Indian guy from 'untouchable' caste background made his way to Cisco and eventually Meta in the US, but he still faces challenges because of his background.
SIDDHANT WAS 14 when he learned of the watch. His father, a low-wage worker on the Indian railway, was trying to save up for it, tucking away a few rupees when he could. Made of steel, the watch had in its dial a sketch of a portly man, his face framed by round glasses and his broad shoulders clad in a wide-lapelled jacket. It was his father’s hero, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the man most responsible for weakening the caste system’s grip on Indian society.
After school, Siddhant liked to ride his bike down the crowded streets of Nagpur, India, past groups of kids playing cricket, to a squat concrete building where his father rented a modest office with his friends, all anti-caste activists. Inside, he’d find the men sitting in plastic chairs, swapping tales of their exploits with Ambedkar, surrounded by posters of the man and newspapers spilling off bookshelves. As he sat listening, Siddhant couldn’t help but notice as one friend and then another and a third appeared at the office with the watch strapped to their wrists.
One day, Siddhant showed up on his bike and, to his immense surprise, saw on his father a different version of the watch. A gift from a big-shot friend, this one was comparatively luxe. Instead of the metal strap it had a leather band, and it was quartz, battery-powered rather than a windup. Siddhant couldn’t help but blurt out: “I want that watch!”
Siddhant, like his father, is a Dalit, a member of the most oppressed caste in South Asia’s birth-based hierarchy. Even among Dalits, their family was especially poor. Siddhant sometimes spent his evenings crouched near the firepit where his family cooked their food, repairing his torn rubber sandals with a hot iron rod that melted the straps back onto the sole. Seeing his father’s watch, something clicked: This was a symbol of everything he was after—to be an elite, educated Dalit, just like Ambedkar.
Siddhant’s father made him a deal. If Siddhant finished high school with first honors, he could have the watch. A year later, Siddhant came home brandishing his report card from the Maharashtra board of education: He’d done it. While his father, beaming, scanned the results, Siddhant grabbed the watch off a shelf and adjusted the strap to his wrist.
Siddhant has worn the watch nearly every day since—while riding his bike 12 miles to college, while earning his first paycheck as an engineer, while getting married. When he flew across the Atlantic to start a tech career in the San Francisco Bay Area, he wore it. It was on his wrist when he interviewed for, and landed, the job that convinced him he might finally escape the orbital pull of India and his family’s multigenerational poverty: as a software engineer at Facebook, with an offer package that totaled almost $450,000.
In Silicon Valley, it’s routine for people from India to land high-paying jobs; they make up a full quarter of the technical workforce. Yet those successes have, almost exclusively, come from historically privileged castes. Seven decades after India legally abolished “untouchability,” many Dalits still contend with enormous setbacks—hate crimes, poverty, limited economic opportunity.
When they do find their way to the US, Dalits tend to keep their backgrounds private to avoid inviting trouble. “It is very, very dangerous, revealing the identity even to any person,” says Siddhant, who asked to use a pseudonym. In 2020, such fears may have seemed justified when a California state agency filed a lawsuit against the San Jose–based tech giant Cisco, alleging caste discrimination against a Dalit employee. In the weeks that followed, more Dalit tech workers came forward. A South Asian civil rights group called Equality Labs received more than 250 unsolicited complaints against colleagues at Google, Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook, among other places. The individuals claimed that other Indians had made casteist slurs, engaged in discriminatory hiring and firing, sexually harassed them, and aggressively hunted for evidence of a closeted Dalit’s caste.
For outsiders, caste grievances can be difficult—bordering on impossible—to recognize. “One of the most dangerous things about caste,” says Yashica Dutt, author of the memoir Coming Out as Dalit, “is that it’s invisible. And because it’s invisible, there are many codes and secret languages that exist around us.” Questions about a person’s last name or home village can be seen as invasive attempts to identify caste. A pat on the shoulder might be a friendly greeting—or a search for a sacred thread that some dominant-caste Hindu men wear beneath their shirts. What counts as a transgression varies from person to person, but Dalits tend to agree that constantly navigating caste is a tremendous burden. Their lives are weighed down by always wondering whether a bad thing happened to them because of who they are.
