India, Israel Bring Their Disputes Over History Into Our Schoolbooks, and More

The debate over how India is to appear in California textbooks has to be seen against the backdrop, not only of Indian political action committees, of what is emerging as a pattern of influence exerted by Hindu nationalist groups here in the U.S. upon U.S. education.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
stack of books isolated on white background
stack of books isolated on white background

It is not uncommon for various groups to protest the way certain subjects are presented in school text books. Most recently, educational publishing giant McGraw-Hill apologized for the fact that its World Geography referred to slavery thus: "The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations." The Texas review committees did not find anything objectionable in the textbook -- it was only when people started to point out the glaring misconception that slaves somehow were equivalent to wage earners that the publisher apologized.

What is far less common, however, is when protests against the way a particular group or nation is represented jibe with similar efforts to maintain or enforce a specific historical narrative in the country in question. That is, when a nationalist narrative from abroad is imposed upon the way that nation and its people are presented for Americans. In such instances, it's not simply a matter of academic freedom, it is also a matter of Americans being brought up to understand the world in the ways politically influential groups in other nations wish to have their nation be understood. Crucially, what is being imposed upon our learning is only one version of a contested narrative, in which one group ultimately has its way, often based not on fact but on relative power.

The energy and violence that informs the controversies over whose history will be the one we know a nation by is reflected well in the headline Inside Higher Education gave one instance of textbook politics: "Textbook Destroyed."

The story goes on to explain that upon seeing the way McGraw-Hill's Global Politics: Engaging a Complex World represented the progressive loss of Palestinian land over the decades, a group of pro-Israel readers protested. McGraw-Hill said that it then submitted the work for "academic review" and found it lacking. Of course, the question is why it passed review the first time, and why a new line of thinking became so persuasive. We will likely never know. What we do know is that McGraw-Hill recalled all copies in circulation, destroyed them, and ceased publication. End of that particular story, but not of the phenomenon of nationalist narratives being ideologically insinuated into U.S. school books.

Currently, this issue is being manifested in an international controversy over language and terminology, not maps. Some groups of Hindu nationalists are incensed over the recommendation of a group of scholars that the term "South Asia" be used to describe the shared heritage of the Indus Valley civilization between India, Paksitan and Afghanistan.

The controversy centers upon the recommendation by the South Asia Faculty Textbook Committee, which includes South Asian scholars from Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia University and others, asserts that:

...while 'Ancient India' is the accepted usage among Indologists, in other fields, pre-modern South Asia is the common term of reference. Since there is no standardized usage across fields, it is difficult for us to recommend a single standard term for use in the curriculum framework. After careful review, we have settled on a context dependent approach for the use of the terms, 'Ancient India,' 'India,' 'Indian subcontinent' and 'South Asia,' as we explain in the edits. The use of terms like 'Ancient India' and 'India' in the current version of the draft framework, particularly for grades 6 and 7 is at times misleading. Although 'Ancient India' is common in the source material, when discussing the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), we believe it will cause less confusion to students to refer to the "Early Civilization of South Asia or "Ancient South Asia" because much of the Indus Valley is now in modern Pakistan. Conflating "Ancient India" with the modern nation-state of India deprives students from learning about the shared civilizational heritage of India and Pakistan.

A petition being circulated ("Don't Replace "India" with "South Asia" in California History Social Science Frameworks) states in response to those recommendations:

School students in California will be forced to learn that there was never an "India" unless you act! A small group of South Asia studies faculty recently asked the California Board of Education to change the History Social Science Frameworks so that the word "India" will be removed and replaced with "South Asia." They believe that India did not exist before 1947 and want a stereotypical and concocted generalization like "South Asia" to be used for almost all discussions of Indian history before 1947.

The political content of this protest is clearly expressed in this lead paragraph. While one could write off "there was never an India" as simply rhetorical excess, corrected a few lines after by the specific "before 1947," the fact of the matter is that the language of the protest betrays its real intent -- to bypass the actual historical record and insist that "India" existed trans-historically, before actual statehood, and thus has rightful claim to indigenous status in almost a primordial fashion.

What is the effect of this politically? By arguing that the India as we know it today existed before its actual statehood, Hindu nationalist groups can make a parallel claim that the current Modi government is simply the most recent incarnation of a timeless, Hindu "tradition," implacably rooted in the land with often violent consequences for India's minority Dalit (former untouchable) communities, Muslim, and Christian communities. The petition urges the Board to "reject all the changes pushed by the South Asia faculty group that attempt to erase India and Hinduism from California's schools. Let "India" remain "India" and "Hinduism" remain "Hinduism," and respect reality at least that much."

Although the Hindu Education Foundation has been reported as a key player in the debate, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) -- which lobbies for political candidates and seeks to influence elections -- and the Uberoi Foundation have been two of the most vocal proponents of ideologically driven edits which also try to eliminate mention of caste and gender inequalities in the Framework. The HAF, whose key officers are committed Hindu nationalists, unsuccessfully suedthe California Board of Education in 2006 and lost on all substantive grounds. The "Curriculum Institute" of the Uberoi Foundation is directed by Shiva Bajpai, and an office-holder of the Dharma Civilization Foundation that unsuccessfully attempted to endow a Chair in "Dharma Studies" a UC Irvine that was rejected by its faculty for advocating a sectarian version of Hinduism.

The debate over how India is to appear in California textbooks has to be seen against the backdrop, not only of Indian political action committees, of what is emerging as a pattern of influence exerted by Hindu nationalist groups here in the U.S. upon U.S. education. In February in The Huffington Post, I blogged on how Hindu national groups attempted to dictate the way endowed professorships at the University of California at Irvine were to be filled, and how this exercise in influence was related to the suppression of dissent and opposing views on campuses in India as well.

Again, it is not unreasonable to see here the parallels to the case of the representation of Palestinian land, and Israel's claim to primordial ownership that for some rationalizes and legitimizes Israel's appropriation of that land. In this case, Israel is to "remain" Jewish. While it has long been a common belief that the mainstream media are susceptible to manipulation and profit-driven to produce "news" in immensely biased and prejudicial manners, it has been the naïve belief that school textbooks were somehow immune from such base motives and vulnerabilities. Now we see that they are not, and the ways in which external politics are shaping our worldviews in even supposedly disinterested venues demands our attention.

Popular in the Community