Early in the morning, on 9 November 2017, hundreds of people flooded the headquarters of the California department of education. They lined up in the building’s glass atrium, waiting to testify before the members of the state board of education. That day, the board was scheduled to vote on whether various new history and social-science textbooks were going to be adopted for use in California’s government-run schools. The board president reportedly stated that the hearing was “the longest in the history of the state Board of Education.”
A point of contention before the board that day was the material in these textbooks that referred to South Asia. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, an anti-caste activist who testified that day, estimated that of the roughly 500 people present, 470 were there to discuss concerns related to this material. A key concern—among others, such as the description of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the origins of Sikhism—was the representation of caste in Hinduism.
The people present, and their concerns, can be divided into two broad camps. One camp was led by South Asian Histories for All, an inter-caste, multi-faith group of activists that Soundararajan founded. SAHFA cited inaccuracies regarding caste and other issues in the textbook material, and called for a delay on the books’ approval so that they could be submitted for further editing. The other camp, which Soundararajan said greatly outnumbered SAHFA, was led by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a non-profit that claims to advocate for Hindus in the United States, and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF)—an outfit affiliated with the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh, the US-based wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. This camp, too, was heavily critical of certain parts of the textbooks, which they felt denigrated Hinduism. They did not, however, ask for the board’s decision to be delayed.
After the public hearing, the board voted to reject two of the 12 textbooks up for discussion, both published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The camp led by the HAF and HEF, which claimed to represent the Hindus in the US, had criticised the textbooks for content that was deemed derogatory to Hinduism, including a flippant question that was criticised as mocking (“How’s Your Karma Doing?”), and a photograph of cows eating trash. The board approved the rest of the books, which had been released by other well-known publishers, among them National Geographic, Pearson and McGraw Hill.
Even the textbooks that were approved, however, had at least some material that Hindu groups had called derogatory. Nevertheless, the Hindu camp celebrated the board’s decision as a victory. HAF and HEF both posted an identical statement on their respective websites, titled “Hindu Americans Win Historic Victory in California Textbooks.” SAHFA, meanwhile, posted a press release titled “History Under Attack: New California Textbooks Fail to Protect Targeted Minorities, Cave to Hindu Nationalists.”
SAHFA criticised the textbooks for not complying with a set of curricular guidelines—called the “framework”—that the California board of education had finalised in May 2016. The framework was determined after many months of edits submitted by members of the public, and a review process facilitated by a team of educational experts called the Instructional Quality Commission, or IQC. According to state procedure, the framework dictates the content that should appear in textbooks.
The finalising of the framework, too, saw a tussle involving largely the same players: HEF and HAF on the Hindu side, and SAHFA and many leading South Asianist academics in opposition to them. In the final framework, SAHFA’s camp had come out ahead. Almost all of the edits that came from the Hindu side—many of which sought to erase or whitewash more unsavoury aspects of Hinduism and South Asian history, such as patriarchy and caste—were rejected. Several of SAHFA’s edits, including ones that affirmed the existence of caste oppression, were accepted. SAHFA’s assumption at the time, Soundararajan said, was “that our job was done.” But in early 2017, when she saw the textbooks, “it was just like night and day from what was approved in the framework and what got implemented.”
The state board’s decision in November marked a dramatic reversal of fortunes between the two camps, which, if the board had more diligently followed its procedure, would likely not have occurred. An examination of this procedure reveals the pressure that Hindu groups exerted on the publishers, such as directly participating in their review processes and embroiling them in litigation, to influence the final outcome. Soundararajan noted, “Our assumption was that the State Board of Education was going to be protecting the adherence to the frameworks, and they were negligent in that.”
A clear example of the influence that the Hindu groups exerted over the publishers is that Murali Balaji, HAF’s director of education, is credited in the National Geographic textbook as a “reviewer of religious content.” During the debate on the framework, HAF had asked that the phrase “communities outside the jati system, the ‘Untouchables,’” be changed to “socially ostracized and economically disadvantaged communities”—a revision that would have scrubbed the sentence of any reference to caste. The proposed change was officially rejected, and SAHFA’s request to have the line edited to include the term “Dalit” was incorporated into the final framework.
But the final textbook matches HAF’s suggested edits more closely than it does the framework text. For example, while the framework had described the Dalit community by name, the approved National Geographic textbook fails to do so. It notes, “At the bottom were slaves, laborers, and artisans … Many centuries later, another group developed that was considered even lower.”
The Hindu camp’s edits, particularly on issues concerning the representation of caste, appeared to mirror the positions adopted by Hindutva groups in India. For instance, Sanskar Bharti, a cultural affiliate of the RSS, was reportedly seeking to “correct the lies” about ancient Hindu scriptures being “anti-Dalit and anti-woman.” The outfit sought to remove references to caste discrimination from the Manusmriti, and noted that interpretations of the text arguing that it was anti-Dalit were “propaganda.” The Hindu camp’s edits during both the framework and textbook review sought a similar erasure of references to caste.
A similar deviation from the framework was evident in National Geographic’s discussion of Sikhism. The framework makes clear the fact that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikhism, “was a social reformer who challenged the authority of the Brahmins and the caste order.” The National Geographic textbook, however, does not include any mention of Nanak’s opposition to the caste system.
