How Big Tech Is Importing India’s Caste Legacy to Silicon Valley
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- On a sunny day in early 2017, Sundar Pichai, Alphabet Inc.’s chief executive officer, returned to his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, in West Bengal, to speak before 3,500 students. Welcomed as the “rock star” leader of the “world’s most innovative company,” he reminisced about skipping classes and meeting his college girlfriend—now his wife. He also pitched Google to the soon-to-be-graduates in attendance. How many wanted to work there, the interviewer asked. Hundreds of hands went up. “Wow, maybe we should open a campus in Kharagpur,” Pichai joked.
As far as feeder schools go, it doesn’t get much better for Google than the network of 23 ultracompetitive, government-funded IITs. Every year hundreds of their graduates join the world’s biggest tech companies. In 2003, when the school system celebrated its 50th anniversary, Bill Gates delivered a keynote speech praising grads who’d come to work at Microsoft Corp. over the years, noting that the company had, in turn, invested more money in the IITs than in any other institution outside the U.S. and the U.K.
For all the IITs’ proficiency at training and placing students, though, the coders, programmers, product developers, and engineers fanning out to global tech bring with them the troubled legacy of India’s caste system. On campus, students are surrounded by—and in some cases participate in—a culture of discrimination, bullying, and segregation that targets fellow pupils from India’s Scheduled Castes, also known as Dalits. The IITs officially discourage such harassment, but the prejudice against these students remains quite open.
Caste in India speaks, as race does in America, to centuries of social, cultural, and economic divisions. Unlike in the U.S., though, India has since 1950 had a national system of affirmative action designed to undo the legacy of bias. Among its provisions are ones that help Dalits and other oppressed groups get into and pay for college. For nearly half a century, IIT admissions have been subject to a reservation system that’s still hotly debated on the campuses. In recent years, the schools have opposed attempts to extend affirmative action to faculty hires, arguing it would dilute the quality of the applicant pool and undermine their meritocratic image.
The IITs are notoriously cutthroat, starting with the admissions process. Some 2.2 million people have registered to take the 2021 entrance exam, to vie for roughly 16,000 slots. About 15% of those are allotted to students from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and another 7.5% to applicants from the Scheduled Tribes (STs), indigenous people who’ve faced marginalization and whose status has also been formalized by the constitution. To fill those slots, universities sometimes offer seats to students with test scores below the cutoff point—though not as far below as is commonly assumed.
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Caste-based resentment at the IITs can run high. In one video posted on YouTube in 2018, a student poring over a pile of books is labeled “GEN,” for general pool, while the two students sleeping nearby are identified as “SC” and “ST.” In another post circulated widely among IIT groups last year, a student suggested Covid-19 should also give preferential treatment to the marginalized groups. “My dear Corona,” it said in Hindi. “In every sphere SC/STs get first preference. So if you can, please look into the same.”
Dalit IIT graduates who’ve managed to land jobs in the U.S. say that such attitudes can be found there, too. Last year a Dalit graduate of IIT Bombay filed suit in the U.S. against Cisco Systems Inc. and two of his fellow alums, saying he’d experienced caste-based discrimination at their hands while the three of them were employed at the company. The accompanying publicity prompted a wave of complaints about caste discrimination in American tech—allegations that seemed to blindside the industry.
Amit Jatav, a Dalit from Karauli, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, remembers catching “the IIT bug” in high school, where he excelled in chemistry, physics, and math. His father, an elementary school teacher, and his mother, a fieldworker, scraped together money from relatives and local lenders to send him for a year of test prep. He took the entrance exam in 2017 and got into IIT Delhi on his first try.
Jatav’s classmates quickly identified him as Dalit. He’d been educated in Hindi-language schools, and his English was poor. His clothes were worn and shabby. He didn’t have a smartphone. In an environment where entrance exam scores are status symbols, Jatav had placed relatively low, marking him as a “quota” student. He heard loud comments saying he was at IIT only because of his “category” instead of “earning it rightfully.” He wasn’t invited to study groups, dinners, or social events.
“I struggled with my studies, but nobody helped,” says Jatav, now 21 and in his final year. “The attitude was: He’s a Dalit, let him struggle.”
