The Battle Over California's Textbook

A months-long struggle over the California sixth-grade history and social science textbook content on India, Indian history, and Hinduism culminated at a contentious public hearing in California's state capitol, Sacramento, on February 27, 2006. A special committee to the State Board of Education (SBE) voted on whether to recommend approved edits and corrections, the content of which had resulted in various opposing mobilizations in the diasporic Indian community in the Bay Area and across the United States.

I had become deeply concerned when I heard in November of 2005 that two Hindu Nationalist Indian American groups, the Vedic Foundation (VF) and Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), backed by the Hindu American Foundation, had marshaled to intervene in the editing process of these sections. (See History Hungama: The California Textbook Debate for in-depth elaborations on the significance of these relationships.) Through their lobbying and unsubstantiated claims of representing the largest population of Hindus, they succeeded in pushing through 131 of their 153 proposed revisions between September-December 2005. These adoptions were met with great opposition and resulted in the investigation of the special committee that decided to overturn the 2005 edits. But the claims that these revisions were necessary because they perpetuate misrepresentations about India and Hinduism and proliferate discriminatory stereotypes need to be challenged.

Rewriting History to Comfort the Comfortable

These groups (VF/HEF) claim that teaching children about inequitable Hindu social practices crushes the cultural pride and self-esteem of second generation Hindu Indian Americans like myself and thereby amplifies the effects of already existing racisms and sexisms prevalent in American classrooms. The edits were submitted by these organizations along with an Ad Hoc Committee, which included Professor Shiva Bajpai, affiliated with the World Association for Vedic Studies, a Hindu nationalist organization. These revisions attempted to sanitize existing representations of Indian history and Hinduism by inserting glorifications and eliminating references to the oppression of adivasis (tribal), Dalits, lower-caste/class Indians and women. Support for these changes was largely amassed by appealing both to "Hindu pride" and notions that the Hindu community is a wronged minority in the US rightfully trying to achieve respect. Angana Chatterji, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, expresses urgent concern about the purpose of teaching history and the danger in reducing its study to a matter of appeasing communities with favorable representations:"We must make distinctions between a national pride that wishes to put forward a uniform and glorifying version of history and the scholarship of history, which seeks to present the complexities of societies. Fiction as history does not benefit Indian-American and other California school-goers."

Ideological and Sectarian Links Expands Political Context

The VF/HEF have organizational ties to militant Hindu groups in India such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), groups that have been identified by Human Rights Watch as having waged large-scale and gendered violence against religious and ethnic minorities in India.

As a Hindu Indian woman born and raised in America, I certainly experienced racism for being both brown and non-Christian. As a result, I sought cultural affirmation and only found it in religious spaces (ashrams, temples). Here I was presented with "alternative" histories, not so different from those being posed by the VF/HEF, where caste was defined for me as a flexible social stratification system that bared resemblance to the class system present in the US. I was also advised that Westerners unfairly focused on gender inequities in India as an attempt to legitimize the colonization of India. Certainly these "alternatives" comforted me and allowed me to affirm my Hindu-ness.

In 2002, I began pursuing a graduate degree in Religious Studies/Eastern Philosophies with a specific focus on Vedanta. Just a few weeks into my first semester communal violence broke out in Gujarat following an attack on the Sabarmati Express. Hindus alleged that Muslim extremists set fire to the train compartment occupied mostly by Hindus. Further investigations and several reports later, we would learn of a planned and systematic pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat by state-sponsored Hindu nationalists that took the lives of more than 2,000 Muslims and displaced over 100,000. Through my research, I was learning of a larger political context in which "Hindu" was a religious identity in India versus the racialized identity it was for me in the US. As I continued my studies, I became increasingly politicized and shifted my focus to cultural anthropology.

The revisionist histories I learned in the ashram against a backdrop of an inadequate American public school education did not prepare me to understand how the Gujarat catastrophe could happen. I had learned of other genocides, African-American slavery and the Holocaust, but I had not learned of genocides perpetuated by Hindus, in fact I was always told that Hindus were "passive" and "tolerant". I began to understand the significance of an education mediated by teachers who would challenge me to question history as a way of empowering me as a student and citizen, to speak out against injustices in the world rather than support a white washing of history--and to do so would not make me any less Hindu.

