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Feb 17, 2006


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Letter to the California State Board of Education
from Dr. Angana Chatterji, Associate Professor, Gender, Ecology and Society Emphasis, Graduate Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, California Institute of Integral Studies.

Ms. Glee Johnson
State Board of Education
1430 “N” Street, Room 5111
Sacramento, CA 95814

Cc: Mr. Jack O’Connell, Superintendent
California Department of Education   

Cc: Dr. Thomas Adams, Director
Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division
California Department of Education

Re.: Proposed sectarian edits to California textbooks
    February 17, 2006

Dear Ms. Johnson and Members of the California State Board of Education:

I am writing to express my serious concern at the Curriculum Commission's decision to accept the recommendations proposed by the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) and the Vedic Foundation (VF), two Hindu sectarian organizations in the United States, to revise segments on India, Indian history, and Hinduism in 6th grade textbooks in California State schools.

The changes proposed by HEF, VF, and the Ad Hoc Committee of the State Board of Education, on the basis of recommendations made by Professor Shiva Bajpai, who is affiliated with the World Association for Vedic Studies, another Hindu sectarian organization, assert a mythic history of India as 'social fact'. Contrary to reputable scholarship, the revisions refute the migration of Aryans, associated by historians with the emergence of Hinduism, from Central Asia into India. The revisions posit Hinduism as indigenous to India, rendering mute the histories of adivasis (tribal, first peoples) and their subjugation by Hindus. For example, the Ad Hoc Committee proposed, and the Curriculum Commission accepted, that the current text, 'The Aryans created a caste system', be replaced with: 'During Vedic times, people were divided into different social groups (Varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular profession.' Such storying dissociates the caste system from Hinduism, discounting the oppressive structure and politics via which the caste system was constituted. It presents the caste system as a fluid arrangement whereas a more scholarly understanding of caste entails recognizing it as a Brahmanic system of social classification, where status was determined by ancestry and reinforced through religious sanctions for discrimination and violence against lower-caste groups. As numerous scholars have argued, the caste system was also aligned with the Varna (color) system, which categorized people into four groups: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra (referred to as 'dasas' or slaves). Others 'outside' the Varna system, such as Dalits, were historically considered 'untouchable'. The Ad Hoc Committee also advocated deleting mention of Dalits from the text; the Curriculum Commission agreed to their recommendation that the current text, 'In modern India, these people are now called Dalits, and treating  someone as an untouchable is a crime against the law,' be replaced with, 'In modern India, treating someone as an untouchable is a crime against the law.' This deletion silences the crucial mention of Dalits, and the staggering injustices and crimes committed against them, from Indian history.

The Ad Hoc Committee also proposed, and the Curriculum Commission accepted, that the current text, 'Men had many more rights than women', be replaced with: 'Men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than women. Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas were revealed.' In this revision, the inequity of women's rights is legitimated and characterized as 'different rights', rendering invisible women's subordinated role in a patriarchal society. Moreover, this further over emphasizes the importance of the Vedas in Hinduism by legitimizing these texts as 'revealed' doctrines. Another example of the Ad Hoc Committee’s attempt to obscure discrimination against women and their subjugation is evidenced in their recommendation that the following sentence be deleted:  'However, Hinduism also taught that women were inferior to men. As a result, Hindu women were not allowed to read the Vedas or other sacred texts.'

These revisions justify patriarchal dominance and cultural nationalism in Indian history. Hindu sectarian groups in present-day India construct a revisionist and supremacist history that condones and glorifies a militant and misogynistic society. They dismiss the deep social, economic, and political disenfranchisement of women, Dalits, adivasis, and religious minorities, along with the ongoing struggles for justice and self-determination of these communities, under centuries of Hindu ascendancy in what is today India. To teach this narrow Hindu sectarian understanding of history to 500,000 sixth graders in California cultivates the notion that supremacism within any nation is acceptable. The intervention of the HEF and VF also undermines academic freedom. It violates principles of free inquiry, interpretation and debate, and all the rigorous methods of scholarship that distinguish truth-claims, by insisting that their Hindu sectarian mythology (as history) is 'true' and all else is a 'lie'.

I am a cultural anthropologist, and my work explicitly looks at gendered, religious, and caste violence, and indigenous land rights in India in the present. Since June 2002, I have been conducting research in 62 villages in eastern India, recording the sectarian and violent activism of Hindu extremist-nationalist organizations, examining their impact across issues of caste, religion, and gender. As recently as January 2006, in my capacity as a convener of the Indian People's Tribunal, I was reminded that violence against women and disenfranchised caste and tribal peoples in India is systematically instigated by sectarian Hindu organizations, and that such violence is aided by affiliated diasporic groups in the United States.

It is imperative to note that the VF and HEF and their supporters are closely connected to these Hindu extremist organizations. The HEF, its coordinators and advisors, for example, include members of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A). The HSS is the US counterpart of the militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, National Volunteer Corps, RSS, while the VHP-A corresponds to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, World Hindu Council, VHP, the ideological nerve of Hindu supremacists in India. The Hindu American Foundation has threatened legal action against the California Board of Education in regard to the textbook changes. Its president, Dr. Mihir Meghani, has been a member of both the HSS and VHP-A.

The RSS have sought to enlist women in right-wing movements, even as the VHP have tried to revive the horrific practice of sati (widow immolation, banned since 1829), while the Shiv Sena (Mumbai-based, Army of Shiva) has extended its support for a dowry-based marriage system. The role of the RSS and VHP in the Gujarat genocide of Muslims in 2002, and their participation in ongoing violence against Christians and other minority groups, and Dalits and adivasis, has been well documented by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (these organizations will resonate with an American audience). The HEF, as per its own admission, is an 'educational project' of the RSS in India, while the VF has demonstrable ties to the VHP (see 'RSS Abroad: We are striving to keep our culture alive', Times of India, 31 December 2005).

The HEF and VF’s positions are consistent with the attempts of Hindu extremist groups to rewrite history in India to validate the paramountcy of a 'Hindu worldview' in their larger agenda to transform India from being a secular democracy to becoming a Hindu homeland. By accepting the HEF and VF's version of history in California, we will accept the mandate of Hindu supremacists. I can not emphasize enough that their success in falsifying California textbooks might well be their inroad into the American educational system and a beginning of an intense campaign to rewrite textbooks in other states.

I teach at a progressive graduate college in San Francisco, where issues of sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism that diasporic communities confront within the United States are of critical concern in my classroom. In voicing my concerns over curricular changes to California textbooks, I would contend that we must make distinctions between a national pride that wishes to put forward a uniform and glorifying version of history and the scholarship of history, which seeks to present the complexities of societies. Fiction as history does not benefit Indian-American and other California school-goers, for whom engagement with the past must facilitate a deep questioning of how things come to be, of what constitutes knowledge, and how knowledge is contested to enable the study of history to inform the work of citizenship.


Angana Chatterji
Associate Professor
Gender, Ecology, and Society Emphasis, Graduate Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology
California Institute of Integral Studies
1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California 94103

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