The caste system traces as far back as ancient India. It comprises four core strata, with the Dalits lying outside and below. (The word “Dalit,” in classical Sanskrit, means “broken.”) These divisions still permeate life for many Indians, dictating how they work and worship, eat and marry, own land and vote. More than 200 million of the country’s 1.3 billion people are classified as Dalits.
In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi fought to eradicate practices separating Dalits from others, such as preventing them from entering Hindu temples. After independence in 1947, India’s first minister of law and justice, Dalit campaigner B.R. Ambedkar, wrote recompense into the constitution he helped draft. The move banned discrimination based on caste and guaranteed the government’s ability to secure representation and unlock opportunity for people who’d lacked both for centuries. India introduced an affirmative action program in 1950; within a few years it was reserving seats in colleges for oppressed Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, a practice it extended to the IITs in 1973. (An exception is made for “the creamy layer,” the official term for lower-caste people who’ve managed to achieve high status and economic security, who aren’t eligible for the quota system.)
Despite this, coded and overt forms of discrimination against Dalits persist, with the education system serving as a primary vector. At secondary school in Rajasthan, Mahesh Kumar recalls, he and his father swept the classrooms as a condition of Kumar’s scholarship; they were expected not to make contact with the teachers’ belongings so as not to taint them. When Kumar gained admission to IIT (BHU) Varanasi in 2013, he tried to obscure his caste status by dropping his last name, but it didn’t help. At the beginning of an IIT school year, senior students often orchestrate a hazing ritual known as kholna, calling on first-year students to give their name, their hometown, and the rank they achieved on the entrance exam. If a surname isn’t a giveaway, an unusual rank on the entrance exam will be.
Another Dalit, Akshit Sangomla, says that in his first year at IIT Kanpur he refused to reveal his rank. It got out anyway, and soon seniors began stopping him to grill him on his engineering knowledge. Sangomla, who was living away from home for the first time, remembers being terrified by the badgering. He also found himself, like Jatav at IIT Delhi, left out of study groups, dinners, and celebrations. His confidence shot, he struggled academically, falling into a vicious cycle that led to his expulsion after five semesters. “As a Dalit you’ll always be an outsider,” says Sangomla, who now works as a journalist at a magazine based in New Delhi.
Only one IIT out of the dozen Bloomberg Businessweek contacted for this story—including Delhi, Bombay, Kharagpur, (BHU) Varanasi, Madras, and Kanpur—responded to repeated requests for comment made by email and phone over several months. Many of the schools have appointed liaison officers to look into caste discrimination on campus; they didn’t respond to requests for comment either. A representative of one school said on background that the IITs didn’t want to get drawn into a “controversial” topic. The only formal response came from IIT Roorkee, which said it hadn’t received any caste-based discrimination complaints in the past five years. “The reservation policy has helped, without exacerbating caste based discrimination,” a spokesperson wrote.
In a 2016 survey of students at IIT (BHU) Varanasi, World Bank economist Priyanka Pandey and her brother, activist Sandeep Pandey, found that Dalits not only experience more discrimination and negativity than others, but their academic performance is also lower, even after controlling for different socioeconomic backgrounds. Asked about the gap, a majority of respondents attributed it to the “lower ability” of lower-caste students. “Caste and class run parallel at the IITs, which are a microcosm of Indian society,” says Sandeep, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and has taught social justice classes at IITs. “For Dalits, life on the campus is a daily reminder of who they are.”
A 2020 graduate of IIT Guwahati’s design program, Agrata Patel, got into the school through a separate but parallel quota system for students from “other backwards classes,” or OBCs—historically oppressed groups that are covered by the reservation system but aren’t Scheduled Castes or Tribes. Patel says that, though she faced special pressure as someone from a reserved category, it was easier for her than for her Dalit friends and classmates. “It’s a huge load on them. People are always judging them,” she says. “I felt for them, I still feel for them. My grades were good—nobody got a chance to point a finger at me.” That track led her to her current job, at an Australian tech company.
Dalits in the IIT system often have a rougher path to employment. After his first few semesters in Varanasi, Kumar fell into a deep depression and took time off from school. Overwhelmed by debt, he considered bidding for a sewer-cleaning contract that paid 4,000 rupees ($55) a month. The social hierarchy that considers Dalits “impure” consigns them to poorly paid, “unclean” jobs such as scavenging, cleaning sewers, and disposing of dead animals. Kumar even considered selling a kidney.
