s Debate Erupts in California Over Curriculum on India’s History
Vidhima Shetty, a high school freshman in San Ramon, Calif. She said that using the term South Asian was akin to asking her to change her name.
JIM WILSON / THE NEW YORK TIMES
By JENNIFER MEDINA
MAY 4, 2016
LOS ANGELES — Victors are said to write history. But in California, history is being written by a committee that finds itself at the center of a raging debate over how to tell the story of South Asia as it tries to update textbooks and revise curriculums for grades six and seven.
The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly since India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system.
It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign, and a battle of opinion pieces.
When the committee met earlier this spring, dozens of students turned out at the State Capitol, some in tears, earnestly telling the educators that anything other than India would amount to erasing their heritage.
State educators have also heard debates about the portrayal of so-called comfort women in World War II, the Armenian genocide and discrimination against Sikhs in the United States. But none of the arguments have persisted as strongly as the fight over the Indian subcontinent. That is a reflection of the transformation in California’s population, where Asians, including South Asians, are the fastest-growing demographic.
“We have a lot of people engaged in this because we have such a vibrant, diverse state,” said Tom Adams, the deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, adding, “What we’re really trying to do here is make sure that the children of California have a curriculum that helps them understand all these groups.”
But first the committee has to deal with a fight that mirrors similar arguments being made in India, where Hindu nationalist governments have begun overhauls of textbooks in some states.
On one side are advocates of the Hindu American Foundation, which seeks to shape the image of Hinduism in the United States. Backed by some scholars, they want the entire area under dispute to be called India, reflecting what they say is the most important influence in the area.
They also want the caste system to be explained as a phenomenon of the region, not as a Hindu practice — an idea that is not universally accepted in India.
A group of other scholars challenge the historical accuracy of this view. They say the area should be referred to as South Asia.
They also say the foundation is trying to sanitize history by wiping out any link between Hinduism and castes.
The debate has been closely watched by Indian newspapers, with outlets chronicling the smallest changes in the proposals. California students are also jumping in with passion.
A page from a California textbook describing the caste system in India. Ms. Shetty wondered why a photograph showing an untouchable walking through a trash-strewn street was included in the book.
JIM WILSON / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Vidhima Shetty, a high school freshman, told the committee that using the term South Asian was akin to asking her to change her name.
“Names are what define us as people; they represent character and personality,” she said. “The board is confusing our cultural terms with geographical terms. By removing India as a term from the textbooks this leaves Indian-American children with no ethnic or cultural identification to turn to. When we acknowledge ourselves as South Asians us Hindus are forced to re-identify ourselves as something we are not.”
Perhaps no state other than California, with its large immigrant population, would have such a contentious fight.
There are roughly 2.2 million immigrants from India now living in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. California, with its vibrant technology industry, has attracted the most in the nation, as many have settled in the Bay Area and Southern California.
According to the foundation, nearly half of the 2.5 million Hindus in the United States live in California
The textbook dispute has come up as the state’s Instructional Quality Commission debates a new framework for the kindergarten to 12th grade social science curriculum, an effort meant to include new research and reflect the state’s increasing diversity. The State Board of Education will vote on the final changes next month.
The resolution could affect schoolchildren well beyond California’s borders. Although the standards that the commission approves will be written into California’s textbooks, because the state is so large, textbooks that are made based on its framework are often used elsewhere as well.
The Hindu-American group is hardly alone in pushing for changes in the way ethnic groups are portrayed. The state’s committee also heard from Filipino, Korean and Mexican advocates, Mr. Adams said.
“There have been a lot of groups that are eager for us to include their history in the framework.”
But the Hindu-American group has been particularly active in trying to shape California’s history curriculum. For the last decade, it has been pushing — unsuccessfully — for the public schools to give more attention in the curriculum to the Hindu religion and Indian culture.
The language at issue appears in dozens of places in the sixth- and seventh-grade history curriculum where either the term India or South Asia could be used. Scholarly groups on both sides have submitted suggestions to the committee.
For example, a reference to “Early Civilizations of India” could be “Early Civilizations of South Asia,” or “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in India” could instead be “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in South Asia.”
“The civilization that is being covered is Indian,” said Suhag Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which started the social media campaign #DontEraseIndia. “When you talk about ancient India, that’s the birthplace of Indian students,” she said.
Suhag Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which has started the social media campaign #DontEraseIndia.
MARK MAKELA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
The foundation also says the caste system should not be taught as part of the Hindu religion and culture, but rather explained more generally as part of the region’s history.
