Victory over Hindu nationalists in California textbooks rewrite

Sacramento, California, March 1 2006 : The intense struggle over the content of Indian history in California textbooks ended Monday afternoon at 2 p.m. with the special committee of the California State Board of Education [SBE] voting unanimously to overturn a majority of contentious changes proposed by Hindu right-wing groups to California school textbooks. This decision is a victory for community organizations such as 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 (CAC), who have worked diligently to ensure that ahistorical and sectarian content proposed by Hindu right-wing groups is removed from California textbooks. Hundreds of South Asian scholars from across the United States and nearly fifty internationally renowned Indologists had repeatedly written to the Board as well, protesting the changes proposed by the Hindu nationalist groups.

At a public hearing on February 27th, the SBE special committee heard testimony from scores of people, regarding controversial edits for 6 th grade history-social science textbooks proposed by two Hindu Nationalist Indian American groups, the Vedic Foundation (VF) and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF). These organizations have provoked outrage from a broad spectrum of South Asian community groups for pushing sectarian agendas and revisionist histories which whitewash references to the oppression of women and Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”), and present Hinduism as a monotheistic religion and Aryans as indigenous to India, despite overwhelming scholarly evidence to the contrary.

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.”

The powerful and stirring testimony from Dalit groups was met with outright denial from the HEF and VF supporters. One speaker claimed that there was no oppression against lower castes in India and indeed it was only higher classes in India that faced discrimination due to the affirmative action programs, while another argued that the very fact that some Dalits had migrated to California is evidence enough that Dalits are a privileged community in India.

While supporters of the VF and HEF claimed that references to negative aspects of Hinduism such as the caste system and the oppression of women damage the self-esteem of their children, others strongly disagreed. 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. She asked, “My concern is why should history be (re)written to make us feel better?”

One of the most contentious edits that received considerable attention at the meeting was one where the HEF sought to replace the original text, “Men [in ancient India] had many more rights than women” with one that read “Men had different duties (dharma) and rights than women.” The staff of the California Department of Education recommended against making this edit yesterday, in keeping with the demands of groups such as FOSA, CAC and others who insisted on a historical approach to ancient India. As Kasturi Ray, a specialist in Gender and Women’s studies in UC, Berkeley, and herself a Hindu-American parent said in her letter to the Board, “This sentence also equates difference with what were actually systematically-denied duties and rights based on gender. With this sentence, we lose the opportunity to understand what women really had to do (and continue to do) to win equal duties and rights.” Angana Chatterji, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, concurred that an accurate understanding of history can inspire individuals to become better citizens. In her letter to the SBE, Chatterji observed, “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.”

Speakers at the special committee meeting also pointed out the VF and HEF have organizational ties to militant Hindu groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India that have been linked to large-scale violence against religious minorities. Others underscored the pluralistic nature of Hinduism. Sanjeev Mahajan challenged the Hindu Education Foundation’s claim that the Vedas constitute the source of Hinduism. “Popular Hinduism, as it is practiced today,” he pointed out, “is a complex set of practices, which has little to do with the Vedas.” He claimed that the VF and HEF promote the views of high-caste Hindu elites “who view culture in terms of neat, boxed, and segregated religious categories and feel threatened by practices that are egalitarian and tolerant of other religions.”

Raju Rajagopal, an organizer for CAC, marveled at the overwhelming community mobilization against the VF’s and HEF’s campaign to insert sectarian material into California textbooks. He also highlighted that this controversy was not just abstract debate but had immediate social relevance. “Hindu right wing historians claim that the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Kaaba in Mecca and some 1000 mosques in Ahmedabad were once Hindu temples. This was clearly on the mind of VHP/RSS rioters in 2002, when they destroyed or converted into temples over 270 mosques during the massive Gujarat pogroms. Rewriting history the Hindutva way – as suggested by many of the edits by VF/HEF – is designed and destined to lead to more communal conflicts in India.”

The SBE is slated to make its final decisions regarding textbook adoption on its meeting on March 8-10, 2006.

Press release by Friends of South Asia. For backbround on textbook controversy go here.

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