For Siddhant, who now lives in the South Bay in a $2 million home, wearing his father’s Ambedkar watch reminds him of where he comes from—and where he still wants to go. Even now, whenever the stakes seem especially high, he’ll put on the watch and double-check that his shirt sleeves are long enough to conceal it.
But every time he chooses to consciously hide his identity, he agonizes over whether it’s time to out himself. Because money and prestige are not, on their own, enough. Siddhant is waiting for some moment, some sign, that he can finally put his anxieties to rest and simply be himself.
BHIMRAO AMBEDKAR, THE father of the modern Dalit movement, was born in 1891. At the time, social movements against India’s caste orthodoxy were gaining momentum. His family was from the Mahar caste, which ranked between other Dalit communities of rope makers and leather workers. Ambedkar’s father worked in the military. His job gave the family a small amount of social mobility, and Ambedkar attended schools where he could study English. But he faced frequent hostilities. His teachers barred him from sharing a water tap with his classmates and from studying Sanskrit, the language of ancient Hindu scriptures.
Still, he excelled. He became the first Dalit to win a prominent regional scholarship, which allowed him to travel to New York to study at Columbia University. There, he was mentored by social reformers such as John Dewey and had a close-up view of the women’s suffrage movement. Ambedkar began crafting a blueprint for a radically equal society, which later formed the basis of his famous speech, The Annihilation of Caste.
He left New York to earn a PhD at the London School of Economics, where he continued to enjoy life as an equal to his classmates. But when he returned to India, doors slammed in his face. Eventually, a London acquaintance recommended him for a professorship in Bombay, but even there he was not allowed to share drinking water with the other professors.
Then, in 1926, the governor of Bombay nominated Ambedkar for the one city council seat representing the untouchable community. He started to give radical speeches advocating for economic and social equality, and he grew a following. As violence against resistant Dalits grew, Ambedkar’s supporters formed the paramilitary group Samata Sainik Dal, or Army of Soldiers for Equality, to help spread his message. The soldiers helped protect thousands of Dalits when they followed Ambedkar on a march to the Mahad village in Maharashtra, where he performed the radical act of drinking from a communal well.
Ambedkar studied parallels to caste elsewhere, and in the 1940s he appealed to W. E. B. Du Bois in a letter: “There is so much similarity between the Untouchables of India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary,” he wrote. In 1947, as India became independent from Britain, Ambedkar became the new country’s law minister. He was tasked with drafting its constitution, and he used the opportunity to work on caste protections. He outlawed discrimination based on caste, race, and sex and introduced affirmative action. But the reforms didn’t go as far as he wanted. He ended up resigning in frustration.
Ambedkar believed that Hinduism codified Dalits’ oppression, and he closely studied South Asia’s religions in search of an alternative. In October 1956, Dalits far and wide left their homes on foot to trek to a 14-acre site in Nagpur. In front of a sea of men and women dressed mostly in white, Ambedkar converted himself from Hinduism to a new faith: Buddhism. Then he turned to the hundreds of thousands of Dalits before him and recited 22 vows to convert them to his interpretation of the religion. By shedding Hinduism, they were announcing they no longer believed their past lives condemned them to their current fate.
Among the Samata Sainik Dal soldiers working the event that day was Siddhant’s father, age 19. Two decades later, his wife gave birth to Siddhant in a cowshed in a remote village outside Nagpur. They moved soon after to a slum in the city. Like their fellow slum dwellers, they raised him as both a Buddhist and fervent follower of Ambedkar—an Ambedkarite.
FOR SIDDHANT’S FIRST 13 years, his family lived in a small hut next to a shop that sold cheap liquor. In the evenings, crowds milled around outside, fights erupted, and drive-by stabbings occurred regularly. Every morning, Siddhant and his mother woke up at 4 to fetch water from the public tap, which ran for a few hours a day. The men of the slum left for work early too, often to jobs as day laborers, garbage collectors, or rickshaw pullers.
The kids in his neighborhood often got into smoking and drinking, but Siddhant’s father kept strict watch over him and his four siblings. He spoke to them of Ambedkar as a godlike figure with the power to uplift them and who ought to be emulated—so education came first. Siddhant first attended a school his father helped build, where lessons were conducted in Marathi, the main language of Maharashtra, and teachers shared stories from the lives of Buddha and Ambedkar. When he was 9, Siddhant started accompanying his father to weeklong activist camps, where they spent afternoons discussing how Buddha’s teachings and Ambedkar’s life lessons might improve their own lives and communities.
