Hindutva, California Textbooks and a Smear Campaign

Last week this article in the Indian magazine Frontline reported that the Hindu Right’s attempts to rewrite California school textbooks on India and Hinduism were meeting with strong resistance from renowned historians and scholars in the U.S. and abroad. Steve Farmer is one of those scholars; he reported on that resistance and the smear campaign against another of them, Michael Witzel, on a listserve last December, and gave B&W permission to publish a slightly updated version. There is recent news here.

Part I: The California Textbook Issue

The smear campaign aimed against Michael Witzel is meant in retaliation for
the critical role he has played since early November – in
collaboration now with hundreds of Indian and Western researchers and
S. Asian minority groups – in helping block massive changes in
California 6th-grade textbooks demanded by Hindutva political-religious
groups. Some of these groups, as noted below, have long-time
connections with rightwing groups in India, whose attempts to project
Hindutva political-religious ideology into Indian textbooks have been
turned back since 2004 (after the rightwing BJP party lost national
power) by India’s National Council of Educational Research & Training
(NCERT). (NCERT is the closest thing in India to a national ‘Board of

The upshot is that the current US Hindutva moves in California, begun
not long after the BJP fell from power, can be tied (along with related
moves in Great Britain, involving the BBC) to a much broader
international plan to rebuild the declining Hindutva movement in India.

Before November 9th, the Hindutva groups involved in the US had managed
to convince the California State Board of of Education and the
Department of Education staff – few if any of whom had even heard
before of Hindutva (and they say that ignorance is bliss) – that they
spoke for what they represented as a homogenous American-Hindu
community. In the early months, the Board did not hear from Dalit
groups, mainstream Hindu organizations, Tamil Hindus, or any of the
many non-religious Hindu groups that have obvious reasons for opposing
the Hindutva agenda.

The fictional notion presented to the California Board of Education
that the highly fragmented Hindu-American community is homogenous has
certainly come as a surprise to the Tamil, Dalit, and other Indian
minority groups in the United States with whom we have contacts.

No matter how the final act of the California drama plays out (in
March), by now the California Board of Education is acutely aware
that the three main groups involved in the California affair – the
Vedic Foundation (VF), the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), and the
Hindu American Foundation (HAF) (on these groups, see Part III) – do
not, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, speak for all

While the research community, mainstream Hindus, and Indian minorities
were initially caught sleeping by events in California – none of us
knew about events there until November 5th, four days before what was
to be the final Board of Education meeting on this textbook issue – in
the last seven weeks hundreds of non-Hindutva Indian-Americans, a solid
base of specialists in South Asian History (one recent letter from
such a group has over 130 signatures), and an ever expanding list of South
Asian minority groups, including those representing Dalit and tribal
groups, have informed the State of California in very clear terms that
the three organizations noted above do not represent their interests
or opinions.

The role that Michael helped play in awakening non-Hindutva
Indian-Americans to events in Sacramento helps explain the vehemence of
the attack currently aimed almost exclusively at him personally. The
rightwing’s strategy consists in attempting to divert attention from
resistance to the Hindutva agenda within the Hindu-American community
by representing the setbacks to their California plans as being due to
the efforts of one fictional “Aryan Supremicist” Harvard Professor with
Nazi roots, etc. – rather than to the efforts of many non-sectarian South
Asians and Westerners who have long opposed the Hindutva program.

The first and still most critical battle in California took
place on November 8-9th, when a letter endorsed by Michael and
approximately four dozen other researchers from India, Pakistan, the
United States, Europe, Australia, Taiwan, and Japan (many of them on
this List) first alerted the California State Board of Education to the
religious-political motivations behind Hindutva attempts to alter
history textbooks. The letter was sent out within 48 hours of the time
that we first learned of the involvement of Hindutva groups in the
textbook affair.

