A coalition of 24 organizations representing several South Asian cultures clashed with Indian American organizations representing traditional Hindu values at a May 19 hearing in Sacramento, Calif., before the Instructional Quality Commission, which is aiming to determine how India and the Indian subcontinent should be portrayed in the state’s elementary school textbooks.
The IQC — an advisory body to the California State Board of Education — has been grappling with the issue for over a year, sorting through differing missives from the Hindu American Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation, which contrast widely with views from the coalition, known as South Asian Histories For All and the South Asian Faculty Group, which represents academicians immersed in South Asian studies at universities across the state.
After the hearing, the Commission approved a new framework which will not replace mentions of India with South Asia in history and social science textbooks for pre-1947 references. It also agreed to replace the word "untouchable" with "Dalit,” as requested by many Dalits who testified during the hearing. The recommendations of the IQC will come up for final approval by the State Board of Education, at hearings on July 13-14.
One of the main issues brought up at the day-long hearing May 19 — at which more than 200 people lined up to testify — was whether India should be referred to as South Asia, and whether the Hindu caste system should be included in the texts, which will be used by 7th and 8th grade students in California’s public schools.
“To change India to South Asia is historically inaccurate and diminishes the many contributions that Indian civilization has made to history and contemporary culture in literature, science, medicine and math,” Samir Kalra, senior director and senior Human Rights Fellow at the Hindu American Foundation, told India-West.
The Indian American noted that South Asia was a relatively recent term, used primarily in the geopolitical context, and added that the Indian subcontinent has historically been referred to as India. In current context, every country in South Asia could be referred to by its current name, but historical accuracy demands that the region be known as India, stated Kalra.
A petition to the California State Board of Education, signed by several members of Scholars for People, noted: “The word ‘India’ has been in usage in some form or another from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.”
“India has existed as a civilizational presence noted by observers and travelers from around the world for well over two thousand years of recorded history. The Europeans who ruled over it for the past 400 years called it, very clearly, India, and so did its people.”
But Thomas Blom Hansen, the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies at Stanford University, told India-West that HAF’s position clearly reflects a political agenda, ironically at a time when right-wing politicians are campaigning for India to be re-named “Bharat.” He termed HAF’s position “absurd.”
“Ancient Rome is not Italy,” he said.
Hansen, a member of the South Asian Faculty Group, said the organization’s main interest was for California’s school children to be presented with information based on well-researched scholarship, rather than political agendas.
The South Asian Faculty Group had proposed the changes to textbooks so that California students would understand that the region now encompasses the countries of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Nepal. “Ancient India” or the “Indian subcontinent” could be used to more accurately define the region, said Hansen.
Another major issue debated at the hearing was how the Hindu caste system should be portrayed in California textbooks. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a cofounder of SAHFA, told India-West that Hindu American organizations are trying to erase the culture of Dalits and a history of caste-based oppression.
“Theirs is a white-washed version of history. HAF has had so much power in this process and has bullied and intimidated the IQC,” stated Soundararajan, who is a Dalit American.
The Indian American activist claimed that HAF had attempted to portray caste as a system into which Hindus opted in to in a tradition of self-governance. “That is outrageous,” said Soundararajan. “No one would self-govern themselves into picking up other people’s sh**,” she said, noting that Dalits — formerly called ‘untouchables’ — performed society’s most demeaning tasks. At the hearing, Soundararajan’s 74-year-old father publicly identified himself as a Dalit for the first time.
In an interview with The New York Times, HAF executive director Suhag Shukla noted that many school children reported being bullied after Hinduism and the caste system was discussed at their school. She stated that tying Hinduism to the caste system was unfair.
Soundararajan denounced Shukla’s statements as “nonsense,” and noted that many of those who testified at the hearing were survivors of caste-based discrimination and violence. “To link school bullying to the mentioning of caste is completely false,” she told India-West, noting that children bullying each other can be more accurately attributed to a growing xenophobic culture.
“Dalit Americans are not going to go back into the closet or have their histories erased,” said Soundararajan.
Hansen also countered Shukla’s assertion that it was unfair to tie the caste system to Hinduism, by noting that many Hindu scriptures — including the Manu Smriti — lay out the foundations for a caste-based society. “This has been a public debate for 200 years. You can’t erase it because some Indian Americans are embarrassed by it,” he said.
Kalra of HAF told India-West: “We are not trying to erase Dalit history. We have always supported the rights of Dalits to self-identify.”
However, discussion of the caste system should not be over-emphasized in the teaching of Indian culture, and should be taught in a nuanced manner which balances out the positive aspects of Hinduism and Indian civilization, said Kalra.
“Teaching about religion — without preaching — can be extremely beneficial to children’s understanding of people from different faiths,” he said. http://www.indiawest.com/news/global_indian/interfaith-coalition-clashes-with-hindu-groups-over-portrayal-of-india/article_0e8547e2-229c-11e6-ae82-6f37fc5e9633.html