Arundhati Roy and the Occult Politics of Caste at Saint Louis University

On April 28 the Saint Louis University Library Associates will be conferring Arundhati Roy the St. Louis Literary Award at the Sheldon Concert Hall from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. On the 29, Arundhati Roy will be participating in a Craft Talk from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. in SLU’s Cook Hall. 

Arundhati Roy is well known for including diverse characters in her literature, making strides in environmental activism, condemning the Indian government’s removal of Article 370 and similar legislative actions that infringe upon the rights of Muslims and other disenfranchised religious groups in South Asia. 

One of Arundhati Roy’s most controversial works is not “The God of Small Things,” but “Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition.” It was published in 2014 and was marketed as an introduction to revolutionary caste reformer and iconoclast Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s magnum opus, “The Annihilation of Caste.” Arundhati Roy’s intent was to introduce the Western audience to caste conflicts and divisions within India. The publication was met with great effusiveness globally, as evidenced by a 4.6/5.0 rating on Amazon and a 4.3/5.0 rating on Goodreads, bestowed by thousands of reviewers. However, it caused friction with domestic anti-caste activists, such as Anu Ramdas, editor of Round Table India, a media outlet that focuses on amplifying Dalit-Bahujan voices, who states, “We object to Roy’s text not because of her non-Dalit origin but due to her poor grasp of the seminal text and even shallower and sensational out-of-context introduction to the original text which is at risk of maligning Ambedkar.” In addition to that critique, the price of her book was 10 times the cost of Ambedkar’s original work, which led to accusations that Arundhati Roy was trying to make a profit off of the adversities of historically traumatized communities. Telugu poet and activist, Joopaka Shubadra, at an event on the “Democratic Debate on Appropriation of Ambedkar’s Writings,” when speaking about Arundhati Roy, stated, “…her efforts actually increase the intensity of pain caused by caste. Our pain. Only if you are an untouchable will you understand that pain.” Ambedkar’s bona fide “Annihilation of Caste” is also offered in local languages, whereas Arundhati Roy’s book is only available in English, which is widely incomprehensible to the masses. This is an important difference, considering the role of English, in the British colonial state, in reifying caste hegemony and endogamy in India and gatekeeping education from subalterns. Ambedkar was a Dalit scholar and his work comes from a Dalit perspective. If Arundhati Roy is going to display Dalit plight and exploitation on a global scale, the Dalit community deserves to know what is being written about them (in languages accessible to them), such that they can critique it, since they have the valuable lived experience that Arundhati Roy does not. Lastly, not only do Arundhati Roy’s annotations in this work fail to center literature from Dalit scholars, in many cases, Roy is listed as a co-author or the only author of “Annihilation of Caste,” without Ambedkar being given proper accreditation. 

Roy’s track record on caste is far from innocuous. Roy is complicit in putting the onus on the Western audience, for whom caste is a cultural blindspot, to parse out the authenticity of her writing, rather than being upfront about her social position. It should be her duty, as a public figure and social advocate, to be mindful of the limitations of her purview and to highlight those who speak from the margins. During a 2020 interview with University of New Mexico Assistant Professor of American Studies, Nick Etze, when asked whether she was of Brahmin caste, Arundhati Roy stated “My mother is Christian and my father was a member of the Brahmo Samaj,” while also emphasizing the fact that her father later converted to Christianity. When asked to clarify her caste location, her response was to bring up the religious affiliations of her parents, rather than mentioning how her mother’s lineage, the Syrian Christian community, were social elites that greatly benefitted from their elevated position in the caste hierarchy and that her father’s last name, Roy, is a Bengali Brahmin caste indicator, which offers her social capital in obtaining opportunities and accolades.

Caste is so pervasive within India’s collective memory and the current zeitgeist, that it is a relevant factor for membership within any religious community. Proselytization fails to bring the sweet fruit of liberation, when it is the whole decadent fabric of society which must be reconstructed, in order for caste inequity to be allayed. This is why one cannot distance or absolve themselves from the ramifications of caste, including privilege, solely based on association with a minority religion. For example, in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, caste oppression has led to segregated churches for members of the Dalit community. Caste oppression can be comprehended through analogues to race based oppression in America, in terms of how it interacts with economic class. However, similar to race, high economic class does not necessarily bring social mobility to caste oppressed persons. Caste oppression can also be viewed through the vantage point of queer experience, in the aspect that the marginalized face fear of being “outed” to society, especially when it comes to finding housing, employment and places of worship. Caste-based discrimination is also fairly ubiquitous in that it isn’t restricted to India;it also affects Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the South Asian diaspora.