Then came a stroke of good fortune. A local paper reported that an IIT student was considering sewer cleaning and organ donation, prompting an outpouring of donations. Kumar returned to Varanasi and graduated in 2019. He now works as an assistant manager with a government-owned mining company in the eastern city of Durgapur.
There’s no reliable data on IIT student placement rates or professional salaries, but anecdotal evidence suggests the grind is worth it for many. In December, when students traditionally begin receiving job offers, news outlets relay how quickly they’re coming in, and schools boast of how many graduates will make 10 million rupees or more.
In a 2017 paper, French researchers Odile Henry and Mathieu Ferry found that not all IIT graduates are greeted by such an enthusiastic job market. Lower-caste students were barely half as likely to get jobs as general-pool students with similar majors and academic performance; they were also paid less. The researchers attributed the difference primarily to a divide between Dalit and non-Dalit students in soft skills and social capital. In the lucrative private sector, recruiters look beyond grades for candidates who demonstrate curiosity, leadership, poise, or a competitive spirit—qualities that might show up in, say, extracurricular activities, a glowing recommendation from a teacher, or simply a student’s confidence in an interview.
“If one of the criticisms of the quota policy is its lack of meritocracy, since it encourages students whose educational outcomes are lower,” the authors wrote, “we note here that it is reserved groups that suffer unequal treatment for equal academic success.”
Last year, allegations of caste bias got a public airing some 8,300 miles away from the IIT campuses. On behalf of the Indian Cisco Systems employee who alleged he’d been discriminated against based on his caste, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing brought a suit in San Jose against the company and two other Indian employees. All three were graduates of IIT Bombay.
American law protects workers from disparate treatment based on a handful of characteristics, including race, sex, religion, and disability status. This was the first time, though, that anyone had argued those protections should extend to Dalits. The complaint said that the unnamed employee had faced discrimination by two upper-caste managers since 2015 and that he’d reported one to human resources for outing him as a Dalit and informing colleagues he’d enrolled in the IIT through affirmative action. The employee said the discrimination had continued under the second manager.
Cisco denied the charges. “We have zero tolerance for discrimination and take all complaints of unfair treatment very seriously,” a spokesperson says. “In this case, we thoroughly and fully investigated the employee’s concerns and found that he was treated fairly, highly compensated, and afforded opportunities to work on coveted projects.” In its response to the suit, Cisco made an additional argument: Because caste isn’t a protected category under U.S. civil rights laws, the allegations are immaterial and should be stricken. The court recently denied Cisco’s petition to move the case to arbitration, and the company has filed an appeal.
Advocacy groups in the U.S. have weighed in on both sides. The Hindu American Foundation filed a declaration in support of Cisco, saying that though it vehemently opposes “all forms of prejudice and discrimination,” the state’s case “blatantly violates the rights of Hindu Americans.” Meanwhile, the Ambedkar International Center, a Dalit advocacy group, filed a brief in support of the state, encouraging the court to acknowledge caste discrimination and set a precedent prohibiting it. “American civil rights law has little experience with the Indian 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 motion reads.
The case inspired a flood of tech workers to tell their own stories. A U.S.-based Dalit advocacy group, Equality Labs, told the Washington Post in October that more than 250 tech workers had come forward in the wake of the Cisco suit to report incidents of caste-based harassment. Thirty Dalit engineers, all women, also shared a joint statement with the Post that said they’d experienced caste bias in the U.S. tech sector.
For years the industry has been criticized for doing too little to rectify a culture seen as hostile to women, Black people, and Latinos. In response, companies have held town halls, instituted anti-harassment training, and made very public promises to do better. On caste, though, executives have largely pleaded ignorance. Microsoft is a rare exception: The company, whose CEO, Satya Nadella, is Indian-American, says that it’s received a few complaints of caste bias and that it has more work to do. Google, for its part, says it will investigate any discrimination claims based on caste; it wouldn’t say whether it had received any, and Pichai didn’t respond to Businessweek’s requests for comment.
