Ignorance or design? Why Indian TV news ignored the first ever caste discrimination lawsuit in the US

The Indian media has historically shied away from discussing caste. They’d rather cover a story on Dalit atrocities than Dalit assertion.

WrittenBy:Ravikiran Shinde
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Throughout the month of July, the US media has debated and discussed a caste discrimination civil lawsuit in California, involving multinational technology company Cisco and Indian employees. From CNN to Bloomberg, LA Times to the Washington Post, every major US media outlet ran reports and opeds.

In stark contrast, the subject seems to be discomfiting to most of the Indian media, especially the electronic media, which has largely remained silent. In fact, it’s yet another example of India’s historic silence on caste on a global platform.

At the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, India vehemently opposed the inclusion of caste discrimination on the agenda, despite calls to do so from marginalised, caste-oppressed sections. India’s contention was that it was irrelevant to international law, and not the same as other forms of discrimination and racism.

In 2018, the United Kingdom backtracked from its assurance to legislate caste discrimination after pressure from “minority Hindu groups”. Now, in 2020, the issue of caste has reared its head yet again in a western country — this time in the US, in the form of a lawsuit filed by the Department of Fair Housing and Employment of the state of California against Cisco.

The lawsuit, and how the Indian media covered, or ignored, it

First, let’s look at the lawsuit in a nutshell.

On July 2, the state of California sued Cisco for allegedly discriminating against a Dalit employee. The lawsuit accused two Brahmin employees of Cisco, Sunder Iyer and Ramana Kompella, of discrimination against an unnamed Dalit engineer. The lawsuit said the Dalit employee “was expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace”, where the employee “held the lowest status in the team”, and “received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment”.

When the engineer opposed this treatment, Iyer “retaliated against him”, the lawsuit said, by reducing his role in the team, isolating him from colleagues, and giving him tasks that were “impossible to complete under the circumstances”. Iyer also disclosed the engineer’s caste to other colleagues, the lawsuit said, and the engineer followed company policy and approached human resources. But no action was taken.

The Indian Express covered what happened. The newspaper published an audio interview on its website on July 26 with Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a US-based filmmaker and anti-caste activist. Soundararajan explained that caste as a form of discrimination is still not a protected category in the US, despite efforts by caste-oppressed Indians over the years. Soundararajan explained how, in the absence of this, California “shoehorned the issue of caste into multiple categories — discrimination based on faith, country of origin, ancestry and family” — to build a strong case against Cisco.

I don’t recall the last time an Indian social issue was highlighted in the US media so extensively, and for so long — almost a month now. This is the first time that caste is the core of a discrimination lawsuit in the US, that too in Silicon Valley. And yet, much of the Indian media chose to ignore it.

Apart from the Indian Express, a handful of organisations like Scroll, the Wire, CNN-News18 and the Week published reports. As of July 26, not a single primetime debate or programme was conducted on the topic on any major national news channels, both in English and Hindi. These are channels that otherwise latch on to any opportunity to amplify or dramatise news related to the Indian diaspora in the West.

Was this by ignorance or design? Can a case such as this be dismissed as interpersonal conflict instead of structural casteism in Indian society that has now extended to Western countries? Research and reports have shown evidence that South Asians who have relocated abroad tend to bring the caste system, and inherent discrimination with them when they move.

On her web portal Mojo, Barkha Dutt interviewed journalist and author Yashica Dutt, two days after Yashica wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on July 14, in the context of the Cisco lawsuit. Titled “The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley”, Yashica wrote: “The overwhelmingly higher-caste Indian-American community is seen as a ‘model minority’ with more than an average $100,000 median income and rising cultural and political visibility. But it has engendered a narrative that is as diabolical as it is in India: insisting that they live in a ‘post-caste world’ while simultaneously upholding its hierarchical framework that benefits the higher-caste people.”

During the interview, Barkha confessed that she had been unaware of the lawsuit until she read Yashica’s NYT piece. Perhaps this, more than anything, highlights how poor the Indian media’s coverage has been. Even NDTV’s Ravish Kumar, who routinely covers cases of atrocities against Dalits, did not bring up the lawsuit in his primetime show.

So, why is the Indian media being so apathetic?

Yashica told Newslaundry, “For the savarna establishment media, Dalit stories are of interest as long as they are centered on individual narratives of hurt, pain, and trauma. A good Dalit subject is someone who is either constantly uncovering their trauma in the hopes of engendering some empathy among the ‘upper’ caste establishment, or best, is already dead. In the Cisco case, the Dalit engineer who filed the lawsuit against Brahmin managers is neither. In fact, he is an example of Dalit empowerment, one that has levied a direct charge at the ‘upper’ caste structures where it hurts them the most.”

Yashica is right. It’s not that Dalit issues don’t get media coverage — but it depends on the kind of issue.

Dalit atrocities vs Dalit assertion

Last week, a Dalit farming family drank pesticide in Guna after the Madhya Pradesh police destroyed their crops and attacked them. News channels covered it extensively, albeit with the BJP vs Congress binary, but it was covered nonetheless.

But on the flip side, the largely savarna media is reluctant to cover signs of Dalit assertion. In 2016, when Dalits were flogged in Gujarat’s Una, TV news covered the story right until the Gujarati Dalits organised themselves and dumped cow carcasses to protest the attack on them. Perhaps this was too revolutionary for TV news.

Similarly, when Dalits organise protest marches — whether it’s against the Bhima Koregaon violence or the April 2, 2018 Bharat Bandh against the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — they are often reduced to “traffic snarls” by the media.

Returning to the Cisco case, a Dalit engineer’s systematic fight against what he alleged is injustice in a foreign country, against those who refused to leave caste structures behind, is tantamount to challenging Brahminical hegemony that often remains hidden under the cover of racial and religious minorities in a largely Christian country. This hegemony is used as an advantage to suppress any mentions of innate caste inequalities. The silence of India’s establishment media puts them on the side of the perpetrators of alleged injustice.

The Cisco lawsuit forces us to not only look closely within the Indian diaspora in the US but around the globe. And while doing so, it exposes how prejudiced and backwardly monolithic a section of the mainstream media is.

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