The Latest Skirmish in California’s Textbooks War Reveals the Mounting Influence of Hindutva in the United States

07 February 2018
SAHFA criticised the textbooks for not complying with a set of curricular guidelines—called the “framework”—that the California board of education had finalised in May 2016. The review of the framework, too, saw a tussle involving largely the same players, and SAHFA’s camp had then come out ahead.
Courtesy South Asian Hindus for All

Early in the morning, on 9 November 2017, hundreds of people flooded the headquarters of the California department of education. They lined up in the building’s glass atrium, waiting to testify before the members of the state board of education. That day, the board was scheduled to vote on whether various new history and social-science textbooks were going to be adopted for use in California’s government-run schools. The board president reportedly stated that the hearing was “the longest in the history of the state Board of Education.”

A point of contention before the board that day was the material in these textbooks that referred to South Asia. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, an anti-caste activist who testified that day, estimated that of the roughly 500 people present, 470 were there to discuss concerns related to this material. A key concern—among others, such as the description of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the origins of Sikhism—was the representation of caste in Hinduism.

The people present, and their concerns, can be divided into two broad camps. One camp was led by South Asian Histories for All, an inter-caste, multi-faith group of activists that Soundararajan founded. SAHFA cited inaccuracies regarding caste and other issues in the textbook material, and called for a delay on the books’ approval so that they could be submitted for further editing. The other camp, which Soundararajan said greatly outnumbered SAHFA, was led by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a non-profit that claims to advocate for Hindus in the United States, and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF)—an outfit affiliated with the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh, the US-based wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. This camp, too, was heavily critical of certain parts of the textbooks, which they felt denigrated Hinduism. They did not, however, ask for the board’s decision to be delayed.

After the public hearing, the board voted to reject two of the 12 textbooks up for discussion, both published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The camp led by the HAF and HEF, which claimed to represent the Hindus in the US, had criticised the textbooks for content that was deemed derogatory to Hinduism, including a flippant question that was criticised as mocking (“How’s Your Karma Doing?”), and a photograph of cows eating trash. The board approved the rest of the books, which had been released by other well-known publishers, among them National Geographic, Pearson and McGraw Hill.

Even the textbooks that were approved, however, had at least some material that Hindu groups had called derogatory. Nevertheless, the Hindu camp celebrated the board’s decision as a victory. HAF and HEF bothposted an identical statement on their respective websites, titled “Hindu Americans Win Historic Victory in California Textbooks.” SAHFA, meanwhile, posted a press release titled “History Under Attack: New California Textbooks Fail to Protect Targeted Minorities, Cave to Hindu Nationalists.”

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

Keywords: caste California Sikhism education South Asian Americans