It was around this age when his mother, walking barefoot, stepped on a metal spike, and a bad infection caused her leg to swell. They couldn’t afford the hospital entry fee, and Siddhant’s father raised funds for days while she suffered at home. Luckily, she survived, but Siddhant became convinced that he had to get his family out of those circumstances. His eyes were also opening to life beyond India. When his father’s school welcomed a visit from Japanese Buddhists, Siddhant tagged along to greet them—and discovered the existence of airports and airplanes. When an Ambedkarite doctor came to visit his family, Siddhant was in awe: Here was a real professional, with a stethoscope, willing to stay under their humble roof. Transfixed by the doctor’s stories, Siddhant realized he wanted to be like him, both a professional and a social activist.
By the time Siddhant was in the eighth grade, his father had scraped together enough savings to move the family out of the slum and into a new neighborhood, where they were surrounded by families from privileged castes. Siddhant and his mother worked hard to build their new home by hand, with Siddhant collecting water to pour into the concrete to help it set. In high school, when his teachers switched from conducting his math and science courses in Marathi to English, Siddhant started tripping over unfamiliar words such as “perpendicular,” and he compiled a personal dictionary in the back pages of his notebooks. As he neared graduation, he got his first pair of closed-toe shoes. When he enrolled in Nagpur University to study computer engineering, he was one of two Dalits out of about 80 students in the program. He figured it was his best shot at one day becoming known as a sahib—a sir, someone worthy of respect.
To bring in extra income, Siddhant and his older sister took on tutoring jobs, and during the massive annual festival to celebrate Ambedkar’s conversion, he set up a stall to sell his hero’s written works. The earnings helped pay for his textbooks and gave him pocket money to start riding the bus to school. His grades were good. But when he’d overhear a classmate say that he was there only because of affirmative action, he’d start to feel self-conscious. When Siddhant applied for a job as an engineering trainee at the urging of a professor, his interviewer asked probing questions about his family’s home, their last name, and his father’s vocation—all of which elicited answers that pinpointed his caste. Siddhant didn’t get the job. He was convinced it was because of his caste.
He became more cautious and began hiding his Ambedkar watch during interviews. But he was still ambitious and dreamed of grad school, specifically the Indian Institutes of Technology, the country’s premier universities funneling engineers into the world. He scrounged up the hefty sum to purchase test prep material and was studying for the entrance exam when, in November 1998, he came across a small ad seeking a programmer analyst for the IT department of IIT Bombay. He applied and got it—and felt he’d gotten one step closer to his dreams. He was admitted under the “SC” category for government jobs, which meant his hiring counted toward a quota for scheduled, or oppressed, castes.
He hopped on the train to Mumbai, moved in with a roommate who didn’t object to his caste, and eventually took his grad school entrance exams. When he learned he had gotten into IIT Bombay itself, he phoned his family to deliver the joyous news. Moreover, he had been accepted not through the category reserved for his caste but as a research assistant, which would help fund his education and allow him to send money home.
The position came with a phone and desktop computer, which Siddhant set up in his room. Feeling isolated at the cutthroat university, he used his new computer to search the school databases for recognizable Dalit names. He sent out cold emails to 60-odd students, inviting them to a meeting in his room; about 25 showed up. He started a Yahoo group for Dalits and called it Apna IIT—apna being the Hindi word for “mine.” They met up in his room to talk, study, and share his phone and computer.
When Siddhant was in his final year at IIT and preparing his thesis, a professor presented him with a challenge. The professor was about to leave for the US, and he said he would return to supervise Siddhant’s thesis only if he finished five big assignments in three months. Siddhant thought it was an impossible task. But he dove in and slogged through 17-hour days. The whole time, though, he wondered whether the professor assumed he would give up because of his caste. Siddhant had seen other classmates from oppressed backgrounds drop out after facing similar obstacles. At the three-month mark, Siddhant submitted the assignment, and the professor kept his word. Siddhant figured, with a touch of both pride and despair, that he had proven to the professor that his caste would not hold him back.
WITH THE HELP of a professor, Siddhant got a job at a tech startup in Bangalore (now known as Bengaluru), and he felt freer to be himself. It was a small thing, but he allowed himself to roll up his sleeves and expose his watch. In his home state of Maharashtra, his last name was a dead giveaway. But in Bengaluru, in a different region with different customs, he felt he could pass more easily as a privileged-caste person.
When Siddhant’s bosses told him they were sending him to work in the US, he was ecstatic. He flew to Chicago and moved with three Indian colleagues into a three-room, company-owned apartment in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. Siddhant slept in the hallway. His roommates were Hindus from Tamil Nadu who chose to wear the sacred white thread across their chest and over their left shoulders to mark their Brahmin identity. Siddhant decided, given the circumstances, that he had no choice but to be himself. In the mornings, he said a quick two-minute prayer to Ambedkar. When a roommate invited him to a local temple, Siddhant told him he was “no longer” a Hindu—a clear reference to caste and his ancestral conversion—and his roommate’s jaw dropped in surprise. But in the evenings their common interests took precedence, and they binged movies and talked politics.
On the surface, his new life was a dream come true. But he again felt isolated. And he was uneasy about abandoning his community back home. So Siddhant saved every penny, and in October 2004 he quit and returned to India, to the city of Pune, a startup hub southeast of Mumbai. He got a new job, started another Apna Yahoo group, and, with a few others, rented a two-bedroom apartment to serve as an office for Ambedkarite activities. Every weekend, some 50 people, mostly bachelors in IT, showed up. They strategized how to act on Ambedkar’s call to “educate, agitate, and organize” people living in different slums while tutoring each other and discussing technical work.
At work, however, Siddhant still kept a low profile, especially after his manager said he needed to hire more people—and then rattled off a bunch of dominant-caste surnames as examples. Knowing Dalits struggled to get hired and secure housing, Siddhant started a small training institute and a service to find people hostels. He recruited tutors at local Buddha viharas, the spaces where Buddhists gathered and prayed, and paid them out of pocket to teach English and math. Dreaming of becoming a founder, Siddhant also tried to build a startup aimed at hiring people from marginalized communities, but the company didn’t last. Meanwhile, his day job wasn’t going well either. When his company lost a US client, his manager blamed Siddhant for screwing up the contract. Siddhant concluded that his manager had picked him as the easiest scapegoat—again, because of his caste.
Distressed, Siddhant quit and found a job at Cisco, which recruits much of its workforce in India. He earned roughly $50,000, on the high end for Indian engineers. In 2015, inspired by tales of Indian American CEOs and sky-high salaries, he persuaded his managers to send him back to the United States, but this time to the Bay Area, along with his wife and two children.
In the US, he used his Apna groups to start meeting other Ambedkarites. But outside his Dalit world, he kept his mouth shut about his personal life—except on one occasion. His department at Cisco threw a Diwali party over lunch, complete with Bollywood music and blinking lights. Siddhant went for the food and camaraderie, and a colleague, an immigrant from Vietnam, asked why he wasn’t dressed up in traditional Hindu garb. He smiled and turned away, she recalls. (She requested not to reveal her name out of sensitivity to Siddhant, because she believes others could identify him through her.) “So I kind of brushed it off, maybe it wasn’t his thing,” she says. He had always seemed a puzzle to her anyhow, never volunteering information about himself.
A year later, they went out to grab lunch, and she asked on the car ride back whether he was planning to celebrate Diwali. Siddhant turned to her as he drove. “I am going to tell you this, but you have to promise me you won’t tell anyone,” he said. He revealed he was a Buddhist, and that he doesn’t celebrate because of the holiday’s Hindu origins.
She didn’t understand why he was being secretive, but as a fellow Buddhist she was excited to have a like-minded colleague. Then Siddhant explained the rest—the plight of untouchables, the need to escape the caste system, his family’s conversion. She started to piece together his behavior the year prior. “After he told me, I was like, oh my God, I have this big secret of his. But at the same time I felt it was very unfair, or very sad,” she says, “that he has to hide.”
IN 2017, SIDDHANT won a competitive lottery for a green card and started interviewing for new jobs. He had nudged his salary into the six figures and was confident he could double it—but now he discovered a new club he needed to crack. At a meeting with an entrepreneur looking to hire his company’s first engineer, Siddhant asked if he could be the chief technology officer. The founder asked if Siddhant was “from the FAANG group,” meaning had he worked at Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, or Google. Cisco wasn’t impressive enough to potential investors, the man explained.
