Whose version of history will make it into California’s new textbooks is the subject of a heated debate within the South Asian American community.
Opposing groups are battling over some 30 proposed changes to the state’s history and social science framework set to be voted on later this year that may alter text about South Asian history for sixth and seventh graders, specifically certain references to “India” and “South Asia,” among others.
The state’s independent Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) will review the latest iteration of the proposed changes — which includes input from a variety of advocacy groups, community members, and scholars — at a meeting later this month.
Arguments from both sides highlight the nuances of identity history and politics in and outside of the region.
In one camp, a group of academics from a variety of disciplines — including linguistics, South Asian studies, and archaeology — known as the South Asia Faculty Group say changing references to “India” to “South Asia” is more inclusive of the shared history among countries that make up that region today, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Pakistan.
“For this reason, in some places of the curriculum framework, we have recommended use of ‘South Asia’ to more accurately reflect this shared civilizational heritage between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Kamala Visweswaran, professor of ethnic studies at University of California, San Diego, and a member of the South Asia Faculty Group, told NBC News in an email.
“The recommendations that we’ve made did not exclusively say, ‘erase India’ or the Indian sub-continent from these descriptions,” added Chris Chekuri, an associate professor of history and South Asian studies at San Francisco State University and also member of the group. “We said, ‘Let’s be more context-sensitive.’”
Not so, said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which launched the #DontEraseIndia social media campaign in April. Like-minded opponents to the changes have started a Change.org petition which has, so far, garnered over 24,000 supporters.
According to Shukla, co-opting India into the broader South Asia term would not only cause confusion among students but also promote a historically inaccurate portrayal of Indian history.
“Columbus didn’t come to the Americas looking for South Asia. Columbus came looking for India. To deny the existence of this term is a little bit nitpicking on semantics for something that is very modern,” Shukla told NBC News.
“What they’re going to do is erase any kind of memory of a civilization of continuity or existence in India, and that is discriminatory,” said Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at University of San Francisco.
“The changes the South Asia Faculty Group have pushed through are part of a way of thinking that essentially blames little school children in California for the Nazi Holocaust,” he added. (Juluri is referring to a still-debated theory about the origins of South Asians as descendants of Indo-Aryans, a highly controversial interpretation of which links Hinduism to the rise of Nazi Germany.) Juluri believes the group is promoting the notion of Indo-Aryan migration as an Orientalist myth.
“That is so absurd, I don’t even know where to begin. For me, it’s laughable that he would refer to us as Orientalist. I am constantly critiquing Orientalism in scholarship, and so is everybody in the [South Asia Faculty] Group,” Chekuri said. Chekuri sees the opposition as pushing a historical agenda that denies the region’s diverse origins. He says none of the suggested edits to the curriculum promote Indo-Aryan migration theory.
But the contentions go further. Shukla says some proposed changes that strengthen Hinduism’s ties to the caste system will reinforce negative stereotypes which could lead to Hindu students being bullied, discriminated against, and left with a sense of erasure of their identities, as some students testified to in a hearing at the California State Capitol earlier this year.
The HAF recently released a survey on bullying and bias against Hindu students, in which one third of respondents indicated they had been bullied because of their religious beliefs. In 2006, the HAF unsuccessfully sued the state to stop publication of textbooks that retained language they regarded as promoting negative stereotypes.
There is not an academic consensus, however, on whether the caste system is a social construct of the region or endemic to the Hindu religion. And some see HAF and other groups as attempting to gloss over an uncomfortable part of religious history, especially when it comes women, and minority populations like Sikhs (a religious minority), and Dalits, the population on the lowest rung of the caste system.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit-American activist, co-founder of Dalit History Month, and part of the South Asian Histories for All Coalition, believes the HAF and its allies are trying to erase a painful history of persecution and discrimination, with the bullying of Hindu students used as an excuse.
“Bullying is wrong. Racism is wrong. But the answer is not to discriminate or revise the historical facts because they make people uncomfortable,” Soundararajan told NBC News. “There never is and never has been a uniform Indian community that is solely a Hindu community. I think it’s a specious argument to say that Hindu children are getting bullied, therefore let’s change the facts of history.”
“I have empathy for every child that is bullied,” Harjit Kaur, a community development manager for the Sikh Coalition, told NBC News. The non-profit published a New York City-based survey that indicated up to 60 percent of young Sikh males who wear turbans have been harassed or abused. “[But] it’s been really offensive to the Sikh community and the Dalit community to witness some of these groups demean the origins of our faith while trying to talk about their own.”
Juluri says this isn’t so. “My own stand on it has been not to dilute or sanitize issues about caste, but they could be made a lot more precise,” he said.
Debates over what does and doesn’t make it into history textbooks is not new in California. Similar fights have been waged on issues such as including Korean women forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers during World War II, the Bataan Death March, discrimination against Sikh Americans, Armenian genocide, and the role of LGBT individuals in U.S. history, according to the California Department of Education.
“People are passionate about the way they’re portrayed in history. The effort is aimed at better informing our students, making sure they have access to the latest up-to-date historical research, and that they’re aware of contributions by some groups who may not have received appropriate recognition in the past,” Bill Ainsworth, communications director of the California Department of Education, told NBC News.
Ultimately, the matter will be left to the state. Following the IQC’s meeting this month, the State Board of Education will vote to accept or reject proposed changes to the curriculum framework in July or September.