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. 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 ten 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 point of view and to highlight those who speak from the margins. During a 2020 interview with the 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 oppressor 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.