You Goofed, LA Times: Here's the Real Deal on India in California History Textbooks

On April 1, 2016, though this was no prank at all, the LA Times published an article that tried to discredit several professors, scholars, students and parents (and 22,000 petition-supporters) who have been protesting a move by a part of the California Department of Education to change the way India is depicted in the History Social Science Frameworks (read my earlier post in HuffPost on this here).

The article, entitled, "Nobody Wants to Erase India from Textbooks. Here's the Real Deal," claims boldly that India is not being erased from California's history textbooks. All that has happened, it insists, is that a group calling itself the South Asia Faculty Textbook Committee has suggested that "in some places 'India' be replaced with South Asia' because some of the area discussed currently belongs to Pakistan." The article then goes on to quote a few paragraphs about the Indus Valley Civilization from a February 24, 2016 letter by the South Asia Faculty to the IQC (a division of the California Department of Education) about this point.

It is also important to note that the article had initially presented this letter as a "response" to a petition that I and several other scholars had initiated against the India/South Asia changes.

Of course, I had to point out, and so did several other readers on Twitter, that our petition actually started on March 18. How in the world could a February 24 letter be a response to that?

On the morning of April 2, 2016, the LA Times added a tiny correction. It noted that the February 24 letter from the South Asia Studies Faculty letter to the IQC was not a response to our March 18 petition, but it was a response to "backlash" to the suggested changes.

I pointed out, on Twitter, and also in an email to the editor Mitra Kalita on April 2nd, that the timeline was still wrong: how could there have even been a backlash when the IQC announcement about accepting the South Asia Faculty changes was made public only around March 15?

I also pointed out the more important issue here: the changes to India's depiction in the California history curriculum was not simply about Indus Valley being in Pakistan as their writer had selectively made it out to be. The decision of the IQC has been in full public view for several days now, and the links were provided on my petition too: India is indeed being "erased," in several key places in the curriculum, all the way from "ancient South Asia" (with Hinduism now being called "Ancient Indian religion") to the age of "Islamic civilization" (the new phrase to replace the earlier phrase "India and the Muslim world"). (See the complete list of changes, with Indus Valley edits marked distinctly, here).

I was informed that my email had been passed on to a colleague. When I did not hear back, I also wrote to the Reader's Representative last Monday. I did not hear back from her either. Then, one of the Hindu American advocacy groups involved with the textbooks issue for several years asked me if I wanted to join them on a phone conversation with the reporter later that week.

The reporter, Sonali Kohli, was courteous and somewhat apologetic about not having had enough time to interview me for her story last week. However, she maintained that her story (which was a report according to her and not an opinion piece as some readers had suggested to me), was accurate and did not warrant further correction. She said she would ask her editor about the possibility of a response, and when I did not hear back again in two days, I once again wrote to her and to Mitra Kalita, who suggested I write a letter to the editor. I did that too. No word as of now (Monday April 11).

As a media studies professor who has taught and written about media for two decades now, I have to admit that this level of obduracy and irresponsibility was enough to unsettle whatever optimism I have cultivated in my life about the human beings who make the media slightly better than what its political and economic structural imperatives might reduce it to. I could not teach media criticism to nearly twenty cohorts of college students eager to work in the media industry without balancing the critical perspective with some elements of hope. But after one week of finding no sign of moral responsibility at the LA Times for their lack of respect for truth, I cannot remain silent. I do not know what else to call the "logic" that has dictated such skewed reporting on issues pertaining to India and Hinduism in the U.S. news media except as Hinduphobia; not so much a personal bias perhaps, but certainly a vested and relentless silencing of alternative positions in academia and the media.

It is also telling that the South Asia Faculty whose letter is quoted in there in an attempt to discredit my colleagues and fellow petitioners, have not spoken up until now about their words being deployed in this manner by the LA Times. Did they permit this sort of selective, "time-travelling" use of their letter against their opponents? Is their silence not complicit with a big newspaper's desperate effort to try and discredit us, their colleagues in academia and interlocutors in the public sphere, for merely calling out the errors and contradictions in their position?

And their position, by the way, is not the aporetic stuff of some rarefied wine and cheese conversation, but one that will drastically affect the education and lives of thousands of children across California and in time perhaps elsewhere in the United States as well. The IQC's CHSSP committee had already accepted most of their suggestions in March, and but for the strong protest from the community and from other scholars on our petition, might not have even reconsidered them in its meeting on March 24. The issue is not yet settled, since the CDE has to make the final decision in May.

Meanwhile, it would help perhaps if all who care about truth and integrity in journalism (and in education) considered the following facts that the LA Times did not see fit to acknowledge, even in the form of a letter from me and several other scholars:

-The South Asia Faculty group submitted two letters to the IQC, in November 2015 and again in February 2016 arguing for several changes in the curriculum. Their stated position, spelled out on the top of page 12 in their November letter, was that "most references to India before 1947 should be changed to South Asia." They also asked for references to "Hinduism" to be changed to "religion of ancient India."

-A committee appointed by the Instructional Quality Commission announced in early March that it had accepted a remarkable 62 of the 76 edits suggested by the South Asia Faculty group (compared to virtually none of the changes suggested by several scholars and Hindu community groups).

-Thirty-six of these edits had to do with simply eliminating the words "India" or "Hinduism" from the curriculum. Were these simply harmless recommendations about the Indus Valley lying in Pakistan today and "South Asia" being more appropriate as the LA Times made it out to be? No. Several edits change the meaning of the lines severely and support the South Asia Studies scholars' view that there essentially was no "India" before 1947

- For example, edit 2749 by the South Asia Faculty changed the line "After 1000, Turks from Central Asia, who were recent converts to Islam, began to conquer states in Northwestern India" to "... began to expand their territory across the Indus Valley to parts of the Northern Indian plains." Is "expanding territory" really the same thing as "conquering states"? Is it not an arrogant dismissal of the lives and social institutions of India to make it seem like there was no conquest, merely an "expansion" into "plains," into empty geographical space? Terra Nullius, from postcolonial studies scholars at that.

- Another example, so flawed that the IQC actually reversed this in its March 24 meeting: edit 2781 by the South Asia Faculty changed a line about "the Muslim world... and India" having prospered to "the world of Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean region" having prospered. For the South Asia Faculty, there was no "India" independent of the "Islamic civilization" apparently.

- Edit 2814: the South Asia Faculty changed the line "the major Afroeurasian centers - China, India and the Islamic World - were too strong for Europeans to conquer" to ".. the Islamic empires and China - were too strong for Europeans to conquer."

- Now, admittedly, the word "India" was not completely erased from the curriculum. It remains in a few places. For example, the South Asia Faculty presumably forgot to change it to "ancient South Asia" when it came to edit 2502 ("Ancient Indian society formed into groups, jatis" and edit 2544 ("Ancient India was patriarchy..")

All the facts on this issue are presented on the website scholarsforpeople.org. including the two South Asia Studies faculty letters and the summary of changes accepted by the IQC in March. I hope that the media covering this story will respect their profession and the children of California that this issue ultimately concerns enough to do their work diligently from now on.

This article is also being featured in The Hoot