soundararajan. According to the most recent figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, about 10 Dalit women are raped every day in India, and the number of offenses that go unreported is estimated to be much higher.
Shilpa quit the job, unable to tolerate the harassment. “I left IT for two years, until I could get the courage to go back,” she said.
Even among those who avoid direct harassment, several professionals told Rest of World they felt their caste was an impediment to their career growth. “I know I’m not progressing in my current company because I am out as a Dalit,” said Ravi (not his real name), who works in a Hyderabad-based technology firm. “From day one, I place an image of Dr. Ambedkar and my social media is open.” Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of the primary authors of the Indian Constitution, was a Dalit.
As a result, many Dalit tech workers face a difficult choice of how much to reveal about their caste identity. For Ravi, there is no real option. “I have lived the other way, too, where you are hidden. You can progress that way, but your spirit regresses,” he said. “This way I may have a smaller life, but at least I have my integrity. I know my teammates tolerate me, but I will never be one of them.”