During the framework review, HAF, HEF and the Uberoi Foundation—another Hindu group—had all submitted edits for this line that would have erased its reference to caste. According to Jaideep Singh, an academic who specialises in the study of Sikhs in the United States and is active with SAHFA, Nanak’s opposition to caste was “very central to Sikh identity.” The Hindu groups, he added, “viewed it as a personal attack on Hinduism, when in fact it’s who we are as a people.”
National Geographic did not respond to questions about Balaji’s involvement in the textbook-drafting process. When I asked Suhag Shukla, the executive director of HAF, about Balaji’s role as a reviewer on the textbook, she told me that not only had HAF worked with National Geographic, but they have “worked with most of the major ones”—publishers—in California and in other states. “California, being the largest purchaser of textbooks, is an important state, but these narratives are found in textbooks across the United States.” Samir Kalra, a senior director of HAF, affirmed that the foundation had worked directly with all the publishers except for Studies Weekly and McGraw Hill.
A similar influence seems to have been exercised over Pearson’s textbooks. In several instances, the textbooks used the phrase “Indus-Sarasvati Civilization” instead of the term “Indus Valley Civilization”—the phrase used in the framework, which holds the current academic consensus. “Sarasvati” refers to a river from Hindu myth, whose historical existence has not been documented in reputed scholarship. California’s framework contains no usages of the phrase “Indus-Sarasvati Civilization.”
During the adoption process, the drafted textbooks undergo an initial review by a panel of experts, followed by a final review by the IQC, which takes the review panel’s recommendations and the publishers’ responses into consideration in its decision. In its report, the review panel flagged Pearson’s mentions of the Sarasvati River and requested they be edited or removed. In one proposed edit, the report reads, “This is a subject of controversy, not settled fact. Correction: Remove mention of ‘Sarasvati’ and refer to it as ‘Indus Valley Civilization.’” In another comment, the panel was even more emphatic: “The Sarasvati River has never been proven to exist.”
Pearson doubled down in the face of this criticism, and in doing so, revealed that they had received extensive input from Hindu groups on this matter. In a hearing held at the department of education in late September, where the review panel’s suggestions were discussed, Luess Sampson-Lizotte—the vice president for product development for humanities and science at Pearson—requested that the panel’s recommendations about the Sarasvati be rejected. Sampson-Lizotte said, “We worked closely with national and local Hindu scholars to ensure that we created the highest-quality program for California students. The requested changes are supported by the Hindu American Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation, and Hindupedia.” (Hindupedia is a website that also submitted detailed feedback to the textbooks. In one edit, they claimed that a description of the caste system was a “very stereotypical and negative remark, because these rigid customs were observed only in a few parts of India in late medieval times.”)
The IQC was unmoved by Pearson’s appeal. In a report by the commission in October, they upheld all of the review panel’s requests to have references to the “Indus-Sarasvati Civilization” removed or changed to the “Indus Civilization.” Pearson subsequently revised its textbook in accordance with the commission’s directions.
While the IQC may have been successful at removing the term “Indus-Sarasvati Civilization,” it retained a lot of commentary that perpetuates caste erasure, similar to the type that the Hindu groups pushed for during the framework-review process. For example, one Pearson textbook notes that the caste system
brought both costs and benefits. For instance, the system limited people’s individual freedom. The patterns of their lives were fixed at birth. However, some believe that the caste system helped India develop. They feel that it brought stability to Indian society. Indian goods became famous because caste members perfected their skills. The system also allowed different groups to follow their own beliefs.
It is difficult to imagine such apologia for oppression being peddled in a US textbook’s chapter about chattel slavery or South African apartheid.
The Hindu camp has also pressured the publishers by involving them in litigation. A key player in this aspect is the group California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials, or CAPEEM, which describes itself as “a group of parents residing in the state of California” that is “deeply concerned about the indoctrination of Abrahamic religions and the negative descriptions of Hinduism in the History and Social Science textbooks of our state.” CAPEEM has been active for over a decade—in 2006, it filed a lawsuit against many members of the board of education and the department of education, alleging that the adopted history textbooks put forth “derogatory and unequal treatment of the Hindu religion.” The case ended in a settlement in 2009, with CAPEEM withdrawing the suit, but receiving $175,000 from the department of education and the board.
HAF, too, filed a suit against the state board of education in 2006. The foundation claimed that the process that the board had undergone to review textbooks for sixth-grade students was not “fair and open,” and the judge ruled in HAF’s favour.
In February last year, CAPEEM filed another lawsuit, alleging that Hinduism received “unfair and unconstitutional treatment” in the textbooks. In its press release about the complaint, CAPEEM noted that the adopted framework “devotes almost half the discussion of Hinduism to the caste system, which it portrays as a supposed Hindu religious belief.” Last year, the board of education moved a motion before a California court to dismiss the case, but the judge declined to dismiss one of four claims against the state.
