The State of California reviews its textbooks every six years, but does not publish its own books, which is left to private publishers. The State Board of Education (Board), however, provides the overall curriculum framework, with the Curriculum Commission as its public advisory body. The review process is guided by the California Education Code, which, among other things, specifies that
"no instructional materials shall be adopted… which…contains:
(a) Any matter reflecting adversely upon persons because of their race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, or occupation," and
"(b) Any sectarian or denomination doctrine or propaganda contrary to law."
The public may suggest corrections to the texts during the review process, but not rewrites. This year, it was the turn of the History-Social Science books, which contain passages on ancient India and Hinduism and were put up for public comments starting April 2005.
Two Hindutva organizations, the Vedic Foundation of Austin, Texas (VF), which is closely linked to VHP, and the Hindu Education Foundation of California (HEF), a project of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (U.S. version of RSS), immediately seized the opportunity to suggest extensive rewrites of the text dealing with India, invoking part (a) of the code section cited above to argue that any negative portrayal of Hinduism reflects adversely on Hindu children’s pride in an American classroom.
Supporting their argument were a few egregious passages from the texts, which were widely circulated among Indian-Americans: e.g. "The Brahmins sometimes made fun of the Dasa and said that they spoke as if they had no noses. (Pinch your nose and see what you would sound like.)" Many parents were understandably upset about such inanity and supported the initiative to cleanse schoolbooks of stereotypes.
Most parents were not told, however, that instances of such offensive portrayals and inaccuracies (e.g. "Hindi is written with the Arabic alphabet") constituted only a tiny part of the changes sought by VF and HEF (5 to 7 out of 153 edits), and that the most offensive ones involved just one publisher.
VF and HEF’s hidden agenda, as is now clear, was to seek legitimacy for their benign view of the caste system and to breathe new life into their claims equating Harappan civilization with Vedic Aryans, with the ultimate political objective of labeling all non-Hindus as outsiders. Accordingly, they replaced most references to caste with Varna, to support the thesis that caste status was not meant to be hereditary and was instead based on "capacity to undertake a particular profession." They deleted references to the word "Dalits" as somehow irrelevant. The status of Hindu women in ancient India was cleverly wordsmithed from "men enjoyed more rights than women" to "enjoyed different rights"! Previously discredited theories that Aryans did not come from Central Asia were quickly resurrected, with the spurious claim that recent genetic research proves that Aryans are indigenous to India.
Orchestrating the VF and HEF’s campaign from behind the scenes were self-styled Hindutva historians like Dr. N.S. Rajaram, Dr. David Frawley, and Dr. S. Kalyanaraman -- none of whom, incidentally, lives in California -- whose fanciful theories and questionable research methods had found no takers among scholars of South Asia. As Prof. Vinay Lal, Associate Professor of History at UCLA recently wrote to the Board,
"As far as I am aware, the Hindu Education Foundation and Vedic Foundation and their supporters do not number among their ranks any academic specialists in Indian history or religion other than Professor Bajpai himself. It is a remarkable fact that, in a state which has perhaps the leading public research university system in the United States, these two foundations could not find a single professor of Indian history or religion within the UC system (with its ten campuses) to support their views."
And, who is Prof. Shiva G. Bajpai? Listed as a Professor of History and a Director of The Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge, he was appointed sometime in September 2005 as an advisor to the Ad-Hoc Committee formed by the Curriculum Commission to review the edits proposed by VF and HEF. He had apparently been recommended by VF as a "renowned Indologist" and was brought on board as an independent scholar. But, as it turns out, he is a founder-member of World Association for Vedic Studies (WAVES), which subscribes to many of the same views as VF and HEF and even shares some of the same advisors. Not surprisingly, he uncritically accepted most of their suggestions, despite the fact that some of them may be in violation of part (b) of the code section cited above against the introduction of sectarian doctrines and propaganda.
News of the imminent acceptance of Hindutva edits by the Curriculum Commission first reached academic circles and the broader Indian Diaspora through Prof. Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, who had previously earned the wrath of Dr. N.S. Rajaram for exposing his tall claims that he had deciphered the Indus valley inscriptions and had discovered Vedic links to the Harappan Civilization.
In an urgent letter to the Board, dated November 8, 2005, endorsed by forty-six Indologists from around the world, Prof. Witzel warned that 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 area of expertise." His position was subsequently supported by over one hundred and forty academics, many of them South Asians who had personally witnessed the NCERT fiasco in India.
In reaction to Prof. Witzel’s letter, the Board appointed a three member Content Review Panel (CRP) consisting of Prof. Witzel, Prof. James Heitzman (UC Davis), and Prof. Stanley Wolpert (UCLA) to review the edits approved by Prof. Bajpai. The CRP readily agreed that the few instances of offensive passages ought to be dropped, but, for the most part, they strongly objected to attempts by VF and HEF to distort the caste system, women’s status, and the origin of the Aryans.
