In California, a Debate Over History Curricula Has Brought To Fore Denials of Caste in the Indian American Community

By Aria Thaker | 12 April 2016

On 28 March 2016, the Hindu organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh posted a tweet to its official Twitter page: “The leftist scholars’ bid to undermine India’s glorious identity was foiled by young Hindu activists and HEF”—the Hindu Education Foundation, a US-based Hindu group–“in California, USA.” Another tweet, posted a few minutes later, added: “Congrats to Hindu activists to successfully oppose & contest the suggestion to replace ‘India’ by ‘SouthAsia’ in text books in USA.”

These messages concerned a recent meeting in Sacramento, the capital of the large US state of California. A few months earlier, in January, California’s board of education had asked the public to suggest revisions to the History-Social Science Framework, a teaching guide that outlines the social-studies curriculum for the state’s government-run schools. The Framework’s South Asia-related material proved especially controversial; over 600 of the roughly 1,500 total suggested edits pertained to the subcontinent, although well under a tenth of the Framework does. On 24 March, a crowd of about 100 people—most of them connected to South Asian communities—gathered to watch a subject-matter committee, a group of educational administrators appointed by the board of education, deliberate on the revisions.

The authors of the South Asia-related edits fell into two broad camps. The first consisted of organisations such as the RSS-lauded HEF; the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an advocacy organisation; and the Uberoi Foundation, a religious-studies group that promotes awareness of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. These groups proposed revisions to rectify what they perceive as a culturally insensitive portrayal of Hinduism. On the other side were the “leftist scholars” the RSS referenced: the South Asia Faculty Group, an interdisciplinary committee of fifteen South Asianist academics, who submitted a lengthy review of the Framework. A coalition of anti-caste activist groups supported the faculty group. Though the subject-matter committee rejected most of the Hindu groups’ changes and accepted most of the faculty group’s, its decisions are only recommendations presented to California’s board of education, which is expected to make final decisions on the edits in May.

Some of the faculty group’s approved edits suggested that certain usages of “India” be replaced with “South Asia,” mostly in pre-1947 contexts. Outcry at these changes was so fierce—thousands signed a petition against them, and protestors outside the meeting held signs reading “Did Columbus go in search of South Asia?”—that after their initial approvals, the committee retracted some of the “South Asia” revisions. Indian press coverage about the controversy has overwhelmingly focussed on this point. But while this question of terminology is complex, concentrating exclusively on it overlooks many other important issues raised by the edits, such as 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 last dispute has brought to fore issues often neglected by much of the Indian American community: the legacy of caste oppression in India, and how to fairly depict this history of marginalisation.

For over a decade in California, Hindu advocates have sought to temper or erase the curriculum’s mentions of the caste system, arguing that their virulence reflects unfairly on Hinduism. In 2005, Hindu groups such as HEF and the Vedic Foundation submitted over 150 edits to the Framework. Some were factual corrections—an image of a Muslim man praying was captioned “A Brahmin priest,” for instance. But other revisions—such as one that suggested “castes” be replaced with “social classes”—moved many to accuse the groups of promoting a religious and political agenda. Michael Witzel, a Sanskrit professor at Harvard University, became aware of the Hindu groups’ edits soon after most of them, including the “social classes” one, had already sailed past the committee. He wrote a letter opposing the changes, got it signed by 47 academics (including heavyweights such as Homi K Bhabha and Romila Thapar), and sent it to California’s board of education, which appointed Witzel and two other scholars to re-evaluate the edits. Many of the Hindu groups’ revisions, among them the “social classes” edit, were rolled back. In 2006, HAF sued the California board of education for failing to follow a “fair and open” process. The suit was settled two years later.

Over the phone, Witzel told me that the Hindu groups involved in the 2005 controversy had “flatly denied that there was this social stratification” of caste. He emphasised the importance of fact-based lessons on Hinduism, citing the numerous mentions of caste in its scriptures. Yvette Rosser, a scholar who has studied representations of India in American textbooks, and who worked with the Vedic Foundation in 2005, called Witzel anti-Hindu. Rosser said that the caste system is often one of the only aspects of Hinduism taught in American schools, which, she believes, distorts the religion’s true values. “Ultimately, when you really get down to it and look at the Upanishads,” she said, Hinduism is very “non-dogmatic.” She also criticised the South Asia Faculty Group, saying it was “vehemently against the BJP,” and mounting a “relentless anti-saffron academic attack.”

Similar disagreements were rehashed this year. One current Framework passage states: “By 500 CE or earlier, there existed certain communities outside the jati system, the ‘Untouchables,’ who did the most unclean work, such as cremation, disposal of dead animals, and sanitation.” HAF’s suggested revision—which was rejected by the subject-matter committee—removed all reference to caste, replacing “communities outside the jati system, the ‘Untouchables’” with “certain socially ostracized and economically disadvantaged communities.” Murali Balaji, the director of education and curriculum reform at HAF believes the Framework’s lines problematically link caste to Hinduism. “An Indian social practice should not be conflated with only Hindu scripture,” he told me over the phone. Balaji also claimed HAF advocated cutting “Untouchables” because the term is “offensive to people who have a lower-caste background.”

HAF, HEF, and the Uberoi Foundation all requested the removal of a sentence that contextualised caste as a social-science term for a “particularly unbending social structure, for example, slave-holding society in the American south before the Civil War.” These same groups also took issue with a description of how the founder of Sikhism, the guru Nanak, “challenged the authority of the Brahmins and the caste order.” All three groups proposed similar edits, swapping the phrase for more generic lines that did not reference caste or Brahminical authority. None of these changes—or any of the other dozens that advocated softening or excising references to caste—were approved by the committee.

