On 11 and 12 May 2016, the California Board of Education will meet to take the final vote on the History and Social Science Framework for textbooks in California. It does this every six years, in a multi-year process, which includes public comments on a draft framework. The stakes are high: California is one of the largest textbook markets in the US, and its frameworks can set the standards for the rest of the United States. What is being contested, and how, also has implications for India, South Asia, and beyond.
An alliance of conservative Hindu organisations claims that the current draft framework ‘erases’ India and negatively portrays ‘Hindu civilisation’. As a member of the South Asian Histories for All Coalition, it’s clear to me that nothing is further from the truth.
Indeed, this alliance — led by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), and including the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies, Hindu Education Foundation, and the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) — is trying to erase the complex histories of South Asia and replace them with a sanitised mono-cultural story for the entire subcontinent. This would negate and nullify the struggles of women, Dalits, Adivasis, and religious communities like Buddhists, Sikhs, and Muslims.
The alliance claims that Hindu American children suffer low self-esteem and confidence when faced with the histories of caste and gender discrimination in South Asia. There is little doubt that it can be painful to be a young person of colour in the US. But this is about racism, not sterile versions of history; in fact, racism needs to be confronted through the difficult lessons of history. As Thenmozhi Soundararajan of the Ambedkar Association of California says, “The answer to racism in schools is not to further discriminate against Dalits, Women, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Christians. Students deserve a complex history to learn compassion. Hindu revisionism ill-prepares all California children and is a disservice to democracy.”
The South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG) — a group of diverse academics led by scholars of South Asian origin from educational institutions like UC Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia and UCLA, with significant expertise in the histories and cultures of South Asia — offered detailed recommendations to the California Board of Education during the public comment process. Most of their edits were initially accepted, but the HAF alliance is attempting to tarnish the scholarship of the SAFG. The HAF alleges that the SAFG does not see its own ‘orientalism’, when it seeks to ‘erase’ India and replace it with ‘South Asia’ as a term of reference.
The SAFG academics countered these allegations, and clarified their position in a letter at the end of March: “We state clearly that we are not attempting to eradicate India or Hinduism from the draft framework as some groups have argued… We do believe that not only Indian and Hindu American children, but ALL 6th grade children in California will be negatively impacted from having inaccurate and misleading information reflected in the curriculum framework and textbooks… We acknowledge that the Rg Veda is an important, if not the most important text for some groups of Hindus; but the Upanishadic, puranic, epic, and bhakti traditions are equally if not more important for larger numbers of Hindus. We feel it is more respectful to the diversity and integrity of the Hindu tradition to expand the discussion of Hinduism beyond the Vedic era… framework language about “Ancient India” needs to be carefully assessed to reflect the shared civilizational heritage of the Indus Valley that transcends the national borders of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Members of the South Asian Histories for All Coalition have overwhelmingly expressed support for the recommendations of the SAFG, and the California Board of Education’s open and democratic process. Through public testimonies and petitions, we have decried the efforts of the HAF alliance to subvert that process by trying to undermine rigorous scholarship, and establish a narrow depiction of ‘Indian’ history. This includes removing Guru Nanak’s resistance to the caste system, and stripping prominent Sikh immigrants of their identity. The first Indian-American member of Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, was Sikh, but the HAF wants to describe him as an “immigrant of Indian origin.” Jaideep Singh, a Sikh-American scholar, wrote to the Board in 2015: “Considering Sikhs’ overwhelming numerical dominance within U.S migration, their demonization by exclusionists, and their prevalence in media depictions that focused on their racial and religious markers, it is far more accurate, and important, to keep the word ‘Sikh’ in the curriculum.”
Dalit activists, in turn, have pointed to the gross historical inaccuracies and offensive language that the HAF and its scholars promote as ‘history’: “‘Valmiki’ was a Dalit & a theif [sic], who recognized the ill of his ways and later became a poet and is the author to one of most famous poems that we now know as the ‘Ramayana’. Due to his changed conduct he no longer belonged to the Dalits and changed his varna to become a ‘Brahmin’.” In fact, the HAF has also fought to remove the term Dalit from the framework. Valliammal Kaneeran of the Ambedkar Association of California responds: “It is outrageous that the teaching of Untouchability does not include the term Dalit. Would we teach the history of slavery and use an epithet to refer black folks? Erasing Dalit erases our dignity and tradition of struggle. It is offensive and the epitome of hypocrisy for a group that is appropriating the language of minority struggles for their majoritarian agenda. Shame on the HAF and their cohorts.”
In fact, in reading through the proposed framework in its entirety, it is clear that the Board of Education, as mandated by the Fair Education Act, is doing its best to respond thoughtfully to the multiple histories of prejudice and racism within California and the United States (including the genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, and Japanese American internment camps in World War II). The Board clearly recognizes that responsible scholarship and fact-based analyses help children understand difficult pasts, in order to create democratic and diverse futures for themselves.
How the Board of Education will vote in May is now a matter of critical importance. As an Indian from Karnataka who currently lives in California, the outcome of this process matters personally: I may have been born into a Hindu family myself, but I utterly reject the fallacious versions of history currently being propagated by Hindu organisations in the US and in India. I am confident that the California Board of Education will too.