Panel Votes in Favor of Historical Accuracy

Which returns me back to February 27, 2006. Why do we study history? Who is history written for? Who writes it? More than 200 diasporic Indians attended the primary adoption hearing for the history and social science textbooks in question, presumably to debate these issues. The room became increasingly polarized leading to an emotionally charged display between those who identified as constituents of the VF/HEF and those who did not, which included representatives from many community groups, including the Friends of South Asia (FOSA), the Ambedkar Center for Peace and Justice, the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America, and the Coalition Against Communalism, all strategically aligned with hundreds of prominent South Asian scholars from the United States and abroad to object to the edits proposed by the HEF/VF. After four hours of public debate, the special committee unanimously voted to overturn a majority of the arguable edits proposed by the HEF/VF. Vinay Lal, Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that sectarian and other non-academic considerations motivated the objectionable edits and he notes, "it is important that these considerations have not prevailed." However, Lal brings attention to other developments: "India is now being named as a possible world power in the near future and that has bearing on what is happening in California. The Indian community here is trying to test the waters. Though the US diasporic community here is not large, maybe 2 million, primarily Hindu, this community has affluence and is disproportionately influential in areas of science, technology, medicine, etc. There is a feeling that Indians are an invisible community here and they are now feeling emboldened in very significant ways. So whether it's textbooks or other things, [these dynamics] will be fought over increasingly in the US."

By relating to a sense of a Hindu community under threat, there are those that don't necessarily identify as Hindu nationalists but are supporting the HEF/VF edits. One such advocate, Vamsee Juluri, Associate Professor of Media Studies at University of San Francisco responds to the original sections on India and Hinduism in textbooks: "This manufactured ignorance of Hinduism and Indian culture has not only hurt the feelings of immigrant children, but has also had a geopolitical cost for the United States by delaying what should have been a natural alliance between the two secular democracies."He goes on to write about the future of a relationship between India and the US, which he claims "depends on rejecting the old frameworks and mistaken assumptions. The ugly misrepresentations in the textbooks are a part of that old error, and have no place in the future." Juluri's dangerous appeal to such a future rests on discourses of globalization, modernization, multiculturalism and diversity that effectively mask structural forms of racism and sexism and in so doing push forth a narrow Hindu nationalist agenda in the name of racial/ethnic equality and empowerment.

Dalits Voice Their Objections

The hearing itself pointed to emerging concerns within the Indian community. Large numbers of Dalits attended the meeting offering rousing testimonies as a plea that the history of their struggles continues to be represented in textbooks and that the term "caste" not be replaced with "class". These statements were met by occasional outbursts by VF/HEF supporters such as, "If you are so oppressed how did you get here?" -- which was then followed by thunderous claps and laughter.

The vilification of Dalits in a US context points to the serious implications of deleting or rewriting caste in history textbooks. One such problematic edit suggested replacing "The Aryans created a caste system" with "During Vedic times, people were divided into different social groups (Varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular profession."Angana Chatterji states: "Such storying dissociates the caste system from Hinduism, discounting the oppressive structure and politics via which the caste system was constituted. It presents the caste system as a fluid arrangement whereas a more scholarly understanding of caste entails recognizing it as a Brahminic system of social classification, where status was determined by ancestry and reinforced through religious sanctions for discrimination and violence against lower-caste groups."

The punctuated laughter and claps that supported the assertion that Dalits could not possibly have traveled to the US if they maintained an oppressed status in India perhaps points to both insufficient activism on the part of privileged groups in India around the caste system and to the cultivation of a particular Indian immigrant memory, one where earlier histories of immigration, pre-1965, which include those of Dalits and Punjabi peasants, become erased. Whose histories must we teach/tell in the US, a society where racism and sexism functions by making sure certain histories remain silent? How does the diaspora here impact Dalit struggles for self-determination? If we are to take seriously the legacy of anti-racist struggles in the US, then how do these stories need to be told?