“This is an issue not only about accuracy but also cultural competency,” Ms. Shukla said.
But scholars like Thomas Hansen, a professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Stanford University, say this position glosses over an uncomfortable topic.
Mr. Hansen has butted heads with the Hindu American Foundation for more than a decade over how Indian history is taught in California.
“The issue is when you can use the term Indian and when you can use Hinduism,” he said, as opposed to South Asia. “This group has a lot of interest in calling everything Hindu and Indian so that it can equate modern-day India with historic roots. But it’s absurd. It would be like calling Ancient Rome Italy.”
He said that the caste system was an integral part of Indian society even today with roots in the Hindu religion.
“It distorts reality,” Mr. Hansen said. “This is important for children to understand. Our duty is to make sure that the history is keeping with the scholarly research rather than give in to what a particular group wants.”
Ms. Shukla said her group was not trying to deny the fact that castes exist, but only arguing that tying it to Hinduism was unfair. She said many students have reported being bullied after they completed the current teachings about Hinduism and the caste system.
She herself recalled when, as a child in Cupertino in the 1980s, she was asked to stand up in her classes to explain the caste system and answer questions about whether her marriage would be arranged.
“Every religion has some form of caste and discrimination,” Ms. Shukla said. “We’re not trying to deny the fact that this became a hierarchical and discriminatory practice, but this has to be discussed in a nuanced manner.”
During a hearing last month, dozens of Indianstudents spoke out against the changes the South Asian scholars have suggested to the commission, accusing them of “Hinduphobia” and robbing them of selfhood.
Ms. Shukla is also pressing the state to include the idea that Hindus in India have a historical acceptance of religious diversity, allowing Jews and Zoroastrians to come to India as they escaped persecution in nearby lands.
Michael Witzel, a Harvard University professor of Sanskrit who has also been pressing California for changes that Hindu advocates have objected to for nearly a decade, said the entire controversy was one of image protection.
“Castes are a hot-button issue, and people living in the United States don’t want to talk about it or want to deny it,” he said. “But it’s ingrained in the society, and it has its roots in sacred texts.”
In the midst of the back-and-forth, said Mr. Adams, the deputy superintendent, “the commission is trying to strike a balance.”
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There is nothing surprising about the attempt of the Bharatiya Janata Party to relegate the contributions of Tipu Sultan to the background by labeling him “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Kannada,” or forcing Kashmiri students studying outside the state to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (the essentialist Hindutva version of “Viva India”). The kind of dialogue I have in mind can be exemplified by the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation of 1989. Either directly or indirectly, the types of conflicts that led to this event resonate throughout the writings of the South Asian authors whose works I have been teaching and discussing.
A disused sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid, was demolished by Hindu supporters of the Saffron movement who hoped to construct a temple, the Ram Janmabhoomi, on that site. Hindu-Muslim riots swept Northern India in the wake of the Ram
Janmabhoomi agitation. Both sides attempted to create a new past for the nation. In the case of the majority Hindus, the militant Hinduism that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement incited challenged the basic principle that the nation was founded on: democracy.
Community was evoked in order to create nostalgia for a concocted past that was meticulously contrived. The religious chauvinism that was manifested during this dark period in the history of India was transformed into bigotry supported by transnationals in the U.S. and the U.K. Bigotry defined identities and ideologies, treating the idea of a multilingual and multiethnic and secular nation as if it were a myth.
The academics and activists who endeavored to transform that “myth” into reality were dubbed “outsiders” and “inauthentic.” These progressive attempts such academics and activists were challenged by the construction of a mythic history asserting national tradition in a classically fascist form. This project of constructing the history of a nation involves selective appropriation of past and present histories and an abrogation of major parts of those histories.
For instance, Kai Friese reported in the New York Times that in November 2002, during the reign of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the National Council of Education Research and Training in India, which is the central Indian government organization that finalizes the national curriculum and supervises education for high school students, circulated a new text-book for Social Sciences and History. The textbook conveniently overlooks the embarrassing fact that the architect of Indian independence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in 1948, a year after the proclamation of independence. Fries makes the reader aware that this version of Indian history has also been embellished by some interesting fabrications. One of those fabrications is the erasing of the “Indus Valley” Civilization and its replacement by the mythical “Indus-Saraswati” Civilization.
The erasure of the Indus Valley Civilization and the conjuring of the “Indus-Saraswati” Civilization in its stead is a strategic maneuver to negate the fact that the ancient scriptures of Hinduism are associated with the advent of the Aryan peoples from the Northwest, and that Hinduism is a syncretic religious tradition that has evolved through a commingling of various cultures and traditions (15).
