A Rejoinder: “Denial and Destructiveness”

By The Caravan | 22 April 2016

On 12 April 2016, Aria Thaker, a copy editor at The Caravan, published an article in Vantage, titled ‘In California, A Debate Over History Curricula Has Brought to Fore Denials of Caste in the Indian American Community.’ In it, Thaker detailed how, for over a decade, Hindu groups in California have been trying to soften or erase references to the caste system in the History-Social Science Framework: a teaching guide that outlines the social-studies curriculum for California’s government-run schools. The edits to the South Asia-related material of the Framework were proposed by two main camps: first, Hindu groups such as the Hindu American Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation; and second, the South Asia Faculty Group, an interdisciplinary committee of fifteen South Asianist academics. A coalition of anti-caste activist groups spoke out on the issue as well, largely in support of the faculty group.

Published below is a rejoinder to Thaker’s article by Vamsee Juluri and Yvetter Rosser, who lead Scholars for People, a collective of academics who oppose the faculty group. Data analysis and tables by Srinivas Udumudi. It is followed by Thaker’s response.

The recent article in Caravan about the California history textbooks debate has ignored the crux of our petition and the growing concern among scholars and the public about the attempt by a group of South Asia Studies faculty in the United States to eliminate several key references to India and Hinduism in the curriculum.

The article instead focused almost exclusively on trying to portray the issue as a conflict between RSS-affiliated Hindu-American groups downplaying the evils of the caste system and reasonable South Asia studies scholars attempting to oppose their pernicious designs. However, given the fact that virtually none of the changes proposed by Hindu organizations and individuals about caste as well as other issues were accepted by the board, and the fact that most of the changes proposed by the South Asia Studies Faculty group about caste as well as broader issues were accepted, that sort of characterization is quite besides the point today.

Let us consider instead if any of the following positions of the South Asia Faculty group, several of which were actually accepted, could be even remotely interpreted as being about fighting off Hindu nationalist groups seeking to sanitize the caste-system:

  • Recommending that most references to India before 1947 be changed to South Asia (page 12 of their November letter, and several specific edits)
  • Recommending that the word “Hinduism” be replaced with the phrase “ancient Indian religion” since they believe that Hinduism did not have any signs of being an “organized religion” before the 13th century (edit 2439 and others)
  • Insisting on removing a line about Indus Valley figurines showing “features present in modern Hinduism” because “not much is known about (its) religious practices and beliefs.” (page 5)
  • Deleting a line about the “acceptance of religious diversity” as a feature of Hindu thought (page 6)
  • Deleting a line about India, despite not being unified into one state or religion, “developing cultural unity” (page 10)
  • Complaining that the section in the curriculum about the period 300-1200 CE “presents Hinduism and Buddhism as being inherent in India and Islam coming from the outside” (page 9)
  • Changing a line about the “conquest of Northern Indian states” by Islamic Central Asian tribes of Turkic descent to a mere “expansion of territory across the Indus Valley into Northern Indian plains.” (Edit 2749)
  • Deleting the presence of “India” from a line about “India and the Muslim world” and subsuming it within an “Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean” (Edit 2781)
  • Changing a line about “Hindu and Sikh” immigrants to California to “South Asian (Mostly Sikh)” (page 11)
  • Recommending that students read Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian nationalist texts as well in a line about 9/11, Islamic fundamentalism, and anti-Western violence. (Edit 3192)

Caravan’s article seems to have very conveniently ignored all of these facts which reveal a rather determined agenda of denial and destructiveness guiding the South Asia Studies faculty edits rather than just some benign defense of Dalit groups’ concerns about sanitizing caste. Furthermore, it also ignores the fact that resistance to the South Asia Studies denials about Hinduism and India has come from a diverse range of individuals and organizations, whose inputs on the process for the most part did not even have anything to do with caste, let alone trying to sanitize it. Consider the following table summarizing suggestions submitted by various scholars, individuals and groups to the Instructional Quality Commission about the December draft of the History Social Science Frameworks:

Table 1
Sandhya Visvanathan

Over three-fourths of the suggestions made by a very disparate group of people here during the public review process simply did not have anything to do with how varna, jati or caste are discussed, nor can it be assumed that even the suggestions that were made on these topics were all inherently aimed at “sanitizing” caste. And regardless of whatever one might argue about intent here, the fact also remains that virtually none of the suggestions made above were accepted by the CHSSP:

Table 2
Sandhya Visvanathan

All of these facts should make it clear that the alleged sanitization of caste in California textbooks by Hindu nationalist groups remains merely an allegation, while the actual edits pushed through by the South Asia Faculty group have been conveniently exempted from scrutiny in Caravan’s article. A closer look at their positions not only on broader issues like the existence of India and Hinduism, but even on caste, would reveal a sorry state of affairs in academia, where evasions, self-contradictions, and utter disrespect for even the marginalized castes in whose name they claim to speak, are all in evidence.

Among the strange changes pushed through by the South Asia Faculty (which Caravan really ought to have addressed since it had a whole article about caste in the textbooks at that), was the removal of the names of Valmiki and Vyasa from the curriculum (Edit 2482). Presumably, their concern was that it would “sanitize” discussion of caste and birth if Valmiki and Vyasa were mentioned as examples of sages associated with non-Brahmin backgrounds. But could that point not have been made in some other, more precise way? This sort of extreme denial only seems like a classic case of saving the world by destroying it. But logic and consistency probably are not important when one is possessed by such missionary zeal against the very idea of a Hindu or even Indian civilization. After all, only a great sense of righteous urgency could get help one get away with saying there was no Hinduism in ancient India and also fixing caste as the essence of Hinduism; and replacing “Ancient India” with “South Asia” in several places except the two instances where caste and patriarchy are mentioned when it’s back to “India” again.