Women: Still Debating Separate but Equal

The HEF/VF influenced Ad Hoc Committee also proposed, and the Curriculum Commission of 2005 accepted, that the text reading "Men had many more rights than women", be replaced with: "Men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than women. Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas were revealed."Chatterji explains, "In this revision, the inequity of women's rights is legitimated and characterized as 'different rights', rendering invisible women's subordinated role in a patriarchal society. Their history makes Hinduism uniform, monotheistic, and monolithic, dismissing the disenfranchisement of women, dalits, adivasis, and religious minorities under centuries of Hindu ascendancy in what is today India, and therefore their ongoing struggles for justice and self-determination." Lal adds that the proposed edit is also historically inaccurate:"The Upanishads mention not 'many' women sages, but only a couple indeed, only one whose name appears constantly, Gargi. More importantly, though nationalist historians over several decades have endeavored to establish that women held an honored place in Indian society, virtually all scholars of ancient Indian history agree that the position of men and women in ancient Indian society was vastly unequal."Anu Mandavilli, an active member of Friends of South Asia (FOSA) notes, "Women have often taken to the streets to demand political representation, economic justice and social equality. But we have also had to fight for the right to have these struggles represented in history."

At the hearing, I happened to be sitting nearby students from Monte Vista High School in Danville, California. As the environment became more combative, I heard some of the youth struggling to understand the issues being debated. It became clear that they weren't always sure where they were positioned or what the positions really were."What side are they on?"I often heard them say. Sometimes they clapped for the "wrong side" and giggled when realizing it. When called to speak during public comments each of them in their own way conflated what they named as inaccuracies in the textbooks with those things that made them feel ashamed in school. In other words, the teaching of the caste system or inequities against women in India in the classroom were said to be inaccurate because they were embarrassing.

The testimonies of these students are worrisome, suggesting a clear need for more alternatives to a growing Hindu Nationalist socialization process in the United States that has framed part of its appeal around anti-racism and cultural pride. I know of some volunteer organizations committed to the political education for youth of South Asian descent, such as Youth Solidarity Summer (NYC), Organizing Youth! (SF) and RadDesi Summer (Texas). Other sustainable spaces need to be cultivated to facilitate a youth pride that actively works to destabilize nationalist agendas, making possible other alliances with South Asians. How do we build a diasporic youth culture that can respond and intervene against racisms and sexisms, while also undermining sectarianism?

The Final Word

On March 8, the full board of the SBE, following the recommendations of the special committee, voted in favor of overturning the most egregious revisions proposed by the VF/HEF. During public comments VF/HEF representatives switched their strategy from the February 27 hearing, now acknowledging clearly that caste and gender oppressions exist in India and have a historical basis, but that teaching such histories to 6th graders is both inappropriate and is discriminatory on the grounds that the other religions represented in these textbooks "are not defined largely by their faults" as Juluri writes, and so Hinduism shouldn't be singled out. As a last resort, the VF/HEF threatened litigation in hopes of pressuring the Board to accept their 2005 proposed edits. Though there is still much to contest about the written content of the eight textbooks in question, those that have opposed the VF/HEF assert that this is a step forward. Considering that California and Texas have the largest textbook markets in the US, approved adoptions in these states determine the content of textbooks nationally. Decisions passed here in California have likely already triggered the mobilization of Hindu Indian Americans across the country, who will now approach publishers on their own in order to influence the content of textbooks. As second wave South Asian activists, how do we mobilize to respond?

