The trials and tribulations of modern India – and especially the present-day – are affecting the debate on ancient India, even on the other side of the ocean.
Washington: The battle over how to depict Hinduism – or the various vedic, bhakti, folk and now the newly minted Hindutva versions – is serious and emotional.
It is also not a simple contest between Hindu “fundamentalists” and “fringe” scholars, as the two sides have labeled each other. Shades of opinions, compulsions, aggressions – both micro and macro – and agendas are at play.
One side clearly considers itself superior to the other with acres of scholarship boosting its learned interventions. The other side has numbers, fiat, funds and general support from the community. It also has Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of the US House of Representatives, who is close to the BJP-RSS leadership.
In between are thousands of Indian Americans, mostly Hindu, who want a more positive experience of India in textbooks for their children, not one that is exoticised, essentialised and simplified into stupidity. They don’t necessarily want a fairytale but they do want a fair tale.
They are not Hindutva supporters for the most part, nor fundamentalist, but they do get exercised every time some unthinking American businessman decides to put the picture of Ganesh or Shiva on slippers and toilet seats.
And they did not like it one bit when last year the politically correct South Asia scholars wanted to change the word “India” to “South Asia” in the textbooks to reflect today’s reality. The idea was rejected after such big names as Diana L. Eck and Nathan Glazer intervened, calling the proposal ahistorical and anachronistic.
The battle has been playing out in California – a present-day Haldighati of sorts – through textbooks for middle school students. As in Rajasthan, where Class X history books were revised this summer to say that Maharana Pratap conclusively won the battle of Haldighati, defeating Akbar and thus doing away with the ambiguity of a truce, so in California, school kids will now read about a kinder, gentler Hinduism where the stigma of caste is softened, even erased and where Sikhism and Buddhism didn’t necessarily develop in opposition to the worst practices of Brahminism.
Last week, California’s State Board of Education approved changes in 10 textbooks based on inputs from the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), 38 academics and other Hindu American community groups. The “positive edits” – as HEF called them in a statement – related to descriptions of caste, the Indus Valley civilisation and the “Aryan” migration among others.
There are many publishers and many textbooks in question and both sides have made hundreds of suggestions over time. The search for a fair, accurate and honest portrayal of ancient India and its history has raised tempers, led to accusations of intimidation and generally left much debris in its wake.
Activists opposing the changes accuse Hindu groups of corrupting the state’s “history and social science frameworks” with their half-baked scholarship. They say HEF members bullied them at the last public hearing and security guards repeatedly sent them to the back of the line. To be sure, Muslim and Jewish groups too are fighting similar battles over words and depictions of their respective religions and histories.
Why California? It has the largest and the oldest Indian American community in the US. It is also where new ideas are tested and tried. It is said what California does today, others may do tomorrow.
The war of words first erupted in California in 2005 when HEF became a medium of anger – some genuine, some ideological – for many community leaders who were outraged at some very obvious and egregious errors.
One textbook said Hindi is written in Arabic script, another described Hanuman as a “monkey king” who “loved Ram so much that it is said he is present every time the Ramayana is told.” The book then asked the students to “look around—see any monkeys?” A description of vegetarianism was titled “Where’s the Beef?” Was it a provocation or just a bad joke? You have to wonder at the authors of these textbooks because one contained a picture of a mosque while talking about Hinduism. A photo of a Muslim doing namaz was captioned “A Brahmin.”
Over time, HEF, the Vedic Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation, all of which share the agenda of promoting Hinduism and are ideologically aligned with the Hindu nationalist movement in India, decided it was not enough just to eliminate obvious errors.
They wanted to fight bigger fight – of conflation of Hinduism with the caste system. They also targeted the baggage of colonial interpretations, including what they considered the myth of Hindus being the invaders of India. They said it was no longer the only acceptable theory. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) filed a lawsuit against the California Board of Education in 2006, saying the textbooks portrayed ancient India’s religious traditions in a negative light.
The court ruled mostly against the HAF and denied an injunction against the publication of the textbooks. The most contested language around the place of women in Hindu society, Dalits and Aryan migration/invasion remained. Last year, a new campaign was launched by HEF and HAF as the six-yearly review of textbooks approached.
This time they mobilised the larger Indian American community, most of which is Hindu but not fundamentalist, and got 12,000 letters and 14,000 signatures on a petition asking for “accuracy and equality in textbooks,” according to Suhag Shukla, executive director of HAF. She said in an email that immigrant Hindus from Fiji and the Caribbean, including Dalits, joined their coalition. Her list also included the NAACP or National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the most respected and the oldest organisation representing black Americans, and the Anti-Defamation League, one of the most prominent Jewish groups fighting anti-Semitism.
