By Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Anasuya Sengupta, Harjit Kaur, Umar Malick
The South Asian Histories for All (SAHFA) Coalition has been reflecting upon the gains and losses of the May 19, 2016 public meeting of the Instructional Quality Commission, the curriculum advisory body to the California State Board of Education. The State Board of Education (SBE) meets again on July 14, 2016, to confirm revisions to the History and Social Science curriculum for middle school, and to adopt the framework. Before they do, it’s worth looking back to analyse what might lie ahead.
The story so far:
Over the past few months, the SAHFA coalition went up against a powerful and well-funded Hindutva lobby, in order to ensure that Hindu nationalist revisionism does not extend to California’s history curriculum frameworks. This lobby was attempting to erase the term ‘Dalit’ and the origins of the caste system in Hinduism; obscure the origins of Sikhs and Ravidassias in resisting caste oppression; claim that ‘ancient India’ is a sufficient term to refer to the entire South Asian subcontinent; and undermine the long-established and syncretic nature of Islam in South Asia.
At the May 19 public meeting, powerful testimonies from 80+ of our diverse interfaith coalition members carried the day on caste and Sikhism, but our coalition vowed to continue the struggle against Islamophobia, recognition of all South Asian identities, and content that does not reflect the historical record.
The experience so far has made it clear that the Hindutva lobby – in seeking a seeming ‘parity’ of Hindu identity in the Californian and US diaspora – has worked actively to denigrate and dismiss the religious, ethnic, and historical identities of other communities.
Given this reality, we still have the following serious concerns as we move forward.
Unfair approval process: The Uberoi Foundation has not been a neutral party in the process, and its edits have focused on glorifying Indian Hinduism at the expense of other religions and communities. The IQC’s sole reliance on a Hindu nationalist group’s recommendations bring into question the fairness of this revision process.
The Uberoi Foundation has given significant funding to the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) to fund their full time Director of Education and Curriculum Reform in 2013, and to establish their 2014 20 state curriculum reform campaign in the US.
Additionally, two of the four scholars recommended by Shiva Bajpai of the Uberoi Foundation, as curriculum review experts in its February 22, 2014 letter, were the recipients of considerable research and programmatic funding. These experts include Dr. Rita D. Sherma, Sthaneswar Timalsina, and Shiva Bajpai himself.
Finally, several of the scholars from “Scholars for the People” and “Social Sciences and Religion Faculty Group” have been the recipient of Uberoi funds. Therefore, relying on the Uberoi Foundation document represents significant conflict of interest and creates the potential for a largely biased and prejudiced proceeding.
The Uberoi Foundation’s materials have served as a baseline for decision making by the IQC, in both of the past two public meetings on March 24 and May 19. Using their document as the only reference document in a public process was deeply disturbing, and a travesty of a truly democratic process.
It is particularly telling that the detailed, highly researched, South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG) submission – from a group of established scholars of Title VI institutions receiving federal funding precisely to educate the US population on “global competencies” – was not used as a counterpoint to the Uberoi Foundation document. We were also unable to understand why the IQC’s own document was not used as the baseline, since it was neutral, compiled all edits and was publicly available before and during the hearing.
Each suggestion should have been discussed on its own merit with equal time for recommendations by other groups, especially those of established scholars of ancient and medieval South Asia.
Edits pertaining to Dalits and caste: Edits proposed by the HAF-led alliance—including the Uberoi Foundation—not only sanitised the history of caste, but also erased the name of the Dalit community. During the hearing, the IQC affirmed that the caste system is rooted in Hinduism, that caste is based on birth, and that caste groups or ‘jatis’ are not “self-governing” in a way that implies self-determination and social mobility across caste lines. “There is no way that one would self-govern yourself into oppression,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan during the public comment portion of the meeting, pushing back at the Hindutva lobby’s claims that caste groups were “self-governing”.
Testimonies of over 60 Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha members from over six gurudwaras all over California helped tip the debate, with speakers affirming the violence of caste, and challenging the Hindu groups’ attempts to co-opt Dalit Sant Shri Guru Ravidass as Hindu, the tradition against which he fought. After these powerful Dalit-American testimonies, the HAF was forced to publicly concede on their suggested edit, which had deleted the term “Dalit” from the curriculum framework.
The next step of our battle against the erasure of caste realities, is to fight for the removal of an outrageous statement in the framework, suggested by the Hindutva alliance, that asserts that caste promoted social stability and that today, many Hindus in the US and in India, no longer identify as belonging to a caste. This is patently untrue. There are numerous official reports from the UN, and the US Department of State, as well civil society testimonies that authoritatively contradict these statements. The Indian Human Development Survey found in 2014 that 1 in 4 Indians admitted to still practicing ‘untouchability’. Caste in the diaspora is practiced by many communities, including, for instance, in the way they organize, and the caste names given to many of these societies.
