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Erasing Facts: What SAFG activists have really done to Hinduism and India in California textbooks

Utilising the term “South Asia” fails to encompass the breadth, contributions, and historical role of Indian and Hindu civilisation during ancient, medieval, and later time periods.

Published: May 4, 2016 9:52:27 am
SAFG’s recommendations largely remove references to India and Hinduism, and replace them with the terms “South Asia” and “religion(s) of ancient India,” respectively.

By Suhag A Shukla

Anasuya Sengupta, in Erasing History: What the battle over California’s textbooks really means, writes that Hindu and Indian American claims regarding the erasure of India and the negative portrayal of Hinduism are nothing “further from truth.” The facts, however, are inconvenient to her version of the truth.

The first stretch is the characterisation of the wide range of Hindu efforts as conservative. Aside from clearly being used as a pejorative, what exactly does Ms. Sengupta mean by “conservative” in the context of Hindus in America? Is a Hindu conservative if she goes to temple frequently or prays every day? Does it mean they’re Republican? That doesn’t jive with the statistics, which show that 65 per cent of Indian Americans surveyed are or lean Democratic. Perhaps these “conservative” Hindus are well-wishers of India’s BJP, in which case, how would Ms. Sengupta characterise Jain, Muslim, Christian, and even agnostic supporters? Or is it simply that identifying publicly as a Hindu, at least to a South Asianist, is tantamount to “conservative” — code word — Hindu nationalist?

READ | Erasing History: What the battle over California’s text books really mean

Amongst these “conservative” efforts, Ms. Sengupta cites frequently, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a US based, non-partisan advocacy group. Indeed many of HAF’s members may be politically “conservative” and many “liberal.” Some go to temple frequently, while others skip out and identify as SBNRs (spiritual-but-not-religious). We have first generation Indian immigrant members, as well as their descendants, who if not born, were at least raised in America. Our membership isn’t just Indian though — it reflects the diversity of global Hinduism. We have Hindus from the Caribbean; Hindus from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan; Hindus from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Fiji; and “white” or not-of-Indic-descent Hindus. A monolith HAF is not, nor is the community.

For the past 13 years, HAF has been a leading voice on international and domestic civil rights issues, including advocating on behalf of minority women’s rights in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh; speaking out against India’s Section 377; supporting Muslim and Sikh employment rights in the US; speaking out against the unconstitutional surveillance of mosques in New York, pushing for immigration reform and gun control, fighting for marriage equality, and advocating for the inclusion of hate crime reporting against Sikhs, Arabs, and Hindus in the US. The respect that we’ve earned from leaders in policy, media, academia, and within interfaith circles speaks for itself. And the constructive criticism we earn from both our Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning members and allies, places us squarely in a unique middle space that defies Ms. Sengupta’s cliched Left-Right paradigm.

The South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG), which Ms. Sengupta admits to endorsing, has broad-brushed an entire community’s efforts — as individuals, groups, and scholars — with the India-centric phenomenon of Hindu nationalism. This alone should raise eyebrows as to the political nature of SAFG’s scholarship and those who endorse them. And while they are entitled to hold any political opinion, middle school classrooms is not the place for their activism or ideological battles.

Ironically, in spite of the SAFG’s stated purpose of representing accuracy and diversity, they have inserted major inaccuracies into California textbooks and essentialised large swaths of people and their cultures. It is, thus, SAFG’s recommendations that would better be described as erasing “the complex histories of South Asia.” In a nutshell, SAFG’s recommendations largely remove references to India and Hinduism, and replace them with the terms “South Asia” and “religion(s) of ancient India,” respectively. But academic consensus places “South Asia” as a modern geographic term that was never referred to during ancient or medieval times. “India” was always used in historical records from the Greeks, Chinese, Persians, and others. After all, Columbus wasn’t exactly searching for “South Asia” when we stumbled upon the Americas, was he? Indian civilisation, in many instances, also extended beyond what is now known as “South Asia” into countries in modern day “Southeast Asia,” such as Cambodia and Thailand. Utilising the term “South Asia,”thus fails to encompass the breadth, contributions, and historical role of Indian and Hindu civilisation during ancient, medieval, and later time periods.

“South Asia” has also gained usage as a politically correct term among academics and activists alike — one which downplays Indian, and in turn, Hindus, in an effort to be inclusive of primarily Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs. While HAF is all for inclusion, by equating Indian civilisation, dating back to the Indus Valley Civilisation and subsequent eras, with “South Asia,” SAFG not only contradicts the historical narrative of India and other other countries in the region, but imposes upon countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, a history and heritage which they have sought to shed. Pakistan (East and West) was founded on the explicit premise that it shared greater connections with the culture, history, and belief systems of countries in the “Muslim world,” rather than with those of ancient India and Hinduism. It also fails to acknowledge that most Indians and Hindus see the culture, and varying practices and philosophies of the Indus Valley, the Vedic age, and later periods as the foundation of their ancestry, heritage, and identity, and thus see Indian and Hindu history as their history. So when India and Hinduism are misportrayed, or civilisational contributions muddled with geographic terms like, “South Asia,” there is a real, detrimental impact on not only Indian and Hindu American children’s identity, but for Indians and Hindus world over, an erasure of the broader understanding of who they are and their historic place in the world.

Finally, Ms. Sengupta attributes a quote to HAF and “one of its scholars” in order to misrepresent the crux of HAF’s recommendations. What she quoted is not from HAF, nor from any scholars whom we know — verification of this misattribution is simple because HAF’s edits are part of California’s public record. What exactly are HAF’s recommendations? We invite readers to see for themselves. But to summarise, HAF has recommended that:

* the origins of Indian history are contested, as evidenced by current scholarly battles;

* caste in India developed over many centuries, and needs to be nuanced for a better understanding of how a social practice arose – often in contradiction to religious teachings;

*Hinduism’s core philosophies, including its inherent pluralism, are included in the frameworks

HAF is absolutely not asking for erasing the history of Dalits or women. On the contrary — our recommendations, and our overall work in seeking to give voice to these groups and uplift those suffering by finding solutions and solace in Hindu teachings is HAF’s calling and legacy.

As far as erasing the history of Sikhs, our submissions also prove to the contrary. We hoped only that the State Board of Education would acknowledge Dalip Singh Saund’s own desire to have his Indian identity recognised, alongside his Sikh identity, as noted in both of his autobiographies, My Mother India and Congressman from India. Saund himself noted in My Mother India that “except for the few scholars of oriental history and literature, who occupied themselves diligently in exploring the hidden treasures of Hindu civilisation, the name of India was an unknown thing to the rest of the American world. For the average man and woman in the United States the affairs of that oriental country were too remote an issue for them to notice.”

Ms. Sengupta is right on one point. The stakes in California are high. And that is why it is critical that California educators and textbooks depict all groups, not just Indians and Hindus, accurately and equitably, and in a culturally competent manner. It’s the only way to better educate and prepare the next generation for an increasingly globalised society, and that is all HAF, and many others, are seeking.

Shukla is Executive Director, Hindu American Foundation. Views expressed by the author are personal.

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