During Roy’s award ceremony, she will be welcomed with a showcase featuring a bharatanatyam dancer and a tabla performer. Bharatanatyam is an art that has been culturally appropriated by Brahmin nationalists — the hereditary performers of Bahujan caste heritage, who created “Sadir Attam,” have been displaced from the dance form. And it is through association with bodies of Savarna castes, bharatanatyam transitioned from being associated with hypersexuality and ignobility to the respectability it has today. Tabla and other types of South Asian percussion instruments, such as the mridangam, are made by Christian Dalits, whereas the performers and spectators of such “classical arts” are typically from caste opressor backgrounds. Even thousands of miles away from our beloved home country of India, in a Jesuit Campus on foreign lands, through the symbols the West deems so salient and emblematic of India, these types of caste politics still persist. 

Arundhati Roy’s identification with castelessness is confluent with the caste-blindness of Savarna students throughout the South Asian diaspora. Data collected by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, in 2003, displayed that the vast majority of Indians in the United States come from privileged caste backgrounds, with Dalits representing only 1.5% Indian immigrants. Additionally, according to the 2016 Equality Labs report, “Caste in the United States,” 2016, “60% of Dalits report experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments” and “One in three Dalit students report being discriminated against during their education.” To exacerbate matters, the right wing Hindu nationalist movement in India (Hindutva), which has fought strongly against progressive policies such as caste reservations in higher education, has been gaining traction in the mainland. This political dynamic is polarizing the views of diaspora Indians of upper caste, such that they are adopting more extreme views and may be susceptible to perpetrating caste-based violence.

When speaking in the context of the University, a lack of a South Asian Studies department at the University makes it such that caste oppressed students cannot identify which professors are allies (through the level of caste consciousness in their scholarly corpus). Additionally, caste oppressed students at Saint Louis University are reluctant to join undergraduate student organizations such as Indian Student Association or Hindu Students Community, where they may be vulnerable to attack, however  no alternative programming or spaces are available for them. 

Their fears about facing persecution are not unfounded. When a Dalit SLU student, “Mamta,” had her parents present, the South Asian father of one the neighboring residents, during move-in, asked about which part of India “Mamta” and her family came from, as well as about surname — they abruptly left after hearing the answers given. Indian residents in “Mamta’s” dorm hall were told to not talk to “people like her” by her dorm neighbor’s parents. When “Mamta” later offered food to that neighboring student, he refused, questioning its cleanliness. It is important to note that the practice of “caste untouchability” does not only refer to physical contact between bodies, but also the practice of individuals of dominant caste, particularly Brahmins, refusing to share food or vessels with those of Dalit heritage. When “Mamta” was taking a group picture, one of her South Asian acquaintances joked that she resembled a “dark shadow”. Later that week, someone left skin lightening cream outside her door. Due to the role of caste inter-marriage in preserving certain phenotypes, there is a relationship between caste and color gradient, such that fair skin is correlated with elevated caste location and it also serves as a class indicator because dominant castes saturate white collar industries which don’t require them to labor under heavy sun exposure. When another SLU student, “Bijoy,” invited an Indian international student to dinner, he was interrogated with intrusive questions until the other party stated that his family back home would be disappointed that he was talking to such a “low-caste, uneducated person.”

Although, by our efforts, in the year of 2022, calibrated legislation is finally being drafted to add caste as a protected category, it seems that there remains a culture of willful ignorance at SLU. We simply do not see Indian students discussing issues such as North Indian hegemony and the political effacement of South Indian cultures, the Dravidian movement, South Asian post-colonialism, the Muslim apartheid occuring in India and caste oppression. In fact, we do not know of any media outlet associated with SLU students, such as UNews, Newslink, OneWorld, or Her Campus that has ever covered caste at SLU up to this date, thus this article can serve as an expository piece at best, but the surface has barely been scratched. There is much work to be done.

All in all, we do not offer support to the idea of boycotting Arundhati Roy’s events and we also do not endorse students spreading negative comments on her social media pages. 

Our hope is that the Saint Louis University Library Associates and others within the institution, particularly the student body, will be solicitous and learn to take a deeper look into diversity. Diversity is not just a token brown face or an exotic accent. As players and actors in the SLU ecosystem, as cosmopolitan persons and global citizens, it is necessary to desist from our natural insularity and be critical consumers of the “diverse” representations we are presented with.