The other side, represented by a coalition of Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, regional experts and university professors called “South Asian Histories for All”, or SAHFA, dismisses the massive support for the rival coalition as a Hindu revisionist conspiracy and does not consider their concerns valid.
It also accuses them of using pressure tactics. “The State Board refused to enforce its own framework (guidelines for textbooks) and allowed discriminatory and inaccurate content to get in. They listened to the mob and created a platform for alternative facts,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a SAHFA member and a Dalit activist, told The Wire.
Dolly Arjun of the Dalit American Coalition said, “Upper caste Hindu nationalist lobby groups have been putting tremendous pressure to erase our history. They’ve been operating off the White nationalist playbook when they fight to erase uncomfortable historical truths.”
Some textbooks will now refer to Indus Valley as the “Indus Saraswati Civilisation” while others will teach that Indo-Aryans were “India’s original inhabitants.” HEF and its supporters, which also include many professors in various US colleges and universities, say the term “Aryan” is inappropriate to describe “ancient Indians” in school textbooks because of the racial connotations now associated with it.
Even scholars on the other side agree that the Aryan Invasion theory is not taken seriously anymore by most academics but they insist on an Aryan “migration” theory which implies that Hinduism is not indigenous to India but “migrated” to India.
In another contradiction pointed out by Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, these scholars insist that Hinduism wasn’t an organised religion until the 13th century but at the same time they reject “any changes that suggest that caste wasn’t rooted in religion.”
Juluri said that this group in “cruel irony” opposed including the names of Valmiki and Vyasa as the authors of Ramayana and Mahabharata because the text would have noted they were not Brahmins. But that would have contradicted the scholars’ beliefs about caste and birth.
“The scholars, it appears, would rather lose the chance for thousands of children to learn that the two greatest epics of Indian civilization were written by people born into lower-caste all in the name of empowering them,” he wrote in March this year.
To put it simply, the debate is complicated.
In another major development last week, the word “Dalit” disappeared altogether from some textbooks while one textbook retained the word “untouchable,” a term now considered a slur just like the N-word for African Americans, according to Dalit activist Soundararajan.
School children will also learn that Hindus do not bother about caste anymore. A sentence, which attempted to explain the continuation of the caste system over millennia describing how millions of Hindus continue to observe the tradition of marrying within their caste, has been deleted from one of the textbooks.
But Shukla insists that roughly 30% of the sections on Hinduism and ancient India in textbook drafts contain discussions dedicated to caste. “Thus the assertion that caste or its history are being erased is simply not supported by facts,” she said. “Our diverse coalition, which has Hindus from all backgrounds, including Hindu Dalits, only asked that the complexity and evolution of caste be explained.”
While Shukla may want to paint a positive picture, Hindu groups such as the HAF have tried to discredit Dalit activists as “Christian missionaries” during the textbook campaign. The Internet is a cruel reality check.
Soundararajan, an impressive spokesperson for her side, calls Shukla’s group “an angry mob” that browbeat the Board. “The Board got suckered into it. One member in the end called it a “family dispute” which it clearly it is not.” She is enraged that the “structured interventions by 100 South Asia scholars” from SAHFA lost out to HEF activists, many of whom are computer engineers who claim scholarship just because they might have self-published a book. The Board by treating the two sides as equals created “parity” between two unequal groups, she said, an equation that clearly hurt.
“The Hindu fundamentalists’ message is clear: if you cross us, we will intimidate you. What’s dangerous to the Hindu eco-system is that we have the facts. They are making a mistake if they think we are going to roll over. California is considered the Blue (Democratic Party) wall,” she said, adding that her group was exploring legal options. “We will expose them as right-wing forces. They present themselves as neutral, as bearers of yoga but they want to Hindu-fy Sikhism and Buddhism. They want to portray Islam only in the context of the narrative of conquest.”
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The trials and tribulations of modern India and especially present-day India are partly informing the debate on ancient India. The distrust and distance among various Indian American groups has grown enormously since Narendra Modi became the prime minister.
Multiply the distrust and the uber confidence of Hindu groups by political correctness infecting American university campuses and you have a chasm that will not be bridged. Both may want a layered, nuanced portrayal of India and Hinduism in the end but what should be the composition of that picture eludes them.
If the Hindu right is adamant and boorish, the Left is insular and out of touch with what resonates with a vast number of people and why. But this is not the first time, nor will it be the last when sensible solutions will be deliberately avoided. And all on the backs of sixth grade students.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.