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[Reproduced from India West, Feb 2006]

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Religious supremacy under the garb of anti-racism

Ra Ravishankar, India West. (Op-Ed)
February 28, 2006

Institutional racism is still a reality in the US where Hindus, along with other racial and religious minorities continue to live in the midst of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Places of learning are not exempt from racism either; for instance, my university (University of Illinois) still uses a racist Native American mascot despite years of protest and strong disapproval from the Native American community (and their allies). It is therefore not at all surprising that the state textbooks in California reflect some of that bigotry and ignorance of "other" cultures. The textbooks were virtually crying out for revision, but certainly not of the kind that Hindu supremacist (Hindutva) groups like the Vedic Foundation, Hindu Education Foundation and the Hindu American Foundation envisioned. As an Indian immigrant immensely proud of my rich anti-imperialist heritage, I am appalled at the Hindutva attempts to portray the California textbook controversy as a "white versus brown" issue.

All writings of history are political, and caricatures against anyone (particularly minorities) are clearly unacceptable. Caricatures invariably demonize and vilify their subjects and/or portray them as (dispensable) lesser humans. Orientalist blinkers in California textbooks are apparent, for instance, in the description of Hanuman: "The monkey king Hanuman loved Ram so much that it is said that he is present every time the Ramayan is told. So look around--see any monkeys?" (Come to think of it, I have not seen Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary either!) However, charges of racism against Michael Witzel are inaccurate; he was standing up for historical accuracy, which is not the equivalent of caricaturing brown people. The caste system, for instance, does not caricature Hinduism; rather, it is a brutal social reality in India, and has the sanction of several of the Hindu scriptures, including the Vedas and the Bhagwad Gita. As explained in the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights' letter to the California State Board of Education, "brutalities against Dalits continue to be justified on religious grounds." Similarly, women's lower social status is a reality that is often justified on religious grounds. Indeed, as painful as it is to acknowledge these facts, it is incumbent upon those of us who have escaped such oppressions (and have in fact benefited from the various hierarchies) to publicly campaign against them. For whom much is given, isn't it only fair for a little to be asked in return?

The Hindutva groups have also claimed that Hinduism has been singled out for unfavorable treatment. This, again, is not true. As should be the case, injustice in all cultures need to be brought out into the open. Peace cannot be bought by erasing oppression from our minds but only by working for justice. Infact, the California Board of Education mandates teaching about "human rights issues (i.e. genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust)". Middle school textbooks in California currently teach about the persecution of Jews in medieval history, slavery in early African civilizations, inquisition in the dark ages and so on. The textbooks also do not shy away from discussing patriarchy in early Western civilizations.

Sample these:
(i) "[E]ven educated [Athenian] women were not considered the equals of men. They had no political rights and could not own property."
(ii) "Women in early Rome had some rights, but they did not have the same status as men. The paterfamilias controlled his wife's activities."

Given their history of violence against religious and ethnic minorities in India, it is obvious that the Hindutva groups' sudden love for minority rights is a cheap tactical ploy. Hindutva interventions in California have little to do with anti-racism and everything to do with their zeal to "invent Indian history to suit the prejudices of Hindutva" (in the words of Amartya Sen). This is evident from their attempts at erasing the history of oppression of Dalits and in setting up phony Dalit websites like dalithumanrights.com. And their denouncing of "Dalit" as a "Marxist" term only preferred by the "fifth column of Christian missionary fronts" and advocating the use of "Harijan" (a moniker rejected by the Dalits) reminds me of local white paternalism that continues to pass judgments on Native American culture and persists in using demeaning Native American imagery.

Hindutva megalomania, if it did not have such profound effects on real people, would have been so much fun. Their fantastic theories of indigenous Aryans have all been derided by the research community (for a clumsy attempt by NS Rajaram, see "Horseplay in Harappa", http://www.safarmer.com/frontline), but their fantasies continue to grow unabated. A little research reveals that the Hindutva organizations spearheading the California interventions are no different. The Hindu Education Foundation's "resources on Hinduism" page points to a website that seeks to historify the mythical Pushpak Vimana
"which could fly at the speed of thought"!  [http://www.atributetohinduism.com/Vimanas.htm]

And the Vedic Foundation claims that "Hindu religion was first revealed 111.52 trillion years ago"  -- this would mean that Hinduism is more than 8000 times as old as the universe! We cannot trust such groups to write our history, can we?

Such historification of myths no way respects Hindu religious beliefs, and if the intelligent design fiasco is any indicator, this is a sure recipe for well-deserved derision. One can understand why Hindutva ideologues keep harping on a glorified past, for how else can they whitewash Hindutva's sordid history of imperialist collaboration (and blame the "others" for all ills)? For the rest of us, however, there's a lot to be proud of in our real history, a history of standing up to the pre-eminent imperialist power of that time. History
and science belong to all of us, let's reclaim them from the forces of unreason.

The worst fallout of the Hindutva hate campaigns is yet to come. When the Hindu American Foundation denounces a Congressional resolution against Narendra Modi as
"Hinduphobic", and (Hindutva) groups claiming to represent Hindus spew venom against Dalits and non-Hindus, the day is not far off when an innocent child will ask her mother: "Mama, does Hinduism preach killing of lower caste Hindus and non-Hindus?" Let's make sure such attitudes do not gain ground.


[Ra Ravishankar is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ]
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