People I spoke to from the South Asia Faculty Group and the anti-caste coalition said that the Hindu advocates sought to sanitise facts in the service of ideology. Only a few of the South Asia Faculty Group’s edits concerned caste, although one of their most dramatic ones revised a line that read: “Teachers should make clear to students that [caste] was a social and cultural structure rather than a religious belief.” The faculty group’s suggestion, which was approved by the committee, replaced “rather than” with “as well as.” The Uberoi Foundation, in a point-by-point response to the faculty group’s changes, criticised this edit for “inaccurately conflating the caste system with Hindu religious beliefs,” adding that California administrators themselves had “originally added this sentence to address concerns over the bullying of Hindu students.”

Many others also cited schoolyard bullying as a reason why the curriculum’s material about Hinduism should remain positive. In a follow-up email to me, Balaji wrote, “For someone like me,” who “was bullied because of my faith based on misconceptions in textbooks, this is an important issue.” On many occasions over the past year, including at the 24 March meeting, Indian American students testified before administrators about their dissatisfaction with the curriculum. In videos uploaded to a YouTube account called Dignity4Hinduism, one eighth-grader argues that lessons on caste are “deliberately trying to portray Hinduism as a set of ruthless practices,” while a twelfth-grader claims her textbooks describe a “mistaken attribution of the social structure” of Hinduism.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, an anti-caste activist, said that the Hindu groups tried to paint the South Asia Faculty Group as “Orientalist, racist and Marxist.” She added that the groups then asked the committee, “Will you stand with them”—referring to the faculty group—”or will you stand with children being bullied?” Soundararajan, who is both Dalit and Californian, said the accurate history lessons she learnt in sixth grade gave her some reprieve from the incessant denial of the existence of caste that she faced in her “Hindu majoritarian” community. The Hindu groups in this dispute, she said, are practising similar denials. They are “using Edward Said’s Orientalism to critique the history of South Asia, without acknowledging the power dynamics of the region and their privilege vis-à-vis those dynamics,” she told me.

Soundararajan works with the Ambedkar Association of California, an organisation that has opposed the Hindu groups’ edits as part of a coalition with, among other groups, the Ravidassi Gurdwaras, the Collective of Dalit Ecumenical Christian Scholars, the Indian American Muslim Council and the Alliance for South Asians Taking Action. An anti-caste collective with declared Ambedkarite values, the coalition started a petition and a Twitter campaign called #DontEraseOurHistory. In a statement for public release, Umar Malick, the president of the Indian American Muslim Council, said, “Hindu-supremacist groups in India have a long track record of meddling with the history books to advance their views and spread hatred among communities. We are seeing the same players now trying to get their hands on the US curriculum through revisions to the CA textbook framework.”

Witzel made a similar connection, asserting that the Hindu groups’ push to revise American textbooks sprung from frustration following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2004 defeat in the Indian general election. Soundararajan also described these efforts as part of a long conflict that has seen “skirmishes” in other states, including Virginia and Texas. The South Asia Faculty Group’s Kamala Visweswaran, an ethnic-studies professor at the University of California, San Diego, linked these revision efforts to a “well-funded political lobby” of groups claiming to represent Hindu Americans. One of these, the Dharma Civilization Foundation—which Visweswaran said has “documented links to Hindutva groups in the US”—recently received attention for trying to fund endowed chairs in Hindu studies at the University of California, Irvine. The effort, however, was rejected by university faculty.

Many advocates on the opposing side also see the Framework controversy as a part of a larger battle: one against entrenched academic biases. Vamsee Juluri, a media-studies professor at California’s University of San Francisco, wrote the petition protesting the edits that replaced “India” with “South Asia.” Over the phone, he told me that academia “didn’t go through a moment of decolonisation when it came to Hinduism,” and, as a result, scholarship about caste often recycles the “racist, colonialist trope that sees the other as lacking in any agency.”

Ved Chaudhury, the president of the Educators Society for Heritage of India, who submitted a dozen edits to the Framework, takes similar issue with academic work on India. According to him, such work is too often written and controlled by “people who come from outside of the Indian traditions.” Though many members of the South Asia Faculty Group are of Indian origin, he disapproved of the scholars, saying they “seem to have more affinity with Pakistan and are disaffected with India.”

Chaudhury’s position that cultural insiders should inform scholarship is widely touted by Hindu groups; it is, for example, a central tenet of the Dharma Civilization Foundation. Not as clear, however, is whether such advocates would extend the same narrative control to communities marginalised within Indian contexts. An anti-caste activist who was at the March meeting said members from several Hindu groups “openly heckled, insulted and laughed at members of the committee and at Dalit activists who were presenting.” A member of the South Asia Faculty Group spoke of very similar incidents, and Nancy McTygue, the executive director of the California History-Social Science Project, seemed to allude to them in a blog post about the meeting. “Behavior from some members of the public,” she wrote, “could legitimately be classified as disrespectful and even cruel.” I asked several people affiliated with the Hindu groups about this, and all of them said they did not know what McTygue was referring to.

But Tushar Pandya, a Hindu community leader who independently submitted over 30 edits to the Framework, dismissed these allegations. He said that the meeting “was orchestrated to give appearance of legitimacy,” but “behind closed doors,” the committee colluded with the South Asia Faculty Group. “When the Indian community spoke up,” Pandya added, “they were told to shut up in various words.”

As May approaches, and advocates on both sides prepare their final pitches for the board of education, fault lines will persist in California’s Indian and South Asian communities. But it is crucial that the depiction of caste be evaluated with strict, fact-based scrutiny—not an apologist attitude.

Aria Thaker is a copy editor at The Caravan.

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