In California, a Debate Over History Curricula Has Brought To Fore Denials of Caste in the Indian American Community

12 April 2016
Hindu groups in California have been attempting to change the way South Asian history is depicted in school curricula. On many occasions over the past year, Indian American students testified before administrators about their dissatisfaction with the curriculum's representation of caste.

On 28 March 2016, the Hindu organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh posted a tweet to its official Twitter page: “The leftist scholars’ bid to undermine India’s glorious identity was foiled by young Hindu activists and HEF”—the Hindu Education Foundation, a US-based Hindu group–“in California, USA.” Another tweet, posted a few minutes later, added: “Congrats to Hindu activists to successfully oppose & contest the suggestion to replace 'India' by 'SouthAsia' in text books in USA.”

These messages concerned a recent meeting in Sacramento, the capital of the large US state of California. A few months earlier, in January, California’s board of education had asked the public to suggest revisions to the History-Social Science Framework, a teaching guide that outlines the social-studies curriculum for the state’s government-run schools. The Framework’s South Asia-related material proved especially controversial; over 600 of the roughly 1,500 total suggested edits pertained to the subcontinent, although well under a tenth of the Framework does. On 24 March, a crowd of about 100 people—most of them connected to South Asian communities—gathered to watch a subject-matter committee, a group of educational administrators appointed by the board of education, deliberate on the revisions.

The authors of the South Asia-related edits fell into two broad camps. The first consisted of organisations such as the RSS-lauded HEF; the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an advocacy organisation; and the Uberoi Foundation, a religious-studies group that promotes awareness of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. These groups proposed revisions to rectify what they perceive as a culturally insensitive portrayal of Hinduism. On the other side were the “leftist scholars” the RSS referenced: the South Asia Faculty Group, an interdisciplinary committee of fifteen South Asianist academics, who submitted a lengthy review of the Framework. A coalition of anti-caste activist groups supported the faculty group. Though the subject-matter committee rejected most of the Hindu groups’ changes and accepted most of the faculty group’s, its decisions are only recommendations presented to California’s board of education, which is expected to make final decisions on the edits in May.

Some of the faculty group’s approved edits suggested that certain usages of “India” be replaced with “South Asia,” mostly in pre-1947 contexts. Outcry at these changes was so fierce—thousands signed a petition against them, and protestors outside the meeting held signs reading “Did Columbus go in search of South Asia?”—that after their initial approvals, the committee retracted some of the “South Asia” revisions. Indian press coverage about the controversy hasoverwhelminglyfocussedon this point. But while this question of terminology is complex, concentrating exclusively on it overlooks many other important issues raised by the edits, such as gender roles in ancient India, the legacy of the Indus Valley civilisation, the origins of Sikhism and Buddhism, and—perhaps most pressingly—the caste system. This last dispute has brought to fore issues often neglected by much of the Indian American community: the legacy of caste oppression in India, and how to fairly depict this history of marginalisation.

For over a decade in California, Hindu advocates have sought to temper or erase the curriculum’s mentions of the caste system, arguing that their virulence reflects unfairly on Hinduism. In 2005, Hindu groups such as HEF and the Vedic Foundation submitted over 150 edits to the Framework. Some were factual corrections—an image of a Muslim man praying was captioned “A Brahmin priest,” for instance. But other revisions—such as one that suggested “castes” be replaced with “social classes”—moved many to accuse the groups of promoting a religious and political agenda. Michael Witzel, a Sanskrit professor at Harvard University, became aware of the Hindu groups’ edits soon after most of them, including the “social classes” one, had already sailed past the committee. He wrote a letter opposing the changes, got it signed by 47 academics (including heavyweights such as Homi K Bhabha and Romila Thapar), and sent it to California’s board of education, which appointed Witzel and two other scholars to re-evaluate the edits. Many of the Hindu groups’ revisions, among them the “social classes” edit, were rolled back. In 2006, HAF sued the California board of education for failing to follow a “fair and open” process. The suit was settled two years later.

Aria Thaker Aria Thaker is a copy editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: caste history diaspora California Indian-American education