In addition, we ask to return the caste pyramid to the textbook and reinsert appropriate analogies between caste and slavery. The caste pyramid is a visual aid to enhance the understandings of the dynamics of dominance and subjugation between different caste groups. It was removed in an earlier phase of the review process, while this text remains in the framework: “This system, often termed caste, provided social stability and gave an identity to each community.” To obfuscate the oppressive nature of the caste system – while giving it the legitimacy of seeming ‘social stability’ – is deeply offensive to those who have experienced the violence of this system, specifically Dalits, Bahujans (those known as ‘Shudras’), and Adivasis (indigenous peoples).
Comparing casteism to slavery is also a potent analogy used by both Dalits and African-American scholars and activists, to affirm that while caste and race are not the same, the experiences of violence, impunity, and denial are similar.
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Edits pertaining to Islam: The Uberoi Foundation’s Islamophobic edits drew comment from IQC members. Members rejected a suggested edit that would add an out-of-context reference linking Islam with slavery in the Middle East. Another Uberoi Foundation edit was accepted, even though it confused IQC members; the text described trade relations “between” the Islamic world and “India”, ignoring the large Muslim population in South Asia dating all the way back to the 7th century.
Representatives of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) agreed with IQC members’ concerns about the Uberoi Foundation’s biased edits. “It’s inappropriate for 6th and 7th grade textbooks to exclude the hundreds of millions of Muslims from South Asia,” said IAMC Trustee Khalid Azam. “Changes to curriculum should be informed by academic experts with relevant expertise,” he further added.
It is critical to remove historical inaccuracies in the sections on Islam and to reframe the content so that Muslims and Islam are not coded as “enemy” or inherently “violent”, and made into scapegoats and easy targets for hate and ignorance. For example, many of the edits requested by the HAF and their cohort, ask to present Islam in South Asia as a religion that was “foreign to the subcontinent” and arrived and expanded merely by force. This narrative is deeply contrary to the actual history of Islam in South Asia that began as early as the 7th century C.E and was represented heavily in South India. This narrative of claiming that “Muslims are foreign invaders” is far too commonly deployed in Hindutva propaganda in India. To try to extend this hate and ignorance to the US will affect not only Muslims through Islamophobia, but also Sikhs and others of South Asian heritages who continue to be affected by Islamophobic violence. In the current context in the US, this is not simply a “South Asian” problem, it’s a concern of significant proportions for all people of color.
Edits pertaining to India vs South Asia: By ignoring the rigorous scholarship of the SAFG, the IQC allowed a series of geographical errors into California’s textbook framework. The SAFG had agreed with the use of “India” 69 times, and flagged 24 instances where the phrase “South Asia” better reflected geographic reality. The IQC decided to change most geographical references to “India” (with a single sentence explaining that this may refer to several modern nation-states). Using only “India” in these 24 cases not only ignores geography, but actively conflates modern India with ancient India, erasing the origins of Californian students from nations like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Edits pertaining to renaming the Indus Valley Civilization “Saraswati”: SAHFA is concerned that one reference to the Saraswati River remained in the framework. In line with other edits suggested by the Uberoi Foundation, renaming the ancient pre-Hindu civilisation after a mythical Hindu river is part of a broader Hindu nationalist political project aimed at manufacturing a history in which Hindus are the original inhabitants of India. This erases the history of the Adivasis, and once again positions Christians and Muslims as “foreign invaders” not belonging to the Indian nation-state.
Edits pertaining to Sikhism: The coalition welcomed the continued support for curriculum content highlighting the Sikh religion’s resistance to caste and the Hindu social order at the time of its founding. The Hindu American Foundation, the Uberoi Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation all sought to erase Sikhism’s historical defiance of Brahmin authority and the religion’s foundational resistance to the caste system. However, the IQC decided to reject the Hindutva lobby’s suggestions, and the SAHFA coalition strongly supported this decision. The IQC also affirmed its previous discussion to retain the Sikh identity of the first Asian American member of Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, against the Uberoi Foundation’s recommendation to label him solely as an “immigrant of Indian origin.”
Community support: SAHFA’s positions received substantial support from across California and beyond. 5,238 people signed a public petition standing with SAHFA. Over 200 California parents signed on to a letter of support. More than 75 California K-12 school educators, and students from 30 California universities signed on to letters also standing with SAHFA. Additionally, scholars from 80 universities signed on to a letter in support of the SAFG.
The IQC’s recommendations will now go before the State Board of Education for final approval on July 14th, after which the framework will be published. SAHFA intends to ensure that:
* Fundamentalists and big money don’t hijack the framework process. We will work towards a just and equitable representation of all South Asian identities.
* Caste is given a full and accurate representation in the framework.
* The presentation of Islam is corrected, such that the narrative is not rooted in Islamophobia and factual inaccuracies.
* The multiple histories and identities of South Asian nations are not erased by a Hindutva narrative that conflates large portions of the subcontinent to being solely known as “India”.
With these fact-based modifications in place, the SAHFA coalition looks forward to the approval of the curriculum framework, and the creation of fair, balanced, and inclusive textbooks for California students. This is a long battle, but the South Asian Histories for All coalition stands united in believing, as Dr. Martin Luther King did, that the arc of the moral universe will bend towards justice.