The California State Board of Education (CSBE) is currently discussing a very controversial issue. In keeping with precedent, the CSBE has asked the community for suggestions in regard to the updating of school textbooks. As a result of the suggestions it received, unscientific, religious-based materials may be presented to public school children as historical facts. Unlike the recent controversies in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio, what the CSBE finds itself involved in does not concern the Christian fundamentalists and intelligent design proponents one might expect. The religious fundamentalists in this case are Hindu.
Initially, the goals of these pressure groups, known as Hindutva, seem benign and even righteous. They aim to rectify culturally biased and insensitive depictions of India and Hinduism in public school textbooks. Hindutva groups would like Hinduism - one of the world’s oldest major religions, with approximately 800 million adherents worldwide, to be treated with the same consideration and respect as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Their organizers have managed to obtain a few thousand signatures from the 1.6 million South Asians in the US for support of petitions circulated through Hindu temples across the United States.
If these reasonable changes comprised the full extent of the amendments being proposed by the Hindutva groups, there would be no controversy at all. However, many of the Hindu Americans that signed these petitions would be shocked to learn about other agendas being pushed - and the manner in which they are being pushed - by the Hindutva lobby, in their name. Some examples of outlandish published beliefs of these Hindutva groups include putting the age of the universe 155 trillion years ago, dating the first Indian civilizations to 1900 million years ago, the claim that all of modern human civilization began in India around 8000 BC, and that important cultural texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata --which depict wars between humans and the incarnations of deities -- are historical texts to be understood literally rather than as stories with moral and religious truths to impart. Other claims pretend to be science such as the citation of satellite imagery of ancient riverbeds as proof of the existence of a mighty Sarasvati river in Vedic times, and that ancient Hindu scriptures contain precise calculations of the speed of light and exact distances between planets in the solar system. The figures used in these equations were derived from totaling the number of poetic verses in scriptural texts.
This brings to mind the equally improbable claims of several Christian fundamentalist groups who believe NASA has evidence of the Earth completely stopping its rotation, corroborating the "Missing Day of Joshua" story in the Bible. Interestingly, the Hindutva lobby agenda being put forward contradicts "young earth creationism", in which Christian fundamentalists believe the origins of life on earth to be as described in the Bible and earth to be 6,000 years old. Coincidently, intelligent design and "young earth creationism" were being taught at a high school in Lebec, California, just north of Los Angeles, until public scrutiny of this effort was brought to bear last month and the school board of Lebec reversed this initiative.
The American Hindutva lobby disguises its divisive political agenda in the language of inclusion, seeming to intend only to redress historical inequities by demanding the accurate representation of Hinduism in the American classroom. This is quite ironic in that the Hindutva movement in India is predicated on the subjugation of minorities and pluralism in society. In fact, the Hindutva lobby pressuring the CSBE is very closely allied to Hindu fundamentalists in both the US and India who are trying to propagate a revisionist history in Indian classrooms and political discourse. Their parent organization in India, a group known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a distinctly fundamentalist political agenda. The RSS and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gained power from moderate secular Indians by exploiting Hindu nationalist sentiments. The RSS in particular has been involved in several high-profile incidents of religiously motivated violence over the last twenty years, as reported by the New York Times. The BJP recently lost power in national elections in 2004 after ruling for six years. The former opposition Congress party is now going to great lengths to remove the Hindutva material inserted into school textbooks while the BJP was in power. These events relate directly to the current battle in the California Board of Education. As has been demonstrated by many political organizations working to gain power in their own countries, modest political victories achieved by like-minded people in the United States translate into donations from abroad and huge political capital at home.
In 2004, many textbook changes proposed by Hindutva groups in Fairfax County, Virginia, were implemented without much outside scrutiny. Thus emboldened, these groups prepared to reapply their winning strategy in California. Tactically this made a lot of sense: it is one of the largest school systems in the country, with a large Indian (South Asian) American population, and its textbooks were up for review. The changes made in California, similar to the ones made in Texas and New York, have repercussions for school systems across the country. The publishers of school textbooks make changes based on the needs of their largest volume customers. Changes made to textbooks in the larger states filter down to those in smaller states.