So Siddhant focused his job hunt on the FAANGs. In March 2018, he was at his desk when he received the phone call confirming a new chapter in his life: an offer to be a systems infrastructure specialist at Facebook and help build artificial intelligence software. His starting salary, including stock options, was light years beyond what he, as a child, had believed possible. He immediately phoned his wife. “Life will be changing,” he told her, his voice brimming with excitement.
Around this time, a friend tipped him off that another Dalit in their network was involved in a fight over caste discrimination at Cisco—and that the case might go to court. Hearing this, Siddhant’s spirits sank. But he figured that as long as casteism existed in India, it would creep up anywhere there were large numbers of Indians. He thought about his own time at the company and wondered whether he had skirted through on pure luck. One time, a colleague had tried to praise him in a way that stung. “Brahmin means superior, Brahmin means talented, Brahmin means intelligent,” the colleague had said. “Now you have those qualities, it means that you are Brahmin. You are no more Dalit.”
He pushed these uncomfortable thoughts aside as he focused on his new job. He was starry-eyed throughout Facebook’s six-week boot camp for new hires. And he was relieved to learn that none of his managers were Indian and most of his teammates were Russian.
Two years went by before Siddhant’s WhatsApp channels started buzzing with news that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing had filed a lawsuit against Cisco, and he finally learned the details of the case. A Dalit under the pseudonym of John Doe had worked on a team of all dominant-caste Indian immigrants. His manager, a former classmate, had told two colleagues that the plaintiff was from a marginalized caste and had attended IIT Bombay under affirmative action. When the Dalit man confronted his manager about being outed and filed a discrimination complaint, he was removed from the team and demoted, actions the lawsuit argues were in retaliation. Reading the details of the case, Siddhant remembered again why Dalits tend to play it safe. “As long as they don’t disclose, they won’t be discriminated against and enjoy the same status as others,” he says.
At work, Siddhant watched nervously as his South Asian colleagues discussed the news in an internal Facebook group. A post of a news story attracted a slew of likes and angry reactions, and he couldn’t tell if the anger was aimed at Dalits or the alleged discrimination. Some people left comments saying they were appalled or that the suit was baseless. Siddhant stayed silent. He was not ready to draw attention to himself—not in front of the roughly 7,000 members in this group.
But in the following months, as the US was grappling with its own racial caste system after the death of George Floyd, the topic of caste discrimination kept coming up. A former employee of HCL America, the US branch of an Indian IT company, filed a lawsuit alleging caste bias. A group of 30 Dalit female engineers shared an anonymous statement with The Washington Post about their experiences with bias and argued for workplace protections.
His anxiety was skyrocketing. In October 2020, on the advice of his wife and a few close friends, he met with a therapist. He felt that something was missing and turned a critical eye on his career. He’d been at his current job for years and felt like he’d stalled. He’d always chased achievements as a way to validate himself in the eyes of others. But now he was at a loss. He had no idea how to explain these nerves to a therapist. “I was not able to reveal how I felt internally,” Siddhant says. “It’s only me who understands how I feel about my own success.” He didn’t bother to schedule a follow-up session.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s London HR team was organizing a companywide Zoom meeting to discuss caste bias. A Brahmin friend who knows Siddhant’s caste status invited him to be on a panel. Instead, Siddhant wrote an anonymous statement that his friend then read: “I apologize for not speaking with you directly,” it began. “Who knows what challenges revealing my identity openly here bring.” He then implored his colleagues to pay attention to the stigma of caste, and he argued that dominant-caste individuals must change their attitudes, just as Ambedkar once convinced his followers to start seeing themselves as worthy. As his friend spoke his words, Siddhant left his Zoom rectangle dark.