It is indeed commendable that several journalists are taking an interest in how Indian history is being taught in California, but it is also worrisome that powerful presumptions and clichés are being allowed to override objectivity and freedom. For nearly a decade, the brazen Hinduphobia of these textbooks (and that of some of the scholars unconscionably defending them without a semblance of honest debate with their opponents), has been covered up in the media with wild and unsubstantiated allegations about “militants” and “extremists” out to “saffronize” history, or to “whitewash” it. The truth, however, cannot be concealed forever. India will have to face up to its history, and in doing so find itself firmly on its own terms and not on those borrowed from 19th century colonizers and their racist fantasies.

Aria Thaker’s response:

Drs Rosser and Juluri take issue with the focus of the article, claiming it painted the Hindu groups as solely preoccupied with caste. In fact, the piece lists caste alongside a few other examples of issues the advocates’ edits addressed: “gender roles in ancient India, the legacy of the Indus Valley civilisation, the origins of Sikhism and Buddhism, and—perhaps most pressingly—the caste system.” This emphasis before the final term was meant to underscore the particular significance of the dispute surrounding caste: the discussions it drew out between activists; the questions it raised on how to teach about oppression; and the tensions it sparked around an issue seldom discussed, but often violently present, in Indian American communities. But even if one only considers the quantity of edits (as the responders seem to), then the ones on caste still prove a very substantial portion of the total. According to the numbers Juluri and Rosser provide, the caste-related revisions constitute 37 of the 131 submitted by Hindu groups and individual advocates—that is, 28 percent of the total, and not less than one quarter, as the response claims. This is quite a large proportion, especially when one considers the many distinct issues—over a dozen—the Hindu advocates tackled in their edits.

Juluri and Rosser claim that reporting on the caste-related revisions is “quite besides the point,” because the subject-matter committee rejected most of those edits on 24 March. This is an especially bizarre line of defence. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean that any aborted endeavours, from settled lawsuits to vetoed bills, are unworthy of attention. The California curriculum controversy is particularly important not only for its procedural outcomes, but also for what it reflects about and how it affects the wider Indian American community. As the article discusses, Hindu groups in the United States have waged such battles over curricula in schools before—and recently, in universities as well. California itself saw a massive rise in such lobbying between the last iteration of this controversy, in 2005–06, and this year. Clearly, the fact that Hindu groups have been attempting, again, to sanitise references to the caste system speaks to larger dynamics at play, and will likely be even more visible in tussles to come.

The rejoinder makes many attempts to pivot the discussion to one about the South Asia Faculty Group’s edits, which Juluri and Rosser argue are rife with “denial and destructiveness.” First, it is important to note that, whatever one thinks of the faculty group’s edits, they should not be used as an excuse to exempt from scrutiny the edits submitted by the Hindu advocates. That said, I strongly recommend that anyone confused about the faculty group’s revisions read through both of their reports: first, the lengthy one linked to in the original piece, submitted late last year; and second, a list of their 76 edits with some accompanying explanations. Consider a revision they submitted about Turkic emperors, which was approved; Juluri and Rosser objected to this edit’s alteration of how the rulers’ land conquests were described—from “states in northwestern India,” to “the Indus Valley to parts of the northern Indian plains.” In the note accompanying this edit, however, the faculty group writes: “the Ghaznavid Empire ruled over parts of present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, with a swathe of territory west of the River Yamuna, which is why NW India is misleading.” In context, one can see that this change, among many of the group’s others, is written with an intent to clarify geographic references and correct basic facts. In this round of Framework edits, the scholars of the faculty group have been, by far, the most qualified entity submitting changes, as they are PhDs and professors from a variety of fields devoted to the historical study of South Asia.

Finally, the responders take particular issue with one of the faculty group’s approved edits, which suggests the removal of a line about how “many important sages, such as Valmiki and Vyasa, were not Brahmins.” The faculty group’s rationale for this excision, explained in their first review, reads: “this information is incorrect (both were Brahmins.)” Juluri and Rosser should feel free to contest this factual claim, if they wish to. But considering the content of the faculty group’s explanation, it is incoherent for them to paint the faculty group’s edit as a concerted attempt to erase the contributions of sages from lower-caste backgrounds. Juluri and Rosser even write that this edit indicates “utter disrespect for even the marginalized castes in whose name [the faculty group] claim to speak.” This is more than ill-worded rhetorical flourish, it is an irresponsible statement—I’d challenge the responders to prove that the faculty group ever attempted to speak for people of lower-caste backgrounds.

The responders’ issue with the faculty group’s “disrespect” for those they believe the group attempts to speak for is especially ironic, considering the rejoinder itself does not acknowledge the presence of anti-caste activists who supported the faculty group’s edits, many of whom are Dalits who attended school or sent their children to school in California. For these people, honest curricular portrayals of caste are imperative not only for matters of factual accuracy (as they should be for everyone, caste background aside), but also for their resonance with forms of marginalisation they often personally experience in Indian American communities. For all of their claims about the attempted erasure of “a Hindu or even Indian civilization,” Juluri, Rosser and other Hindu advocates fail to recognise the human effects of the erasures being committed by their stance on the debate.


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