Dalit rights activist and executive director of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, in an interview with The News Minute on Sunday, 5 June, spoke on caste, the Google talk row and an opportunity that the tech giant now has, to rise to the occasion.
The interview comes in the background of Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google, resigning from the company last week. Gupta's departure came after Thenmozhi was de-platformed and disallowed from giving a presentation on caste.
The talk was supposed to be a part of the tech company's Diversity Equity Inclusivity (DEI) programme, aimed at sensitising employees on issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality, and now, caste.
It was called off after several Google employees, in emails addressed to company heads, called Soundararajan "anti-Hindu" and "Hindu-phobic", a move that Soundararajan referred to as "caste-bigoted" and called it a "disinformation" campaign.
Following this, the activist appealed directly to Google's Chief Operating Officer (CEO) Sundar Pichai, who hails from an upper-caste Indian family, to allow her to give her presentation. However, she did not receive any response from him.
‘Not Only Caste, This Was a Workplace Safety Issue’ : Thenmozhi
Speaking to The News Minute's Dhanya Rajendran in a virtual interaction, the activist expressed, "two days before the talk, a small group of people decided to launch a caste-bigoted and disinformation campaign, and many of those comments were very violent and derogatory, and unlawful in terms of Dalit people because we are a protected class, not just in South Asia but in America, in many civil rights bodies."
Resuming her narration of the events that transpired, she added that the DEI staff member, who brought her into the company, was also targeted.
"They doxxed her, which means they leaked the invite with her name and email address... so very quickly, this turned into a workplace safety issue," she stated.
Revealing that an official at Google claimed that 'caste' did not meet its standards of a protected category, she added, "The issue of caste is not going to go away with PR stints. We don't need more press releases, we need policy change and real material commitment to DEI work that addresses this issue at the core."
'A Talk Isn't the Problem, Casteism Is'
After Gupta's resignation, which sought to clarify that it was against caste discrimination, Google claimed that they had "a very clear, publicly shared policy against retaliation and discrimination in our workplace."
“We also made the decision to not move forward with the proposed talk which – rather than bringing our community together and raising awareness – was creating division and rancor,” Google Spokesperson Shannon Newberry reportedly said.
Responding to this in the interview to TNM, Thenmozhi stated that 'every part of their reaction reflects that they need to do caste equity.'
"Every part of Google's reaction reflects that they need to do caste equity, People in very high leadership positions at Google don't understand what caste is and who should be at the table to make decisions around how to speak about this issue, and they instead embolden discriminatory disinformation," she added, stressing that:
"This is actually very disturbing, that the senior management of google news are not able to discern disinformation."Thenmozhi Soundararajan
On the talk being labelled divisive by Google, she said, "At this point, no talk can be 'divisive'. The company is already divided about the issue. Workplaces already feel impacts on casteism across its platforms. So a talk on caste isn't the problem, casteism is. And the only we can solve this issue is with courage and empathy. I just wish Google had given us the chance to show them the other way."
'Must Act Now, Add Caste As Protected Category'
Iterating that this is a moment for Google to make the right decisions to tackle this issue, the activist also took to Twitter to appeal to Sundar Pichai and say, "You must do stand up to the violence and caste discrimination you have unleashed. Dalits are united in fighting this bigotry, but I should not have to endure dehumanization and danger because I tried to help your company."
Elaborating on the necessary policy changes in light of this, Thenmozhi underlined that Google must classify caste as a protected category.
Continuing, she added, "This is an excellent time to have an human rights impact assessment audit around the issues of caste in the company, to asses the level of caste harm."
The Dalit rights activist, in conclusion, laid emphasis on the fact that there are numerous opportunities for workplaces to have conversations out of this moment, "and do as Dr Ambedkar says, 'educate, agitate, and organise.'"
(With inputs from The News Minute.)