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India or South Asia?
THE WRITTEN WORD

Hindu groups in California oppose the proposed revisions to school textbooks

By Itika Sharma Punit

This post has been updated.

Hindu groups in California are up in arms against suggested revisions to the state’s school textbooks.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a non-profit advocacy group of the Hindu American community, says the suggested revisions to public school textbooks in California reinforce cultural stereotypes and historical inaccuracies.

California reviews its textbooks and teacher guidelines every six years, with this year being a year of review. The state education board is scheduled to issue a final draft of the guidelines for changes in May. As the date nears, HAF has been making its protest louder. On April 6, the organization launched a social media campaign, #DontEraseIndia, urging “correction of inaccuracies.”

“People are passionate about the way they are portrayed in history. We welcome that and invite them to participate in the lengthy public comment and review process,” Bill Ainsworth, communications director at the California department of education said in an email. Past reviews have sparked spirited debates, Ainsworth noted, citing discussions surrounding the so-called “comfort women” in World War II, the role of LGBT Americans in California history, the Armenian genocide, and the discrimination faced by Sikh Americans.

South Asia or India

Hindu groups such as HAF  have particularly opposed a proposed suggestion to replace “India” with “South Asia” in textbooks. The group of South Asian faculty contracted to review the textbooks has suggested replacing India with South Asia at various places in the Californian text framework. For example:

Current text: In this unit students learn about ancient societies in India.

Suggested change: In this unit students learn about ancient societies in South Asia.

Or

Current text: A flourishing urban civilization developed in India from as early as 3300 BCE along the Indus River.

Suggested change: A flourishing urban civilization developed in South Asia from as early as 3300 BCE along the Indus River.

Or

Current text: Along the northern edge of the agricultural regions of China, India, Persia and Rome, in the steppe grasslands, pastoral nomad societies moved east and west.

Suggested change: Along the northern edge of the agricultural regions of China, South Asia, Persia and Rome, in the steppe grasslands, pastoral nomad societies moved east and west.

The reason behind these suggestions is that certain parts referred to as ancient India are now in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, according to the South Asian faculty (pdf).

Hindu groups have also opposed certain depictions of Hinduism and related beliefs. For instance, South Asian faculty has proposed to remove a reference to river Saraswati—a river mentioned in ancient Indian texts and believed to have disappeared around 4,000 years ago.

The river is considered holy by many Hindus. Soon after the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in India in May 2014, they launched efforts to trace Saraswati. Several states in India are trying to find and establish the existence of the perhaps mythical river.

Objections from Hindu groups are also targeted at proposed edits like removing the mention of Hinduism’s acceptance of religious diversity, removing mentions of contributions of Hindu sages of non-Brahmin backgrounds, and linking Hinduism with caste.

Political agendas

In a February 2006 cover story, Siliconeer, a monthly magazine for south Asians on the west coast, said the changes in curriculum that HAF was pushing for reflected “chauvinistic political agendas, seeking to equate the history of India with the history of Hinduism, and the living, diverse religion of Hinduism with a Brahmanical, Vedic religion frozen in time for thousands of years.”

The magazine also said that HAF was a front organisation of the Hindu fundamentalist and hardline group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. HAF has denied any such connection.

Several south Asian scholars have also raised concerns about the motives of these Hindu groups.

In a letter (pdf) to the California board of education in November 2005, Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, said the demands by Hindu groups were politically motivated. Witzel’s letter represented four dozen scholars.

“The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their areas of expertise,” Witzel said. “There are ill-concealed political agendas behind these views that are well-known to researchers and tens of millions of non-Hindu Indians, who are routinely discriminated against by these groups.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that in his letter to the California education board, Michael Witzel had said that Hindu groups are trying to wipe away the history of caste apartheid in India. However, the Hindu caste system was not mentioned in his letter. The text has been modified accordingly.