Notwithstanding the CRP’s intervention, the full Curriculum Commission, under intense pressure from Hindutva supporters, voted on December 2, 2005 to accept most of the edits passed by Prof. Bajpai. The matter is now back in the hands of the Board, which has the ultimate authority to decide what goes into the textbooks, and which has appointed a five-member sub-committee to bring closure to the matter. No firm timeline has been announced.
In the mean time, following the December 2 meeting of the Curriculum Commission, many broad-based, secular groups of Indians and South Asians mobilized in support of accuracy and a scholarly approach to teaching history, and called on the Board to reject Hindutva’s narrow, sectarian vision of Hinduism and Indian history. Organizations such as Friends of South Asia (FOSA), Coalition Against Communalism (CAC), Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America (FeTNA), and numerous Dalit groups from India and the U.S. (e.g. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Dalit Shakthi Kendra, The Dalit Solidarity Forum, Dalit Sikh community from the Sacramento area, etc.) joined in an unprecedented effort to expose the Sangh Parivar’s "Trojan Horse" in California -- which they felt was using the genuine concerns of Hindu parents about stereotyping as a cover for its political/religious agenda -- and to educate Americans and Indians alike about VF and HEF’s links to extremist ideologies in India.
Since the Board meeting of January 12th, 2006, these groups have been challenging VF and HEF’s key assertion that teaching basic facts about caste and women’s status in ancient India is somehow inimical to Hindu pride. They point out that California curriculum requires coverage of the Holocaust, slavery, genocides and human rights, and that no one has argued that these topics impinge on the pride of German, White, or Turkish children in a class room. Dalits groups argue that erasing all references to them, and suggesting that caste status was based on people’s capacity, is an affront to their self respect, and must not be allowed to stand. They are particularly incensed by the assertion that they were called "untouchables" because they did dirty work, rather than the other way around, as copiously documented in the scriptures.
Until Prof. Witzel’s eleventh hour intervention, everything seemed to be going the VF and HEF way. Understandably, wide-spread mobilization by scholars and secular South Asians in the last few weeks against the Sangh Parivar’s carefully choreographed plan has caught them by surprise. And, to those who are familiar with their tactics in India, their reactions were predictable: denying outright or trying to minimize their links to RSS and VHP; labeling anyone who dares to challenge them as "Communists" and "Nazis"; and initiating vicious smear campaigns against their better-known opponents, for example, reckless attacks against Prof. Madhav Deshpande, Professor of History at University of Michigan, who had challenged them in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
A slanderous petition against Prof. Witzel, lead by Hindtuva "scholars" like Dr. N.S. Rajaram, calling on Harvard University to dismantle the Sanskrit Department, has been making the cyber rounds. In addition to numerous misstatements, the petition also includes outright fabrications, for e.g., a claim that Prof Witzel had denigrated Hindus by writing that "Indian Civilization would be a good idea." His actual post on the Indo-Eurasian research yahoogroup, which he moderates, had said: "It was forwarded to us from a Yahoo list, called ‘Indian Civilization’, which to quote Gandhi, would indeed be a good idea! Only, that little civilization but endless chauvinistic ranting is found on that Yahoo group."
The unexpected entry of Dalit groups into the debate since the January 12th Board meeting has especially rattled VF and HEF, leading to wild accusations against Dalit activists and even mockery of the very word "Dalits" by which the community chooses to call itself (similar to the self-chosen identity of African-Americans). Dr. Kalyanaraman, a key advisor to HEF, labeled attempts to create a Dalit solidarity network as a "mullah-missionary-marxist axis." Another key supporter, and a past moderator of the Indian Civilization yahoogroup, Kalavai Venkat (who chooses to call himself an "orthodox, practicing, agnostic Hindu") vented, "Is it not surprising that we are even ready to imagine merits in neo-Nazi 'Dalit' traitors but crucify honorable Hindus at the slightest pretext?" And, to top it all, supporters of VF and HEF manufactured a phony website called www.dalithumanrights.com, immediately following the January 12th Board meeting at which Dalit groups had testified, purporting to defend the Dalit viewpoint. It was, in fact, yet another Hindutva site, among many virulently anti-Christian and anti-Muslim sites maintained by the same person in Texas. Since the outing of this "Trojan Horse," the site has been cleansed of its many links to Hindutva groups.
As the fight against "saffronization" of history shifts to the diaspora, the enormous implications of the California Board’s decision upon schoolbooks in other states, as well as upon the future of History curriculum in India, is just beginning to dawn on concerned historians and teachers. But no one is willing at this point to predict what the Board might do. Regardless of the final outcome, however, one thing seems clear: the Sangh Parivar may have committed a strategic blunder in giving its opponents a major opening to alert mainstream America about its dangerous ideology -- something that even the 2002 Gujarat pogroms had failed to accomplish.
Raju Rajagopal is with the Coalition Against Communalism (CAC)