In this nationalist project, one of the forms that the nullification of past and present histories takes is the subjection of religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state buttressed by nostalgia of a “glorious past.” Thus, the Babri Masjid, an obscure little mosque, was destroyed by an unruly mob that rallied around the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the second largest political party in India. By blatantly advocating and supporting the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its followers negated thelegislation of the highest court of law in the land that sought to protect the site by staying its appropriation by any political party.
The legislation was not only abrogated by the active mobilization of the fractious crowd, but by the bigwigs of the BJP who presided over the demolition of the mosque. The mob was spurred on by an overwhelming sense of hysteria and exhortations to violence. This movement, as Vijay Mishra observes, received financial support from immigrants, who supported Hindutva, in the West, “and the funding of Hindu institutions, temples, and other supposedly ‘charitable’ enterprises by diaspora Hindutva advocates, particularly those from the United States, can be established beyond doubt” (194).
Such appeals and unambiguous encouragement to enjoin the native mob to commit acts of violence were, according to Aijaz Ahmad, “replete with appeals to national pride, racial redemption, contempt for law and civility” (Lineages 183).
One of the celebrities whose historical analysis of the Islamic conquests in India seems to fan the flames of divisive politics, pitting Hindus against Muslims, is the Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul. In hisBeyond Belief, Naipaul dismissed Islam as an alien imposition which had estranged the nations of the Indian subcontinent from their own heritage. He writes that the Muslims of India and Pakistan lack an “authentic” Muslim lineage and so are severed from a keen sense of reality.
According to the author, the condition of such non-Arab Muslims has “an element of neurosis and nihilism” (Beyond Belief 34). Naipaul’s inference seems to erase the tremendous adaptation, indigenization, and evolution of Islam in countries like India. Needless to say, it reinforces the claims of right-wingers who label present-day Muslims “outsiders” or “invaders” in India.
Such claims ignore how communities grow historically within the framework created by a dialogic discourse. The author, of Indian origin who lives in England, has portrayed India as “full of the signs of growth,” with all the signs of an “Indian, and more specifically, Hindu awakening” (India 98).
On the other hand, in Pakistan, impassioned appeals of the clergy to outdated sectarian concepts has bred rancorous hate and exploited the illiteracy and poverty of the majority of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, who were unable to study the progressive concepts of Islam for themselves. This strategy of fortifying fundamentalism created a gulf between the “believers” and “non-believers” rooted in contemporary politics, not ancient history. Ultra right-wing political and religious organizations in both India and Pakistan have justified repression of dispossessed classes, and subjugation of minorities and women with the language of culture and religion.
Such practices have led to the regrettable rupture of the Indian subcontinent and to a denial of science and historical understanding of the precepts of Islam.
Every group has a right to defend their heritage, and we all should support each other in
putting the history aside and look forward to a new beginning where we don’t
sow hatred and ill-will in the hearts of our children.
Within a decade, there will
not be a school, playground, college, restaurant, theater or a work place where
people of different faiths, races, ethnicities and national origins work,
interact, play, live and marry together.
Given that possibility, we need to coach the next generation to respect the
otherness of others 'as they are' and not 'as their ancestors were'.
These kids will be working together in teams and co-workers, if we poison their
minds towards each other, they will have difficult times enjoying their life,
and perhaps go home bitching about their fellow workers. That is not the life
we want to advance.
History is an important part of every one's heritage, however if that history
creates and causes bias towards others, as a responsible society, we need to
consider its value in education.
I was in two conferences about education recently, and if I get the time, I
may, or you may come up with the recommendation to the United Nations to form a
commission to study school books around the world. It is a shame what the kids
are taught - the Kids around the world are subtly taught to look down upon
A study conducted by Lantos foundation showed that some Pakistani text books
subtly denigrate Indians and Hindus, and as of now, I don't know if Indian text
books teach the same to Indian kids. How
do you expect those kids to behave towards each other when they grow up as
adults? Respecting each other?
The California School text books controversy came to my mind, which more or less
does the same. The fellow American kids may look down upon their school mates
with Indian origins. I was in Israel, the story is same - the Palestinians and
Israelis poison their kids against each other, and blame their religions for
it, instead of blaming themselves for uploading ill-will in the hearts and
minds of their innocent children. I did
meet with an Israeli educator who was going to study the text books and see if
she can do something about it.
I am proud of the curriculum of my Middle school's social studies book in the
mid fifties; the medium of instruction was in the Urdu language. My social
studies book had two pages dedicated to each one of the religious leaders;
Krishna, Buddha, Mahavir, Jesus, Moses, Nanak, Muhammad that I can remember. My
nephew told me a month ago, that the same books are taught in Urdu schools even
today, and I said thank God for that. We also studied a bit about each
religion. I am sure the curriculum was similar in Kannada and other language
schools in my state Karnataka. Almost
all of my Hindus friends are like me; respectful of other people.
Next time I visit India; I will go to the RSS Schools and the Madrasas and see
what they teach to produce hateful men and women. We don't need to poison our
kids, and we cannot leave a legacy of apprehension to the next generation, let
them enjoy their lives working together without apprehension of each
am for scraping any teaching that creates bias towards fellow beings, what the fallible
men did in the past should not be dumped on you and me and our kids.
We must support what the Hindus groups are doing in California and I have
written about it year ago. No child should face embarrassing moments.
I posted the above note at my group
Dallas Indians group this afternoon, and in the evening I received the following
shocker from Khalid Azam.
The Hindu America Foundation should defend their heritage, but not denigrate
others. Promoting hatred towards others
does not gain them any brownie points or even make them look good. Of course
the Moderate Hindus may not support such ventures.
The next round of fixing the text books happens in the next five or six years,
and I urge the Muslims in the next round to work for the common goodness of all
Americans. Let’s stand up against any education that builds ill-will towards
another human being.
Here is a note from Khalid Azam, and I commit today, God willing to work on the
next revision cycle and I welcome all the volunteers from all faiths. We cannot
let any faith be denigrated.
# # #
Last year, IAMC, IMRC and other Indian Muslim leaders in SF Bay
Area tried to bring awareness to the dangers of supporting the efforts of a
Hindu nationalist group called the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). HAF was
seeking support from Muslim groups for their agenda of changing California
School Textbooks under the pretext that "Hindu kids have low self
esteem due to the characterization of Hinduism" which according to
them was not at parity with Abrahamic religions. Despite the note of caution
from Indian Muslims on the nefarious intentions of HAF, some Muslim
organizations and individuals went ahead and endorsed the HAF petition.
Now the results are in. Not only have the HAF and its affiliated "Hindu
coalition" organizations (Uberoi Foundation from which HAF received
$30,000 for lobbying on the textbooks and Hindu Education Foundation, a long
term ally of HAF) managed to push for an upper caste, elitist version of
Hinduism in the textbooks, but they have also pushed more Islamophobia into
these school texts that our kids in California will be studying for the next
6-7 years. From the hundreds of edits that were submitted, below is a sampling
of Islamophobic edits that HAF and allies attempted to push into the history
Besides these HAF led edits, numerous other organizations and individuals
had a field day in submitting Islamophobic edits to the middle school history
syllabus and unfortunately, not a single Muslim organization or individual was
part of this review process to vouch for an accurate and decent representation
of Islam and Muslims [at least as per the submission of 2,000+ edits I was able
to review for the South Asian history]. Hopefully, six years down the line when
the next review is scheduled, the community will be better organized and there
will be a robust representation from the Muslim community during the review
SAMPLE OF HINDU AMERICAN FOUNDATION LED ISLAMOPHOBIC EDITS
Uberoi Foundation suggested change:
"Page 256, lines 511-516:
Current text: “These were the foundation for the Shariah,
the religious laws governing moral, social, and economic life. Islamic law, for
example, rejected the older Arabian view of women as “family property,”
declaring that all women and men are entitled to respect and moral
self-governance, even though Muslim society, like all agrarian societies of
that era, remained patriarchal, that is, dominated politically, socially, and
culturally by men.”
Suggested change: add the following, “Muslim people were divided into social groups based on power and
wealth. At the top were government leaders, landowners, and traders. Below them
were artisans, farmers, and workers. The lowest group were enslaved people. As
in other civilizations, slavery was widespread. Because Muslims could not be
enslaved, traders brought enslaved people from non-Muslim areas. Many of these
people were prisoners of war.”"
"Page 257, lines 525-527:
Current text: “Muslims did not force Christians or Jews,
“people of the book,” to convert, but people of other religions were sometimes
forced to convert.”
Suggested change: “Muslims did not force Christians or Jews,
“people of the book,” to convert, but people of other religions were forced to convert most of the time in India as well as in other
countries such as in central Asia.”"
