If you are a teacher, school official, or perhaps even a student or parent in California, you have probably heard about the controversy that has raged for a decade about how India and Hinduism are depicted in California's History lessons.
You have probably seen two very different aspects to the whole debate. On the one hand, you might recall the faces of anguished parents and children coming to testify before officials in Sacramento year after year about how demeaning, discriminatory, and inaccurate the depictions of their identity and culture is in the books (watch some of these children's testimonials on this video here).
On the other hand, you have probably heard something very different too; that the demands for changing these depictions is part of some sinister campaign to offer a "revisionist" history of India by "Hindu Nationalist" groups. You might have seen phrases like "Hindu extremist" and "Hindu fundamentalist" being used, and allusions to various notorious instances of other religious fundamentalist groups eradicating science and truth from the curriculum from around the country and the world.
Let us examine some of these alleged "Hindu fundamentalist-extremist-revisionist" changes being sought in middle school history lessons:
1) Are Hindus asking that California should teach middle school children that the world was created by Lord Brahma?
2) Are Hindus asking that history lessons should say that Hindus are God's chosen people and the non-Hindu groups are inferior?
3) Are Hindus insisting that California give special treatment to Hindus and say only nice things about them and then say harsh things about other religions?
Are they really pushing some kind of unscientific, fundamentalist, supremacist, agenda into California schools?
I have been following the controversy for ten years now, and the answer to these questions is clearly "none of the above."
What exactly then are many diverse organizations, parents, and scholars asking for? Having read through most of the requests considered (and almost entirely rejected) by the Instructional Quality Commission in its recently concluded review of the History Social Science Frameworks draft, I can say that there are only three broad types of requests (you can examine several edits proposed by Hindu groups and parents in the document linked in this paragraph; the India/Hinduism parts start around edit number 2400):
1) Can you stop perpetuating the colonial-era myth about Hindus being the invaders of India and at least note that the Aryan Invasion Theory is no longer accepted as uncontested truth?
2) Can you stop ignoring several millennia of Indian and Hindu history, thought, philosophy, art, architecture, astronomy, math, science, yoga, Ayurveda, statesmanship, ethics, and cultural expression and can you stop carrying on with your condescending, colonial-era fancy of the sort that deems all non-European people as having no agency and accomplishments at all?
3) And can you please stop singling out California's Hindu children for condemnation as somehow being innately casteist and sexist because of their very identity while the role of other religions in worldwide genocide and imperialist is sanitized?
If you are wondering why something so straightforward has become so complicated, it is because of one of the most vexing and bizarre town-gown problems in recent times. A group of South Asia Studies professors continue to think that none of the above concerns are valid, and an entire mass movement of parents, students, and scholars that has lasted one whole decade now is nothing more than a Hindu nationalist "revisionist" conspiracy. What, specifically, do the professors say (read all their submissions and other documents here)?
1) They say that it is true no scholar takes the Aryan Invasion theory any more, but they still stand dogmatically by something called the Aryan Migration Theory (not even allowing a mention of reasonable scholarly challenges to it). So, by implication, Hinduism sort of isn't Indian, and "migrated" into India and sort of "colonized" everything (the tone of the History Social Science Framework narrative as it is now).
2) They say it's revisionism and an injustice to India's marginalized communities and women to change any references to how caste and gender are depicted in the curriculum, even if these references aren't exactly precise, and even if these changes might actually help elevate the role of lower castes and women in India's past!
3) They say Hinduism wasn't really an organized religion till the 13th century and is probably not an organized religion even now. So they have recommended, and the commission has accepted, that Hinduism in ancient times will be referred to henceforth as "religion of ancient India." (But even though they say Hinduism didn't really exist, they will reject any changes that suggest that caste wasn't rooted in religion).
4) Finally, and this is a somewhat startling bold and new position, they say that India didn't really exist before 1947, so they prefer to have students use the phrase "South Asia" for lessons about India before that time. So the lesson on Ancient India will now be called Ancient South Asia (except when they read about Hinduism in ancient South Asia now it won't be called Hinduism but religion of ancient India).
It is not my intent to make my colleagues' positions seem more absurd than they are. But even after acknowledging their good intentions of fighting revisionism, it does seem that they, and the commission which has accepted 62 changes to the History Social Science Framework from them, 36 of which simply have to do with eliminating India are about to create a long nightmare of endless absurdity in California's history classrooms.
Who is being revisionist here? A community trying to fight off colonial-era myths about it being taught as fact and history, or a group of scholars deploying the privilege of their positions to assert a dogmatic theory about India never having existed before 1947 over children?
Another cruel irony here is that despite all their uninformed slandering of the Hindu school children, parents, scholars and volunteer-activists as Hindu nationalists and revisionists, and despite all their claims that they are doing this for the sake of "lower caste" groups, the South Asia scholars' campaign has left us with some very unpleasant losses as far as the representation of lower-castes and women actually go!
For example, the names of Valmiki and Vyasa; the two names every Indian school child knows as the authors of the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha, respectively, will be deleted because the line had noted they were not Brahmins by birth and that would have contradicted the South Asia scholars' beliefs about the role of caste and birth (see edits 2482 and 2511 here). The scholars, it appears, would rather lose the chance for thousands of children to learn that the two greatest epics of Indian civilization were written by people born into lower-caste all in the name of empowering them.
And it may be noted that this, and several such changes about expanding the representation of lower castes and women in the lessons, were actually made by supposed Hindu nationalist organizations!
All the facts in this situation suggest that there is a very basic misreading of positions by a part of the field of South Asia Studies today. For them, it is not really any extremist, supremacist, or fundamentalist claim that makes someone an extremist or "Hindu nationalist" but just the mere act of subscribing to the fact of the existence of India and Hinduism!
Why are the South Asian Scholars out of touch, despite their learnedness, with reality? One reason is that they have failed to engage critically with the way they have been dealing with questions of power and identity. They study orientalism and colonialism when it comes to the past, but when it comes to the present, they do not try to see how much a long-colonized people can still be suffering from its legacies. They do not see a need to fight orientalism in their own academic paradigms, rooted in the privileged halls of Western academia, and crushing the hopes and dreams of a postcolonial people in a minority situation again and again. Instead, they fantasize that somehow Hindus are the colonizers and orientalists, and set out to destroy every little bit of goodness we struggle to still keep alive in this world.
(Please see and sign the petition against the removal of India which has been signed now by over 17,000 people in less than five days, here)