When the California textbooks came up for review last summer, a former professor of history, and Hindutva lobby sympathizer, was approached by one of the Hindutva foundations and later was appointed to an expert advisory board serving the CSBE. Interestingly, he did not disclose his previous relationships to the Hindutva groups to the CSBE at the time. In a recent front-page article, it was also disclosed that one of the Hindutva lobby groups was founded by the American branch of the RSS and the other was completely owned by a sub-sectarian Hindu temple group out of Austin, Texas also tied to the American RSS group. Neither of these facts was disclosed to the CSBE either. The Hindutva agenda, full of historically inaccurate, Hindutva-centric changes -- was forwarded along quietly, again with no outside scrutiny, as successfully as the agenda had been in Virginia.
On November 5, 2005 word leaked out to the wider academic community. Our academic colleagues in this country, many of whom are Indian American, and those in India itself, strongly objected to the historical inaccuracies championed by the Hindutva lobby. Not only were the suggested revisions of the textbooks factually incorrect in many instances but there was also an attempt to explain away those aspects of traditional Indian society that are now a matter of critical concern to Indians in India. The textbook revisions whitewash the plight of women and the so called lower castes. Their history was reduced to "different" rights and education for women while the caste system was simply a division of labor. Approximately 150 scholars, specialists on South Asia from UCLA, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, The University of Florida, Cornell, Smith College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and dozens of other well-respected schools, sent a letter to Dr. Ruth Green, the president of the California State Board of Education. As the full political ramifications of the fight they found themselves involved in became clearer, the CSBE paused to reconsider their course of action. Last month, in an attempt to further understand this complex issue, the CSBE asked one of us [Michael Witzel] to debate the issue in front of a few members of the board with their in house, Hindutva leaning Curriculum Committee expert, S. Bajpai. Many of the historical inaccuracies were debunked in face-to-face debate but the CSBE put off a final decision at this time.
Our letter and actions have provoked a furious if not predictable response from the Hindutva lobby. Slurs such as "Nazi", "Hitler", "Racist", "Marxist", "Communist", "Hindu hater", "Race Traitor", "Christian missionary" and "Creationist" have been directed toward us. In light of the December 6 physical assault and beating up of University of Kansas religious studies professor, Dr. Paul Merecki, by religious fundamentalists, we have been forced to ask law enforcement to investigate death threats levied against some of us over this issue. When the political nature of their campaign was revealed, the Hindutva lobbyists based here in the United States hurriedly removed information from their websites and tried to cover up any evidence of their links to the RSS. Surely such desperate measures make their true intentions plain. We do not believe that the many Americans who signed petitions in support of these groups and causes condone them.
The Hindutva lobby will undoubtedly persist in their efforts even if they are stopped in California. The fact that there are very culturally biased and insensitive passages regarding Hinduism in many textbooks provides their alibi. The authors of these chapters are often Bachelors or Masters level scholars, with no specialized training on India, whatsoever. In order to counteract this threat to the integrity of the material taught to our children, an international council of scholars, called The Academic Indology Advisory Council, (cf. http://www.indiantruth.org/ ) has been formed; it will offer its expertise to any school boards and publishers who may call on it, as a service to the field of Indian Studies.
If, as the old saying goes, decisions are made by those who show up, we and like-minded Indian Americans are going to show up at every meeting. Hindu nationalists have a legitimate right to pursue their political agenda in India. Hindu Americans have a legitimate right to a fair and culturally sensitive representation in public school curricula. However, no one has a right to distort the truth and push their own political agendas at the expense of American school children. Why would we in the United States, implement textbook changes about India that India itself has rejected and is actively replacing?
For the Hindutva lobby to successfully implement academically irresponsible, outright false material into textbooks would be to realize "victory without honor". It would be, in fact, a dishonor to the cultural and religious heritage it claims to cherish. Based on their lack of academic integrity, scholarship, and undisclosed links to Hindu fundamentalist groups based in India, no one can trust any of the Hindutva lobby’s claims anymore. The overarching issue here is once we accept one religious group’s agenda and beliefs to be taught in the public schools, it opens the door for every other group to do the same thing. Perhaps as educators, we should stick to teaching the facts, and allow the teaching of religion to be handled by the real experts: the parents, pastors and priests.
Update: Yesterday,on Februrary 27, the Subcommittee of the California Board of Education has voted five to zero to throw out the Hindutva edits -- a final decision by the Board is expected during its meeting on March 8-10.
Romila Thapar is India’s best known historian, Prof. emeritus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi), and the first Kluge Chair (Library of Congress). Michael Witzel is Wales Prof. of Sanskrit, Harvard University
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine