No Communalism

So – we were talking about communityism and communalism? Well how appropriate then that today I get an email from someone at Friends of South Asia and the Coalition Against Communalism. Communalism is just the kind of thing I’m against, so I’m pleased to hear from coalitions against it. That’s one of my ‘communities’ – the anti-communalism community, the anti-forced-community community.

The subcommittee of the California State Board of Education mostly listened to sense, although it made (it seems to me) at least one big mistake, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

The committee sought to find middle ground in the contested space of ancient history and religion. For instance, it changed some language that referred to a ‘caste system’ to a ‘class system.’ This angered those who say that social stratification is a part of the larger South East Asian culture, and is not intrinsic to the Hindu faith — as well as those who say that ‘class system,’ as the term is commonly used in America, inaccurately suggests social mobility in the rigid class-based society of India.

That’s depressing. Class isn’t the same as caste, for the reason indicated, so that’s one whitewash that made it in. That’s unfortunate.

According to Charu Bhare, a science and math teacher in the Cupertino school district, ‘How it is taught degrades the Hindu philosophy and faith, and all that is pride that we teach our children.’ The academic community and its defenders did not prevail on every point, but scholars who attended the hearing were relieved that many changes were not made. ‘We have been greatly concerned over claims that equitable portrayal would prevail over historical accuracy,’ although academicians sought to be respectful of the faith, said Lawrence Cohen of the University of California-Berkeley. ‘It is a slippery slope.’

The ‘academic community’ – there it is again. You got your Hindutva community and you got your academic community, and the two communities duke it out for who gets the prize. Why not just call them scholars or academics? Why label them a ‘community’? So they would sound warmer and more respectful? Probably. However that may be, Lawrence Cohen reveals the ever-present and ever-growing problem: that assumption that everyone is required to be ‘respectful’ of the ‘faith’. We ought not to be required to be that. The ‘faith’ or its adherents (its ‘community’) ought to be respectful of the evidence, but scholars ought not to be respectful of evidence-free ‘faith’. That is how that ought to work, but in fact it works the other way around. (You won’t see a word about anyone from the Hindutva side saying they sought to be respectful of the evidence or scholarship. Not a syllable.) That is bad. Irrationalism and antirationalism ought not to have a presumptive advantage over rationalism. This isn’t golf, the side with no evidence and no argument ought not to get a handicap.

However. There were some exhilaratingly sensible people there.

‘History is not written to make us feel better,’ said Simmy Makhijani of San Francisco. The inferior status of women and the ‘untouchables’ of India should not be ignored, she said, because it is uncomfortable. ‘It is important to recognize inequities, and combat them – to challenge injustices in the system.’

The Sacramento Bee also has a good account.

“Why should history be written to make us feel better?” said Simmy Makhijani, a student at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. The subcommittee voted to recommend changes that Department of Education staff developed in consultation with three scholars – including Harvard University’s Michael Witzel, who opposed the Hindu groups’ proposed changes in November in a strongly worded letter to the board. According to the department, some of its changes reflect “agreement or compromise” between Witzel and Shiva Bajpai, the California State University, Northridge, historian who recommended most of the Hindu groups’ suggestions to the Curriculum Commission last fall.

I’m not sure which version of what Simmy Makhijani said I like best, so I include both. It’s too bad Michael Witzel had to compromise with Shiva Bajpai, but – it could have been worse.

Gender and caste discrimination. The Hindu groups suggested removing passages that described systems of gender and caste discrimination among ancient Hindus. The subcommittee’s action would preserve some mentions of discrimination while removing especially harsh language and making some descriptions more precise.

Especially harsh language – such as the word ‘caste’? But if the word is accurate, it’s somewhat beside the point that it’s harsh, isn’t it. ‘Slavery’ is a harsh word to use of the system of labour on Mississippi cotton plantations in the 1850s, but it is after all accurate. That harshness has sometimes been muted with words like ‘servant’ or ‘work force’, but what is the benefit of that? It may make the descendants of the slaveowners ‘feel better’, but at the expense of telling the truth. And it won’t make the descendants of slaves ‘feel better’, so why sacrifice truth to mollify one group and neglect another? Same with caste, I should think. See the Friends of South Asia press release:

Parents, students, working professionals, faculty, first and second generation immigrants, and representatives of many community groups eloquently stressed the importance of presenting children with accurate, scholarly information on all aspects of ancient Indian history. Some of the most moving testimony before the SBE came from individuals who had personally experienced caste oppression. Representatives of Dalit organizations urged the SBE to restore references to Dalits and the caste system, which had been deleted from the textbooks on the HEF’s and VF’s recommendations. “The caste system is the single most important repressive social phenomenon that has been unique to Hinduism for over 3,000 years and should therefore find a place in the textbooks,” reminded Rama Krishna Bhupathi of FOSA and a Dalit himself. Speaking for the Federation of Tamils of North America, Thillai Kumaran, a concerned parent who stated his lower-caste origins during his testimony, strenuously objected to the textbooks’ suggestion that the caste system is no longer relevant in modern India. “Hinduism continues to affect the social status of people in India, and has condemned millions of Dalits as social outcasts,” he said. Hansraj Kajla, also a parent and representative of the Guru Ravi Dass Gurdwara (a Dalit group), suggested that the deletion of references to the caste system and the word “Dalit” in the textbooks was tantamount to “wiping out the histories of more than 160 million people in India.”

That press release is quite something. They have good writers at FOSA.

Speaking from her experiences of learning about caste and gender oppression in middle school, Veena Dubal, a joint law and doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, explained, “Like many of my European-American classmates whose ancestral histories could be traced to a time before women and people of color were given independent legal identities and allowed political participation… I was painfully embarrassed to read about the injustices committed in my parents’ homeland. Yet it was precisely these lessons that taught me about the necessity for universal civil liberties and human rights.” Simmy Makhijani, who also remembers facing racism and sexism in American classrooms while growing up, challenged the attempts by HEF and VF to sanitize Indian history.

The meeting seems to have been quite a good seminar in history and truth, and what they can teach us.

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