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Now, Hindu Nationalists Rewriting California Textbooks

By Angana Chatterji

08 January, 2006

The attempts of diasporic Hindu nationalist organizations in the United States to intervene in revising segments on India, Indian history, and Hinduism in 6th grade textbooks in California State schools is disturbing. On December 2, 2005, the Curriculum Commission, an advisory body to the California State Board of Education accepted 131 of the 153 revisions proposed by Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) and Vedic Foundation (VF), two groups affiliated with Hindutva, militant Hindu nationalist ideology. The edits offered by these groups were adopted amid intense lobbying and the misrepresentation that their views represent those of 'ALL HINDUS' in the diaspora. This bears testimony to the power and resources of long-distance Hindu nationalism, and its organizing capabilities in the United States.

The changes proposed by HEF, VF, and the Ad Hoc Committee, on the basis of recommendations made by Professor Shiva Bajpai, who too is affiliated with the World Association for Vedic Studies, a Hindu nationalist organization, assert a nationalistic and mythic history of India as 'social fact'. Contrary to reputable scholarship, the revisions refute the migration of Aryans, associated by historians with the emergence of Hinduism, from Central Asia into India. The revisions posit Hinduism as indigenous to India and ascribed with its origins, rendering mute the histories of adivasis (tribal, first peoples) and their subjugation by Hindus. On page 238, the Ad Hoc Committee proposed, and the Curriculum Commission accepted, that the current text, 'The Aryans created a caste system…', be replaced with: 'During Vedic times, people were divided into different social groups (varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular profession.' Such storying dissociates the caste system from Hinduism, and discounts and neutralizes the oppressive structure and politics via which the caste system was constituted. It presents the caste system as a fluid arrangement, not restricted by ancestry. On page 245, the Ad Hoc Committee proposed, and the Curriculum Commission accepted, that the current text, 'Men had many more rights than women', be replaced with: 'Men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than women. Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas were revealed.' The inequity of women's rights is legitimated and discoursed as 'different rights', invisibilizing women's subordinated role in a patriarchal society, and the Vedas posed as 'revealed' doctrines. The revisions highlight Hindutva's misogyny and bigotry, and assert a non-reflective gaze at power that justifies Hindu dominance and cultural nationalism. Their history makes Hinduism uniform, monotheistic, and monolithic, dismissing the disenfranchisement of women, dalits, adivasis, and religious minorities under centuries of Hindu ascendancy in what is today India, and therefore their ongoing struggles for justice and self-determination. What message are we sending children?

The positions taken by HEF and VF are deliberate, and consistent with the attempts of Hindutva groups toward rewriting history in India, where sectarian education campaigns undertaken by Hindu extremist groups demonize minorities through the teaching of fundamentalist curricula. The Hindu right-wing has instituted an educational network for rural and disenfranchised peoples in India, building on a mandate that validates the paramountcy of a 'Hindu worldview' and the assembling of a Hindu state. Such corruption of education incites political and social fires, cultivating a culture of hatred toward non-Hindus and those that refuse to submit to Hindutva's tyranny. Hindu nationalist organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have spearheaded this movement in India, successfully penetrating into educational systems and centralized regulatory commissions. The RSS has fashioned an institutional umbrella that has had damaging impact on education at the local level. Created by the RSS in 1977, the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan network focuses on moral, extracurricular and physical education for 'mind, body, and spirit'. The Vidya Bharati system supervises over 18,000 schools in India, with a shared curriculum across the country. The RSS has established a network of schools, such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishads, Vivekananda Kendras, Sewa Bharatis, Ekal Vidyalayas, to advance the ideological agenda of Hindu nationalism. For adivasis (referred derogatorily by Hindu nationalists as 'vanavasis' or 'forest dwellers') and dalits (erstwhile 'untouchable' castes), this ongoing reality of Hinduization forces their coercive incorporation into Brahmanical Hinduism. Hindu nationalists have utilized such educational networks as mechanisms through which to recruit and mobilize women, adivasis, and dalits in campaigns against religious minorities. The participation of Hinduized women, adivasi, and dalit communities in the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 exemplifies this pattern.

Following the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) accession to power at the centre in 1998, Hindu nationalist educators were inducted into the National Council for Education and Research Training (NCERT), the national curriculum development and review body, to make changes to school curricula. With the defeat of the BJP at the centre in 2004, processes to reverse these changes have been instated. The United States Department of State, in its International Religious Freedom reports of 2002, 2003, and 2004, stated that attempts at Hinduizing education endangered religious freedom in India. Now it appears that this same strategy is insinuating itself in California.

Hindu nationalist curricula must not masquerade as 'standard education' in California. The California State Board of Education must note that that the VF and HEF and their supporters are closely connected to Hindu nationalist organizations. The HEF, its coordinators and advisors, for example, include members of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS, the US counterpart of the RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), another key Hindutva organization. The Hindu American Foundation has threatened legal action against the California Board of Education in regard to the textbook changes. Its president, Dr. Mihir Meghani, has been a member of both the HSS and VHP-A.

Hindu nationalists in the US have been targeting Professors Michael Witzel (Harvard University), James Heitzman (UC, Davis), and Stanley Wolpert (UCLA). These scholars reviewed the edits proposed by Hindu nationalists and suggested responsible changes premised on credible histories. Mr. Gaurang Desai of the HSS derogatorily equated Professor Witzel to Hitler in speaking to the Curriculum Commission. This is ironic criticism given Hindutva's professed admiration for Hitler and the Nazi Party, as Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, an early RSS ideologue, expressed in 1938, in 'We or Our Nation Defined': ‘Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races -- the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here.’ He continued: ‘The non-Hindu people in Hindustan [homeland of Hindus] .... may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen's rights’ After being nominated Chief Minister of Gujarat in October 2001, Mr. Narendra Modi incorporated the teachings of Hindutva in his governance of Gujarat. According to a Times of India article, entitled, 'In Modi’s Gujarat, Hitler is a textbook hero', tenth grade school texts: 'present a frighteningly uncritical picture of Fascism and Nazism. The strong national pride that both these phenomena generated, the efficiency in the bureaucracy and the administration and other "achievements" are detailed, but the exterminations of Jews and atrocities against trade unionists, migrant laborers, and any section of people who did not fit into Mussolini or Hitler's definition of rightful citizen do not find mention.'

Hate mail directed at Professor Witzel has accused him of being a 'racist'. This is a despicable example of slander, and, in the name of a high moral principle, makes a mockery of the seriousness of racism. Respected and credentialed scholars such as Professor Witzel and others who served on the review panel must be judged by the merits of their scholarship. Instead, Hindu nationalists, such as Mr. Desai and Dr. Yvette Rosser, who ambiguously refers to Professor Witzel as 'a professor from Harvard University' (India-West), systematically fabricate libelous and defamatory allegations to discredit individuals, rather than engage with integrity the issues raised by those who oppose them.

Issues of racism and ethnocentrism that diasporic communities are confronted with in the United States are of critical concern and prompt us to seek curricular changes, hoping that a respectful curriculum will further facilitate a multicultural society. In proposing curricular changes, we must however make distinctions between national pride that wishes to put forward a uniform and glorifying version of history and the scholarship of history, which seeks to present the complexities within. Fiction as history does not benefit Indian-American and other California school-goers, for whom engagement with the past must facilitate a deep questioning of how things come to be, of what constitutes knowledge, of how knowledge is contested, so that the study of history informs the work of citizenship.

(The author is associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California.)









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