New York: California reviews its textbooks every six years, inviting public opinion each time. The process has never been easy. The ‘golden state’ has again got far more than it bargained for in its latest round of reviews, with American right-wing Hindu groups demanding changes to the history and social science textbooks used in the sixth and seventh grades.
On March 28, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies and the Dharma Civilization Foundation suffered a setback when a history and social science committee in Sacramento threw out most of the changes they wanted to make to the new California textbooks, which are slated for publication later this year. However, the California State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed framework changes in May.
“As much as it is about California textbooks, it is truly a battle which is ideological in nature,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan of the Ambedkar Association of California, which with six other secular Indian groups is trying to make sure the “egregious edits” submitted by HAF to the education board don’t find their way into the textbooks.
According to activists like Soundararajan, right-wing Hindu groups want to gloss over Indian history and deny the reality of caste discrimination by deleting the word ‘Dalit’ from the history textbooks of the state.
“You can’t distort facts, whitewash history and deny what’s happened to millions of Indians from marginalised communities who are victims of caste apartheid,” said Soundararajan, who is the co-founder of Dalit History Month. “You cannot tamper with and bring ideology into the framing of the past.”
HAF and other right-wing Hindu groups, however, maintain that issues such as the caste system, the plight of dalits and discrimination against women do not belong in a sixth-grade introduction to world civilisations. HAF says that Indian American children are embarrassed by the depiction of Hinduism in ancient India in the history textbook.
California ninth grader Akanksha Maddi wrote in a statement released by HAF that the textbooks are unfair to students of Indian heritage.
“My classmates and teachers think that we Hindus still believe in primitive and unjust practices,” Maddi wrote. “I don’t want my friends to look down upon me and my culture because of my textbook.”
The Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies says Hindus are merely seeking parity with other religions in sixth grade textbooks, where social problems of other religions are not given the same prominence, even as the redeeming features of Hinduism are ignored.
Shiva G. Bajpai, professor emeritus of Asian Studies at California State University, asked the education board for a revision, writing: “Hindu children are bullied by their classmates for the system of varna and jati because the social iniquities of other religions go unmentioned… If the commission insists on keeping lines 862 to 874, it should add 300 to 400 word comments on social order and slavery for the Abrahamic religions.”
However, the South Asian Faculty Group made up of South Asian scholars from Stanford, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University and UCLA, among others, held that history should not be tampered with, even if it is unpleasant.
“We are disturbed by claims that an equitable portrayal should prevail over historical accuracy,” said an expert who didn’t want to be named for fear of being targeted. “It is a slippery slope.”
Protests over “erasing” India
HAF is spearheading protests across America because it says it has discovered over 30 places in the sixth and seventh grade history textbooks where the words “Hindu” or “India” would be replaced in the new textbooks with “South Asia.”
Samir Kalra, senior director of HAF, told The Washington Post that the proposed changes could have “implications for several years forward,” and could diminish the significance of Hindus in the ancient civilisation of India. Kalra told the newspaper that the textbook changes appear to only reflect revisions aimed at India and Hinduism: China will not be changed to “East Asia,” nor will there be changes to any references to Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism or any other religions.
The South Asian Faculty Group has fired back, saying that during the submissions in the public comment process it suggested that in some places “India” be replaced with “South Asia” because some of the areas discussed currently belong to Pakistan and are not aligned with modern-day India.
“Although ‘Ancient India’ is common in the source material, when discussing the Indus Valley Civilisation, we believe it will cause less confusion to students to refer to the “Early Civilisation of South Asia” or “Ancient South Asia” because much of the Indus Valley is now in modern Pakistan. Conflating “Ancient India” with the modern nation-state of India deprives students from learning about the shared civilisational heritage of India and Pakistan,” the group said in a letter responding to HAF.
The California State Board of Education will vote in May on whether to retain descriptions of the caste system, role of women, Aryan migrational history and polytheism in ancient Hindu religion and other issues – as the textbook furore rages on.