The letter informed the Board about the successful recent NCERT battle
over Hindutva alterations of Indian textbooks, which were made when the
BJP was in power. It also provided the California Board of Education
with links to U.S. State Department papers issued in 2003 and 2004
explicitly warning against the influence of Hindutva groups in
education. The importance of the letter and what was going on in
California was underlined at the Board of Education meeting in
Sacramento on November 9th by James Heitzman, of the University of
California at Davis. Heitzman came to the Board meeting armed with an
analysis of the full list of proposed edits by the Hindutva groups.

Far from just being the ‘Witzel letter’ (Dr. Heitzman didn’t even know
about the letter until after it was submitted) – as the Hindutva
organizations like to characterize it – this original letter from the
scholarly community to the Board of Education (there have been others
since) was endorsed by a long list of mainstream archaeologists,
linguists, and historians, including specialists on ancient India from
every part of the world.

A few of the international signers whose work is well-known in the
field include Patrick Olivelle (who is a native S. Asian), of the
University of of Texas; Harry Falk, of Free University, Berlin; Madhav
Deshpande of the University of Michigan; Muneo Tokunaga of Kyoto
University in Japan; Maurizio Tosi, of the University of Bologna in
Italy; Richard Meadow of Harvard University and Mark Kenoyer of the
University of Wisconsin (Co-Directors of the long-running Harappa
Archaeological Research Project); well-known Indian researchers
including Romila Thapar, Shereen Ratnagar, D.N. Jha, and others;
Hartmut Scharfe and Stanley Wolpert, both emeritus professors of UCLA;
Asko Parpola, of Helsinki University; and so on.

The endorsers are a highly diverse international group that represents
many opposing research perspectives: but despite these differences, all
are uniformly opposed to Hindutva fabrications of history, with which
they are all familiar. As a group they don’t have even a faint
resemblance to the imaginary group of “Harvard leftists” fantasized in
the Hindutva slander campaign directed at Michael Witzel (see Part II,

As a result of this first letter, the massive rewrites of the
chapters on India submitted to the Board of Education by the Vedic
Foundation for the submitted textbooks were rejected in toto by the
Board – and have remained off the table ever since.

That was our first victory, and it’s a lasting one.

If it hadn’t been for the November 8th letter sent out by international
scholars, things could have turned out very badly at the November 9th
meeting. If the Vedic Foundation rewrites had actually made it into the
textbooks, the absurdity of their positions would have eventually
forced those textbooks to be withdrawn – as was recently the case in
India – at an estimated cost in the case of California of several
hundred million dollars. (Those figures are not given lightly, and are
drawn directly from publishing industry estimates.)

The textbook-issue waters became murkier at a meeting in Sacramento on
December 1-2 – held not by the State Board of Education, as
misreported in the India press, but by a subsidiary (and totally
advisory) body known as the Curriculum Commission (CC). Events at the
December 1-2 CC meeting were far more chaotic than at the November 9th
State Board of Education meeting, due largely to the fact that the
audience was packed to the walls with Hindutva supporters.

The fact that no South Asian opponents of Hindutva were at the meetings
involved some miscalculation on our part: no one expected much to
happen at the CC meeting, since the Board of Education had explicitly
directed the CC (with legal force) on November 9th to judge all
proposed edits solely on the basis of historical accuracy, and not on
religious grounds. To this end, the Department of Education staff had
drawn up a report based on a full review of previously proposed edits
(from the VF and HEF) made by Stanley Wolpert, James Heitzman, and
Michael Witzel, who were officially appointed as a Content Review Panel
(CRP) specifically to fulfill this task. The original expectation was
that the CC meeting would end quickly with acceptance of the Department
of Education staff report.

Against those expectations, the meeting was chaotic – we’ll publish
some funny eye witness accounts at some point – with the result that
after much wrangling with the Department of Education staff, several
conservative members of the CC took control of the meeting and largely
ignored the Department of Education staff report. The result, after
hours of arguing and confusion, was that a number of blatantly
religious edits were left in the history books and several new edits
(breaking all historical precedents and the explicit directive of the
Board of Education) were stuck into them ‘on the fly’. The result, as
everyone on all sides recognized at the end, was an inconsistent mess
that has left everyone involved in a quandary about what to do next.

As one publishing insider puts it: “California is a mess.”

For now, let it be noted that it is clear to everyone (1) that the
advisory CC, whose role in the vetting process is finished, violated
the Board of Education’s legal directive from November 9th that stated
that issues of historical accuracy alone must determine what makes it
into the ancient India edits; and (2) that the publishers, the
Department of Education, and everyone else involved knows that the
current gross mess of inconsistent edits has to be cleaned up before
anything goes to press.

But all that said, one key point by now is crystal clear. Recently
Hindutva forces have begun to claim publicly (as in the Pioneer
article; see below), apparently to rally their sagging troops, that
what happened on December 1-2 in the CC meeting was some kind of
victory for their side. This is a radical about-face from their
reactions at the end of the CC meeting on December 2, when (as on
November 9th) they again went away furious that the massive Vedic
Foundation rewrites of the publishers’ texts – which are as comical as
they are absurd (e.g., placing the Buddha and Asoka in the early 2nd
millennium BCE) – didn’t make it into California textbooks.

Those rewrites weren’t accepted by the California Board of Education on
November 9th; those rewrites weren’t supported by even the most
conservative of the CC members on December 2; and now that academic and
anti-Hindutva forces have been awakened by what almost happened in
California, no rewrites like this will make it into US textbooks the
next time this little drama plays out in some new state with adoption
processes. (The next really big battle will not be until Texas, and
that won’t occur until the end of the decade.)

Part II: Recent Smears against Michael Witzel

When other things fail, Hindutva groups traditionally try slander. And
that’s what they are now trying with Michael Witzel.

The Hindutva misinformation campaign, which started several weeks ago,
reached new heights with publication of a
grotesquely distorted article
on Christmas day in the rightwing New
Delhi newspaper, The Pioneer.

Its many inaccuracies will be obvious immediately to those who have
read the background materials presented in Part I, above. Other
inaccuracies will be noted below.

The timing – and at points even the exact language – of this
blatantly defamatory piece overlaps with an Internet petition aimed at
Harvard University (my copy arrived on Christmas eve), which among much
else calls for the disbanding of Harvard University’s Department of
Sanskrit and Indian Studies (not coincidentally, Michael’s department).

The cover letter of the petition – all of it that many people will
probably see before signing it – starts with what appears at first to
be a progressive agenda, perfect for Christmas eve:

To defend the best liberal traditions that we all hold
dear, I hope you will take a moment to please sign the
petition at the url below, to support our effort to
get the religious hate groups (you know which ones..)
from using Harvard facilities and resources. The
Petition is developed by well-wishers of Harvard
university, concerned over the increasing intrusion by
religious hate groups into our environment. I am sure
you will agree with us.

The inside of the petition, which is several clicks away, drops the
‘liberal’ facade. A few highlights:

  • Our Indo-Eurasian Research List is characterized (just as it is in
    the Pioneer article) as an “Internet hate group”.
  • Harvard is linked with supposed “anti-Semitic Nazi groups”, and
    Michael is characterized as “Harvard’s Aryan Supremicist Sanskrit
    Professor.” (The irony of the fact that real historical links existed
    in its formative years between Hindutva and the Nazis is apparently
    unknown to the petition’s authors.)
  • I’m characterized as Michael’s “assistant”, apparently working with
    him at Harvard, despite the fact that I live in California, many of
    thousands of kilometers away from Harvard, on the opposite side of the
    United States.
  • One choice quotation from the petition pictures Michael as an “Aryan
    Supremicist” – the writers apparently have blond blue-eyed Germans in
    mind – and me as a “Creationist”, which I suspect would please my
    relatives, who have long suspected that I harbor irreligious
    evolutionary tendencies:

Witzel’s screeching against the community is often part of his
marketing of the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ (AIT), now re-packaged as
“Aryan Influx Theory”. This marries Farmer’s Creationist dogma, with
Witzel’s Aryan Supremacist requirement that all civilization must have
emanated from his ‘Aryan’ Caucasian roots. Devoid of intellectual
substance, this gang personally abuses anyone who cites the growing
scientific evidence debunking ‘AIT’. The evidence points to
distributed local evolution of civilization, independent of any
Caucasian influx.

Back to the Pioneer piece :

Just a few points on one scientific issue and on various defamatory
materials in the text: it would take a book to straighten out all half
truths and lies in this hatchet job:

1. The idea that DNA studies support the Hindutva view that there was
no movement of Indo-Eurasian speakers in antiquity into India, ascribed
in the article to S. Metzenberg (one of the conservative members of the
advisory CC, who is not on the Board of Education) is ludicrous. For
every study that makes such claims, as another CC member (the physicist
C. Munger) accurately pointed out to Metzenberg, others can be cited
that ‘prove’ exactly the opposite. As is well known to every researcher
in population genetics, such studies are based on modern genetic data
back-projected into historical times using very iffy theoretical models
of genetic drift. The result is that the error bars are literally
thousands of years long in every such study.

2. The idea that Michael has “contempt for Indians who live and work in
the US” is ridiculous: he works with them daily, and counts them among
his best friends and students. (Obviously many of them have also
endorsed the Board of Education letters, and many others are on this

3. Michael is the last person I would ever think of as a ‘racist’.
Anyone who knows his immediate family, which is more Asian than
Caucasian (!), in fact, would be more than a bit startled to hear such

4. The quotations ascribed to Michael in the Pioneer article are
consistently ripped out of context and reformulated to make it appear
that they involve hate or ridicule aimed at the S. Asian community. It
would take a lot of time to show this quotation by quotation, but to do
so would be intellectually trivial. There isn’t an ounce of hate that
I’ve ever seen in Michael Witzel, after knowing and collaborating with
him on many articles and projects now in the last half decade.

5. Previous idiocies in publisher-submitted textbooks have absolutely
nothing to do with Michael and have in fact been sharply criticized by
him in discussions with both the publishers and the California
Department of Education. Historical inaccuracies arising from corporate
ignorance, however, are obviously quite distinct from Hindutva groups
trying to stick politically and religiously inspired edits into US
kids’ 6th-grade textbooks.

6. The fictionalized account in the Pioneer article that makes it
appear that Michael appeared before the Board of Education (which the
article confuses with the Curriculum Commission), which subsequently
rejected his views as “unscholarly, insensitive, biased and devoid of
facts – heaping ridicule on the Harvard brand” never happened. Michael
never went to California, never appeared before the Board, and
certainly wasn’t at the CC meeting. Far from having his views rejected
by the Board of Education, he was specifically charged by the Board of
Education (as part of an official ‘Content Review Panel’ with Dr.
Wolpert and Dr. Heitzman) with vetting the earlier edits submitted by
the VF and HEF.

7. Just as in the petitions aimed at Harvard, the
Indo-Eurasian Research list is once again misrepresented in The
as an “Internet hate group.” Opposing attempts to rewrite
history for political and religious purposes does not qualify us or any
other group for such a label. These rightwing groups have had a
terrible effect on research in premodern fields, and correcting the
false image they present of history is an unfortunate (and obviously
thankless) part of our job.

Part III

There are three Hindu groups involved closely in the California
proceedings. We’ve said a bit about them before, so here
I’ll just give the quickest of summaries:

1. The VEDIC FOUNDATION in Texas. Their proposed edits to California
textbooks are the most ridiculous of all of them. This is no wonder,
given their views of ancient history, which have it (in webpages now
largely removed) that Indian civilization reaches back 1,972 million
years – over 1.7 billion years before the age of dinosaurs.