Soundararajan said that the CAPEEM suit had been an effective way for the Hindu camp to apply pressure to the process. “Their goal is to basically hang the threat of litigation over this round”—the editing of the textbooks—“so that the state board of education is afraid to actually advocate on behalf of people that aren’t Hindu,” Soundararajan said. “When the publishers would ask the state of California for verification about what was happening, they wouldn’t respond.” She continued, “I think that was specifically because they don’t want any correspondence on the record saying that they may have helped in addressing the issue of caste, because they don’t want to be sued later.” While reporting this story, I reached out multiple times to several individuals affiliated with the department of education—including people on the board and in the IQC—but never received a response.
CAPEEM and HAF’s abilities to initiate such suits, which generally involve paying handsome legal fees, point towards the steep differential in resources between the two camps. While SAHFA is a coalition of volunteer activists, HAF and HEF are both tax-exempt non-profits that receive considerable money in donations. According to HAF’s 2016 tax return, the organisation had net assets of over $3.2 million—a jump of $1 million from the previous year. HEF is not a registered non-profit, but the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh is, and HSS’s tax returns state that the organisation is “doing business as” the Hindu Education Foundation. The HSS’s 2016 tax return shows that the organisation has assets of over $3.1 million. Curiously, HEF seems to have minimal staff managing these funds—according to its 2016 return, the organisation’s only salaried staff member is Saumitra Gokhale, who supposedly works an average of 40 hours a week and makes $30,000 as a “yoga instructor.” (In an article on the website of Organiser, the RSS’s English-language mouthpiece, Gokhale is listed as a “Pracharak for America continent.” A January 2016 article in the Indian Express identifies him as the current global coordinator for the HSS).
Although Shukla and Kalra told me that HEF has also long been a major player on the California textbooks issue, it is difficult to pinpoint the on-the-ground work that the organisation has done, and who has been executing it. What is visible, though, is the organisation’s virulent digital footprint. For instance, a post on HEF’s website calls SAHFA “a fringe Hinduphobic group” that “tried to derail the textbook adoption process.” HEF also compiled a list of responses to SAHFA’s requested edits, in which it demonstrates even more fervour to whitewash caste than HAF. The list states, for example, that “The ‘caste system’ itself, as many scholars of colonialism have shown, is a product of Europe’s colonial encounter.” In response to a requested edit that would detail the fact that Dalits were “forced to do work considered impure,” HEF wrote that “the suggested edit has political overtones and also is not age appropriate for middle school children.”
HAF seems keen to hide, or at least wash its hands clean of, the fact that HEF is closely linked with the HSS. When I asked Shukla, HAF’s executive director, whether the organisation had ever worked with the HSS, she said no—and that, at the most, the HSS might have signed one of HAF’s many open letters. “We’ve worked with HEF,” she added. Kalra, the senior director, described HEF as “a community-based group” that HAF had worked with “throughout the years.” I then asked him who I should get in touch with from HEF, but he was not able to give me a single name. When I asked him whether the HSS was involved with HEF, he said, “I have no idea about that.” Shukla and Kalra seem to be either woefully ill-informed about their close partners, or intent on remaining evasive about any connections that HAF might have with the Sangh. HEF did not answer my request for an interview.
During the dispute over framework content, academics played a particularly influential role. Unified under the banner of the “South Asian Faculty Group,” many professors signed a letter that detailed the reasons why many of the edits proposed by the Hindu groups were ahistorical and ideologically motivated. A similar letter, with over 90 signatories, was submitted this year, endorsing the specific edits requested by SAHFA.
The Hindu camp, too, assembled a team of academics this year, who submitted their own letter. It was written primarily by Jeffery Long, a professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College, who has previously worked with HAF on a report about anti-Hindu bigotry online. With almost 40 signatories, Long’s letter criticised some of the textbooks for their “underlying Orientalist narrative” and their tendency to put forth “inaccurate and unfavorable comparisons of Hinduism with other religions.”
But over a lengthy Skype interview with me, Long took a far more moderate tone than that used by HAF, HEF and many others in the Hindu camp. Long said while he thought some of SAHFA’s edits were “Hinduphobic,” he also found some of them “quite reasonable”—in particular, their requests to include descriptions of caste oppression. He also criticised the Hindu camp for not engaging in productive dialogue with the opposition. “I think one thing that militates against dialogue is when any critical discussion of Hinduism or Hindu practices is immediately dismissed as Hinduphobic,” he said. “That’s not the way forward. The way to cure a problem is first to acknowledge you have a problem.”
As this controversy unfolded, other Hindu organisations also came to the fore to express that HAF and HEF did not speak for them. Sadhana, a non-profit that describes itself as a “coalition of progressive Hindus,” posted a statement announcing their solidarity with SAHFA, noting, “Sadhana rejects attempts to erase or minimize caste in accounts of Hinduism.”
Hindus for Justice, a “network of Hindu progressives across the United States,” posted a statement titled “Just Say No To Hindu Fragility.” It read, “Many Hindus aren’t thin-skinned and afraid. Many of us are able to find pride in what’s best about Hinduism, while still respecting others, acknowledging our faults, and embracing complexity.” The statement continued, “That’s why we’re proud to stand with South Asian Histories for All … We’re proud to stand on the right side of history.”
Aria Thaker is a copy editor at The Caravan.