Hindu Education Foundation suggested changes:
"Page 267, lines 750-753:
Current text: “Islam became firmly established politically
in the north as well as in some coastal towns and parts of the Deccan Plateau,
although the majority of the population of South Asia remained Hindu.”
Suggested change: add the following: “In southern India, the
Hindu Vijayanagara empire dominated the scene for about 250 years and ushered
in a period of cultural revival, the highlights of which were classic
literature in the Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada languages. Its prosperous
capital, Hampi (which was described by many European and Middle Eastern
chroniclers), was the site of magnificent temples before being plundered
by armies of the neighboring sultanates. Its ruins are a UNESCO world heritage
"Page 307, lines 1560-1562:
Current text: “Other Mughal rulers, most notably Akbar,
encouraged and accelerated the blending of Hindu and Islamic beliefs as well as
architectural and artistic forms.”
Suggested change: add the following, “During this period,
the Central and Southern parts of India saw the emergence of native empires
that offered resistance to the hegemony and persecution of the Mughal
rulers. Prominent among them was the Maratha empire established in 1618 CE
by Shivaji Maharaj, which saw a resurgence of Hindu culture and
It is time for
Indians of all hues to decide what kind of India they want, a fascist one like Iran or Sudan or a
genuine democracy where everyone has the freedom to eat, drink, wear and
believe whatever the hell one wants to.
As Indians we need to be serious about our History – if teaching this history is creating problems between peoples, causing us pain, hatred and ill-will, then we need to assess the value of such education.
We need to focus on Science and Maths and add value to the lives of people. Either we want a better India or mess it up forcing people what they can or cannot eat, can or cannot believe. Ultimately no one will live in peace and harmony.
The past empires may have messed up the history in a hurry to write their own understanding of it and to suit their own agenda. They were not democracies, they got away with a lot of stuff. There was no one to question them. We are a democracy and we need to create responsible societies.
We need to laugh at our past, when human rights were violated, but guard ourselves from becoming like them and violate fellow Indians's rights. We need to teach humility over arrogance and the desires to control others.
If RSS or any other organization that
promotes superiority of one over the other, more right to one over the other, then we need to ask them to revise their manifesto and consider all Indians as equals.
Here is one abstract:
“There is no mention of Hitler’s role in the concentration
camps, the holocaust and the extermination of millions of Jews; in fact, the
role of Hitler is seen as always positive.”16 Similarly, the Gujarat state
class ten social studies textbooks contained chapters titled “Hitler, the
Supremo” and “Internal Achievements of Nazism” where Nazi administrative
efficiency is lauded. The Holocaust is not mentioned by name, but “the gruesome
and inhuman act of suffocating 60 lakh [6 million] Jews in gas chambers” is
noted. The section on “Ideology of Nazism” translates Hitler’s title of
“Fuhrer” as “Savior.”17
This is the link to the full
The Hindutva View of History
Rewriting Textbooks in India and the United States Kamala
Visweswaran, Michael Witzel, Nandini Manjrekar, Dipta Bhog, and Uma Chakravarti
When Hindu nationalist (or Sangh Parivar) organizations in
India came to power at the national level in 1998, one of the first things they
did was to establish a National Curriculum Framework (NCF) to change textbook
content. The 2000 NCF curriculum debate reflected the intense conflict between
competing visions of national identity that had dominated India’s public and
political discourse over the previous two decades. In a significant departure
from earlier curriculum frameworks of 1972 and 1986, which stressed democratic
values, social justice, and national integration through appreciation of the
commonalities of different subcultures, the principal focus of the NCF was
“value education.”1 The chief end of history, as of education as a whole, was
presented as the development of a “national spirit” and “national
consciousness” through generating pride in the younger generation regarding
India’s past and its unique “religio-philosophical ethos, which was presented
as primarily Hindu.”2 These actions were vociferously challenged by academics
and progressive, secular, liberal, or left groups who decried the Sangh
Parivar’s ideological efforts to recast history. In the summer and fall months
of 2005, U.S. “Hindu”
organizations with Sangh ties appeared at California Board
of Education hearings, claiming that California textbooks discriminated against
Hindus and presented a demeaning image of Hinduism. While there were indeed
problems with the representation of Hinduism in the textbooks, the overall aim
of the changes proposed by the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic
Foundation was to propagate false notions of Indian history, including the idea
that “Aryans” were the original or indigenous inhabitants of India, and that
the core essence of Hinduism could be found in the Vedic religion of the
We will argue that these textbook edits attempt to manufacture a
majoritarian view of society in which the cultural and political space for
minorities will progressively shrink.