The killing of George Floyd last month sparked protests all over the US and around the world, with #BlackLivesMatter hashtag trending for many days on Twitter. Since then, racial discrimination has been the topic of various talks with many multinational companies coming forward to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Though their track record raises concerns, corporate America has come forward to pledge to play a bigger role in combating racism with top management from companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Facebook among others coming to support the BLM movement.
At the same time, Indian counterparts have been silent on the discrimination faced by the Dalits. As Twitter changed its header to support BLM, managing director of Twitter India, while taking pride in that, ignored the calls from Dalits to follow suit. One cannot even imagine such support from Google while CEO of it is an Indian and has come forward to support BLM. While the abuse faced by Dalit activists continues on social media, such fake self-importance are nothing more than ‘brand activism’.
None should be surprised why companies are coming forward to take a stand on BLM and issues of racism – it’s all about business.
A 2018 survey covering 35 countries showed that 64 per cent of the consumers would reward companies that they believe took stand on societal issues. If nothing serious but at least as a symbolic gesture, American corporate has come out to support BLM. Forget about symbolic gesture, Indian equivalent has never stood against the discrimination faced by Dalits, instead have perpetuated.
Given the dismal response from the corporate world in India towards the Dalit Lives Matter movement and raising the issue of caste discrimination, Dalits are not even worth ‘brand activism’ for Indian corporate. Why does not the idea of even ‘brand activism’ on the name of caste atrocities and abuse attract Indian corporate?
Are Dalits not a big enough market? I do not think that is the reason because various studies have shown the growing purchasing power of Dalits in India, who are at the bottom of social pyramid. So, what is the reason behind such mysterious behaviour of Indian corporate?
The answer is simple. It has everything to do with caste and it is not surprising at all because the corporate world in India is infected by caste-virus – worse than the one causing Covid-19. Caste has not only followed but affected Dalits the most during Covid-19 crisis.
According to a 2012 study, about 93 per cent (of which 45 per cent are Brahmins and 46 per cent are Vaishyas) of the Indian corporate board members are from the forward castes. In another study, it was found that most mergers and acquisitions occur between directors of the same castes. Wherever there is a way, there is caste stopping your way – this proverb cannot be truer than in the Indian corporate world.
The response on #DalitLivesMatter is dismal not only from the for-profit organisations in India but also from not-for-profit organisations, forgetting their social mission. If corporate in India are serious toward their mission and want to build value–driven companies, they must not only handle their employees and customers with care but must get involved in tackling societal problems such as caste discrimination.
#DalitLivesMatter and what Indian corporate can do about it
Here are a few things that corporate in India should do if they truly believe in equal opportunities or at least for ‘brand activism’, which would ultimately benefit them.
- While co-founder of social media platform Reddit resigned to make board seat vacant for a black candidate, can we see something similar from any Indian organisation? Maybe it is futile to even ask this question from Indian corporate, which is full of so-called upper castes. Organisations must make seats vacant for SC/ST/OBCs at board level, otherwise top management of such organisations will continue to push casteist ads down our throats, face backlash, tweet against the constitutional right of SC/ST/OBCs i.e. reservation policies, and spread foul through their fans. Encourage diversity, it is good for businesses. Don’t just open the door for Dalits but push them through it.
- Organizations in India should not only support Dalits but release caste-wise data of their employees. Make a real case of your care toward discriminated communities. Caste plays an important role in the Indian economy so do the caste networks and it is time for Indian businesses to not only acknowledge but work toward giving more opportunities to Dalits.
- While companies in the USA are allowing more discussion around racism and embracing BLM, Indian corporate as well must take inspiration from it and make caste discrimination a matter of discussion. Nothing better would come out without discussion, basic business rule.
- There are significant caste differences in entrepreneurship across India with SC/STs under-represented in entrepreneurial activities. It is the responsibility of not only the governments but business chambers and the corporate world in India to fill those gaps. Big businesses in India must make sure that they follow the rules regarding sourcing material and awarding contracts, rules which have been ignored till now, to Dalit enterprises, encourage Dalit entrepreneurship.
- Indian supply chain businesses must follow base code guidelines to address caste in business, prepared by Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN), UK. DSN had also found discriminatory practices in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, which is highly shameful.
- Various researches have shown that Dalits and minority communities are at a disadvantage in the labour market and more likely to face unemployment. With Covid-19 situation that has made millions unemployed, mostly from so-called lower castes, it is time for Indian businesses to step forward and make responsible decisions.
- Support the Dalit Lives Matter Movement. Affirm publicly that your organization supports Dalit Lives Matter and stand against the discriminatory rulings against Dalits. No matter it could be symbolic, its implications could be far-reaching.
- Donate to Dalit led NGOs. Research from the USA shows that NGOs led by marginalised communities get a lower level of funding despite being similar or even better qualified. Same could be true for Dalits’ led NGOs. There is no denying that if marginalized communities would get the same level of funding as privileged groups, they would do much better. When ignoring marginalised communities from the access to resources, philanthropy ends up reinforcing the very social ills it says it is trying to overcome. The business community has its duty to fill the gaps left wide open by governmental policies.
- Develop a mechanism to report caste discrimination at workplaces, hardly any company at present in India has it and should work on developing and implementing such a mechanism. Become an anti-caste employer, seems like I am asking too much but imagine, can you, how does anti-caste workplace look like!
- Dr Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste said that “Caste is not just a division of labour, it is a division of labourers”. More than ever now is the time that Indian businesses to commit to the real change and take substantial actions to end this division of labourers. Acknowledge the issue of caste that Dalits are exploited and do not get same opportunities, listen to Dalit employees’ concerns, show empathy and support them, ensure diversity, foster inclusive workplace, develop future leaders from marginalised communities, declare your company’s stand on caste discrimination, and commit to handling the caste discrimination in your organisation. There are many things which Indian businesses should start doing right until it’s not too late.
Caste follows employees everywhere. I understand all the above is too much to ask when board members to the majority of employees are from so-called upper castes but still organisations must try to be responsible and if not, should be made responsible for discriminatory practices. At the same time, if Indian businesses do not take stand against discrimination faced by Dalits in day to day life at the workplace, taking inspiration from Black Enterprises, Dalit Enterprises should continue to emerge, challenging Brahmin-Bania hegemony.
This article first appeared in velivada.com
The author is the founder-editor of Velivada, a web publication, and runs the online web portal Ambedkar Caravan. Views are personal.