In April 2021, the debate over caste cropped up even closer to home. Siddhant listened in on a video call organized by the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, which was debating whether to add caste to its antidiscrimination policy. Over seven hours, 269 people queued up to deliver 30-second speeches. Anonymous, self-identified Dalit tech workers kept their videos off as they described how they had lost jobs and faced casteist slurs. Residents from dominant-caste backgrounds spoke of witnessing bias in their communities and in the region’s tech companies. A representative from the Alphabet Workers Union spoke of how difficult it is for victims, many of whom are in the US on visas, to come forward. Numerous allies topped off their statements with “Jai Bhim”—a tribute to Bhimrao Ambedkar—but others, including a few who self-identified as members of oppressed castes, worried that adding caste as a protected category would perpetuate negative stereotypes about Indians, and especially Hindus, as bigots.
Siddhant was amazed that such a debate was happening, let alone right where he lived. In August 2021, the California Democratic Party added caste as a protected category in its code of conduct. A slew of universities announced caste protections, including Colby College, UC Davis, Harvard’s graduate student union, UC San Diego’s ethnic studies department, and most recently, the Cal State University system. (Brandeis University was the first, in 2019.) Siddhant is still waiting to hear what happens with the Cisco lawsuit. At stake, says Kevin Brown, a law professor at Indiana University Bloomington, is whether the state of California will recognize casteism as a form of discrimination. He sees a strong argument in favor, especially because California bars discrimination on the basis of ancestry.
Milind Awasarmol, a Dalit and a director of the nonprofit Dr. Ambedkar International Mission, notes that “caste discrimination doesn’t have to manifest through some atrocity.” The fact that “you are forced to hide your identity, you are forced to be somebody different than what you are,” Awasarmol says, “is a violation of one’s basic rights.”
I FIRST MESSAGED Siddhant on WhatsApp in September 2020. I had just attended a Zoom panel he had helped organize with 18 other Dalits, who all shared their experiences. During our first interview, Siddhant and I talked for nearly three hours. He told me about his wristwatch that anyone could see if they looked closely. At the time, the Cisco lawsuit was very much on his mind, and he marveled at the plaintiff’s guts in coming forward. Inspired, he agreed to work with me on this story—but under a pseudonym. He agonized, immensely, that other members of the Indian diaspora might turn on him for promoting “anti-Hindu hatred,” a term whose critics argue is a form of doublespeak—a way to use racial and religious protections to deflect scrutiny from caste.
We spoke regularly for a year and a half, and as time went on, he started to think maybe he should use his name. The interview process had forced him to reckon with his life, and he found his anxiety dissipating. It seemed to me he started looking for ways to out himself for this story, without having to make that decision himself. Before the photographer, Arsenii Vaselenko, showed up to shoot the portraits, Siddhant asked if the pictures might turn out better if his name were attached; I assured him the photos would be beautiful regardless. During the shoot, when Vaselenko asked if he was comfortable having his front side captured, Siddhant angled his face toward the camera’s lens.
His wife urged him to reveal his name, and he ran through his list of pros and cons. The pros: helping the world understand the entrenched nature of caste. Helping his community see that they have merit and that their lives involve more than tragedy or trauma. But—the eternal counterbalance—opening up felt like a huge personal risk. “That is my dilemma,” he says.
Ultimately, he couldn’t do it. He still worries other Indians might interpret his words as feeding a feud. “Sharing the story of my life, I have no problem,” he says. “Talking about my realities, I have no problem. But if people think I am creating hate via this story, then it will be a problem.”
He continues to push against the edges of his comfort zone. He invites the Indian parents of his children’s friends into his home, where they can hardly miss the large, framed black-and-white portrait of Ambedkar sitting on an altar by the fireplace, along with a small statue of the Buddha. Siddhant has told his sons all about Ambedkar, and they pray before the altar on important days. He likes to explain that Ambedkar was a great leader for their people, just as Martin Luther King Jr. was for Black Americans.
One day, Siddhant’s older son shared a story from his own life. A teacher had asked a group of kids, who were all of Indian descent, about their family backgrounds. One by one, the kids shouted out their religion, region, and caste. They all said they were Brahmin. When it was Siddhant’s son’s turn, he blurted out, “I’m an untouchable!” Everyone laughed.
Hearing the story, Siddhant laughed too. He figures they probably thought his son was being silly. But Siddhant was more interested in his son’s mindset, utterly free of caste anxieties. “I was happy,” he says. “He’s not hiding his identity.”
Born in a cowshed in India, Siddhant now works for Meta in California. But he hides his background as a Dalit and fears he can never reveal his true self.