Another Indian-American executive, Shantanu Narayen, has been CEO at Adobe Inc. since 2007. The company employs hundreds of Indian expats, including more than 100 who graduated from an IIT. In an interview with Bloomberg TV last year, Narayen, a graduate of an engineering school (though not an IIT) in his native Hyderabad, rejected the idea that any of Adobe’s Indian workers might show bias based on caste. What the company “has always stood for and our founders instituted as the way of creating this company is equality for all,” he said. “We have not had any of those issues.”
It would be naive for U.S. companies to assume that Indian hires leave their prejudices on the subcontinent, says Sarit K. Das, a professor of mechanical engineering at IIT Madras who until February was director of IIT Ropar. “Graduates carry this to Amazon or Google or wherever, and the feeling toward the other person is that you didn’t make it like me, you are inferior,” he says.
Ram Kumar, a Dalit alum of IIT Delhi, has worked in the tech industry for more than two decades, with stints at Cisco, Dell, and other companies. When he arrived in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, he found “another mini-India arranged by clusters of Indian hierarchy,” he says. Whereas dominant-caste Indians might see expat communities as sources of professional networking and support, Kumar avoids them. “People will try to segregate you once they find out your caste,” he says. As a matter of self-preservation, “I’ve avoided good opportunities when I see that the CEO or CTO is Indian.”
Back in India, Dalit students, faculty, and allies have been pushing back against discrimination. When IIT Bombay tried in 2018 to establish a separate dining hall for meat eaters—a proxy for lower-caste students, since many in the upper castes are vegetarian—student groups protested and got the move quashed, along with a rule at another dining hall that required meat eaters to use separate plates and cutlery. Opposition ended a similar effort at IIT Madras to force nonvegetarian students to use separate entrances, exits, and hand-washing stations.
Professors are also speaking out. Although the IITs are government institutions, reservation requirements don’t apply to faculty positions. More than 90% of the 6,000 faculty the system employs are from the dominant castes, a lopsidedness that reflects the populations of the schools’ Ph.D. programs, which aren’t subject to quotas either. Earlier this year, government data showed that 15 of the 31 departments at IIT Delhi and 16 of 26 at IIT Bombay admitted zero students from the Scheduled Castes to their doctoral programs last year. “I have chaired hundreds of faculty selection committees, and the discrimination against Dalits is never overt. It’s always about the attitude toward the candidates, the questions asked, and the judgment,” says Das. “We follow the rules in the letter but not in spirit.”
In 2018, Subrahmanyam Saderla, a Ph.D. graduate of IIT Kanpur, was selected as an assistant professor in the school’s aerospace engineering department, becoming one of about 150 Dalit faculty in the IIT system. He’d applied for the position through a special drive to recruit Scheduled Caste & Tribe faculty. In a later hearing before the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, Saderla said that, once he was on staff, senior faculty members called him “unsuitable and mentally unfit,” undermined him with junior colleagues and students, and suggested his appointment was a curse on the institute. The Commission directed the school to bring the matter to the police; the police complaint named four professors, all of whom denied the accusations against them.
Within months, Saderla was anonymously accused of plagiarizing his work on unmanned aircraft systems, a charge that could have led to his dismissal and the revocation of his doctorate. “They are OK if you are a clerk in the office or a junior technician,” he says. “But even if you are good enough, you can’t be a faculty member.” He thought he’d escaped the caste system, only to find that he couldn’t.
Hundreds of global scholars, academics, and activists came out in solidarity with Saderla, signing a statement condemning the alleged discrimination and institutional harassment. Saderla was absolved of the plagiarism charge, and after a year-and-a-half-long court battle, his colleagues were exonerated of the caste-discrimination charges. He’s appealing the latter decision to India’s Supreme Court. “If you are born with this tag,” he says, “it stays with you until you die.”
With cases such as this and the Cisco suit, civil-rights advocates see evidence of progress toward addressing the legacy of caste bias. “The critical mass of students who have come in through reservations has made it more difficult to marginalize them,” says Ajantha Subramanian, chair of Harvard’s anthropology department and the author of a book on caste discrimination at the IITs. “They are a force to contend with.” —With Kartikay Mehrotra, Ian King, Nico Grant, and Dina Bass
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