Comments

"Christianity and Islam portrayed in favourable terms? Not at all - in fact, those traditions' records of whitewashing their histories are the point being made (one that you missed), as a reminder that Hinduism should not follow those bad examples. And we need look no further than the USA's own school history texts of the recent past to note the same ""comforting the comfortable"" tendencies. For many years the shameful treatment of Native peoples and especially the slavery issue were not treated with the honesty and self-examination they required. No nation, no people, no culture should follow those tendencies to look away from the less admirable aspects of its own history - and every nation, every people, every culture has those aspects to some degree. To try to pretend otherwise in the name of national pride is to do a disservice to a nation and to all mankind. Pride cannot be based upon a foundation of lies and/or omissions. Secondly, Raja, your quote from the article leaves the impression that you are quoting the author of the article when in fact the quote is clearly identified in the article as being from Angana Chatterji. Perhaps you should take up the issue with Professor Chatterji."
"I think Kausalya's article needs to be taken seriously. Hindu nationalists groups do not realize that India is, simulataneously, a postcolonial nation and an emerging global superpower. They claim either identity when it suits them. This is at once amusing and disturbing. ""We were colonized by the Mughals and the British and now we will thoughtlessly project this oppression onto other minorities."" Traditional Hindu values? Preserving one's heritage? A moment of reflection might allow nationalist sympathizers to see that the present version of ""Hinduism"" is nothing more a regurgitation of middle-class values, of individualism, of a CHRISTIAN cultural framework of class and morality in the context of liberal capitalist democracy. So-called Hindus pander to Europe and the United States in an effort to try to mimic these historic empires. So much more labor must be expended in order to decolonize the middle-class Hindu imagination, which operates from a slave morality (see: Nietzsche, GENEALOGY of MORALS) of reactionary opposition to its past and present. DIFFERENCE, diversity, and the affirmation of multifaceted forms of life cannot be thought. It is a sad state of affairs."
"
What is America anymore? Freedom from fear of retribution from speech no longer applies, particularly when personal information is more readily accessible to anyone and open for abuse. Given such proclivities of the some of the parties involved, I can understand the need for the pseudonym.
I can't... Are you telling me you are *afraid* of some shady types threatening the writer ""Kaushalya"" with bodily harm? No one proclaimed any edicts, offered crores of rupees for a head on a platter, or the like, for much worse transgressions than caricatures. Maybe that's why docile Hindu's are so easy to rag on- they are an easy target that doesn't fight back. If one can't stand by what she or he says in a public forum (e.g. Samar) it leaves the readers with 2 choices: 1. accept blindly the words of someone without any reference to who is speaking or why it might be true (i.e. superstition) 2. reject or at the least look upon with extreme suspicion any conclusions drawn by the individual in hiding (i.e. prudence) I am not a blind sheep, thus I pick the latter."
"From the article: ""Such storying dissociates the caste system from Hinduism, discounting the oppressive structure and politics via which the caste system was constituted. It presents the caste system as a fluid arrangement whereas a more scholarly understanding of caste entails recognizing it as a Brahminic system of social classification, where status was determined by ancestry and reinforced through religious sanctions for discrimination and violence against lower-caste groups."" For an interesting point of view on this subject, please read Nirad Chaudhuri's 'The continent of Circe'; from Chap.2: ""...so long as Hindu society continued to grow, the caste system also went on evolving pari passu. Let me state one thing emphatically and once and for all: nowhere and at no time did the caste system have a norm, or any finality. It remained elastic, and its expansibility was seen in more than one direction.....Such aboriginals as showed any capacity or desire for a superior kind of life were not denied admission into Hindu society....Taking the system as a whole I would describe it as a social organization which contributes to order, stability and regulation of competition."" In your eagerness to fight the VHP thugs, don't make a caricature of history. Raja"
You have not addressed the core issue of these edits which is Why are Christianity and Islam portrayed in favourable terms, their past nagativities not highlighted adn on the other hand Hinduism is substantially shown in negative light. Being treated at par with other religions in terms of portrayal is what all these edits are about. Viji
[quote][b][i]bhatt wrote:[/i][/b] Kausalya: Just one question: Why the pen name? Say it like you mean it, girl. No need to hide behind curtains. This is America! Cheers, Khelan S Bhatt (my real name) [/quote] What is America anymore? Freedom from fear of retribution from speech no longer applies, particularly when personal information is more readily accessible to anyone and open for abuse. Given such proclivities of the some of the parties involved, I can understand the need for the pseudonym.
Great article. I'm getting a Masters in South Asian Studies (focusing on history and anthropology--particularly of Dalits and other oppressed groups) and will be sure to cicrulate this to other students and professors. In Solidarity, Prita
Kausalya: Just one question: Why the pen name? Say it like you mean it, girl. No need to hide behind curtains. This is America! Cheers, Khelan S Bhatt (my real name)

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