From Internet Archives for one of their rapidly disappearing webpages.

(Don’t miss this little gem if you haven’t seen it before!)

For those of you who don’t recognize the political significance of the
standard Hindutva claim that ‘Aryans’ are homegrown in India, please
pay close attention to the first item on their “Do You Know” list!

2. The HINDU EDUCATION FOUNDATION, in Silicon Valley. This is a much
more politically oriented group than the VF. It arose as a “project” of
the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) (as noted in an HSS webpage now only
available to password holders, though as usual a copy lives on in our
files). The group was set up specifically for projects like the
California campaign. Its “Advisors” include infamous Hindutva
propagandists including S. Kalyanaraman and David Frawley – the latter
the American adherent of “Vedic Astrology” and the “Out of India”
theory who claims in his books that American Indians came from India.

3. The HINDU AMERICAN FOUNDATION. This is the most problematic of the
groups, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, since their public persona has it
that they are a “Human Rights Organization” representing 2 million (!)
Hindu Americans. Please note that according to US census figures this
is far more than the total number of Indians (Muslims, Dalits, and
Tamils included) living in the US, let alone conservative Hindus.

You won’t find a visible trace of Hindutva anyplace on their webpage,
but when you dig beneath the surface, you’ll soon find that the
President of HAF, Mihir Meghani, has a long history of links with the
rightwing in India. See, e.g., his famous manifesto from 1998
“Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology” – which is still found (at
this minute, anyway) on the official BJP website in India.

Read this one carefully: it is another gem, although not very funny.

Finally, for anyone not acquainted with Michael’s writings on Indology,
see this bibliography, where you can download many of his
works as PDF files. See also his personal homepage.

  • Besides holding the Wales Chair in Sanskrit at Harvard University,
    Michael was elected as a Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and
    Sciences in 2003.
  • He is the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Oriental Series, the oldest
    continuous Western publication series in the field, which first
    appeared in 1891.
  • Michael is editor-in-chief of Mother Tongue, one of the most
    innovative research journals devoted to comparative and historical
    linguistics. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Electronic Journal
    of Vedic Studies
    , which has published a long series of important
    studies in the past decade.

Michael’s own writings in the past several decades have fundamentally
altered the way that all of us, both in Indology and comparative
history (my field), have viewed ancient India in particular and ancient
history in general. One of the most influential of his studies appeared
in a ground-breaking book that he edited in 1997, Inside and Outside
the Texts: New Approaches to the Vedas
, which contains major essays
not only by Michael but by Joel Brereton, George Cardona, Tatyana
Elizarenkova, Harry Falk, Hans Henrich Hock, Asko Parpola, Wilhelm Rau,
and many others. Michael’s essays in this volume have fundamentally
changed the way we picture historical data in Vedic texts, and they
have had a long lasting effect on my own research. (The two of us are
now extending part of this work in dimensions that reach far beyond

Finally, it should be mentioned that the 1989 workshop that gave rise
to Inside and Outside the Texts grew eventually into the increasingly
important yearly Harvard Roundtables on the Ethnogenisis of South and
Central Asia, which is now entering its 8th year. (This year’s
conference was held in Kyoto, Japan, and next year’s will again be held
in Asia, at a very exciting location still not publicly announced.)

The Indo-Eurasian Research List is an off-shoot of those Roundable
meetings. Certainly no one who works through our archives with any
care, starting at the beginning, will end up concluding that we are an
“Internet hate List”.

Let me end on a personal note: Michael Witzel is one of the most
intelligent, most humanistic, and also one oif the very funniest men I
know. He is a wonderful collaborator to boot, and it has been a
privilege to work with him.

The smear campaign aimed at him is obscene – it is the first word that
comes to mind thinking about it – and I hope and expect that a lot of
other people will speak out in his public defense.

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