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Sikhs, Hindus Protest Curriculum Changes in California Textbooks

Courtesy: C.J.S. WALLIA

India-West, Dec. 2, 2005

Photo: Romila Thapar

Some Hindu and Sikh activists in the U.S., who have been trying in recent months to persuade the California Board of Education to adopt curriculum revisions in textbooks for elementary and middle school students, say they are unhappy over the direction their efforts seem to have taken while on the home stretch.

A clutch of academics and historians, who have just recently joined the debate, seems to have neutralized the gains the activists believe they had made. The academics weighed in with their views Nov. 8, which collectively dismiss many of the curriculum changes suggested over the past year by individual Hindus, as well as such organizations as the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Society.

For example, one of the statements Hindu activists want deleted from a social science book is that Aryans were a 'part of a larger group of people historians refer to as the Indo-Europeans.'

The activists assert Aryans were not a race, but a term for persons of noble intellect. The academics have urged that this statement not be removed.

In that same book, Hindu activists want the statement, 'Men had many more rights than women,' 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.'

The response from the academics? 'Do not change original text.'

Writing on behalf of the academics, Michael Witzel, a Sanskrit professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., asserted that the groups proposing the changes have a hidden agenda.

'The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise,' Witzel wrote to C.B.E. president Ruth Green in the letter.

Among the 45 or so signatories to his letter are Stanley Wolpert, professor of history at U.C.L.A., and Romila Thapar, India's well-known historian.

Witzel also said that in the last two years, Indian educators themselves have 'soundly repudiated' similar revisions in Indian history textbooks suggested by Hindu groups.

The C.B.E. has included the recommendations by Witzel and other academics who have co-signed his letter, under the heading, 'Final Recommendations,' which seems to suggest that its vote later this week would more than likely favor the academics.

'I think the (December) meeting is a mere formality,' noted Princeton, N.J., resident Rajiv Malhotra, who participated in the push for reforms. 'I think the deck is stacked against Hindus,' he told India-West.

Even so, supporters and opponents of reforms are planning to show up in large numbers at the Board of Education office in Sacramento Dec. 1 and 2, when the curriculum commission is slated to vote on the suggested changes.

Supporters are hoping to make a last ditch effort to have their voices heard. They say it is crucial that the C.B.E. accepts their suggestions if students are to get a proper perspective of Indian culture and history.

'The social science and history textbooks do not give as generous a portrayal of Indian culture as they do of Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures,' asserted Malhotra, founder of Infinity Foundation, an organization that is trying to give a 'fair' portrayal of India in the U.S. 'The Board of Education needs to have a standard that should be applied to all religions.'

'There's a Euro-centric slant to what's being taught in California classrooms,' noted San Francisco Bay Area resident Mona Vijaykar to India-West. 'I'm upset that India's contribution to modern civilization is not highlighted, and presented like European civilization is.'

Vijaykar runs the 'India in Classrooms' program she launched two years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area to set right misconceptions teachers and students have about Indian history and culture.

And Prof. Onkar S. Bindra, who teaches Indian studies at the Renaissance Society, a retirement learning facility at California State University in Sacramento, complained that most of the social science and history books have no mention about the contributions Sikhs have made in their homeland or in their adopted country.

'There are 200,000 Sikhs in California, a significant enough number to deserve mention in California textbooks,' Bindra told India-West.

One reason the protests of Hindu and Sikh activists may well be brushed off by the C.B.E. is the fact that there is little sign that these demands have resonated either within the broader Indian American community in California, or the substantial number of humanities experts of Indian descent in U.S. academia.

With several hundred thousand Indian Americans in the state, none of the major community organizations has expressed any support. Witzel's letter, on the other hand, includes signatories like Harvard professor Homi Bhabha, University of Michigan professor Madhav Deshpande, in addition to Thapar, arguably one of the world's most respected experts in ancient Indian history.

Every six years, the C.B.E. meets with textbook publishers for possible revisions.

The books are then sent to all the educational institutions in the 50 counties in the state so educators and parents can offer suggestions.

The C.B.E. began the elaborate revision process about one year ago. Since then, it has been reviewing the suggested changes, including those it received at public hearings it held.

At one of those hearings in November, for nearly five hours the 13-member C.B.E. board heard members of the Hindu and Sikh communities put forth their arguments for changes. Most said they felt slighted by the materials in the textbooks.

Vijaykar told India-West that a social science textbook depicted a Hindu bride as sitting with a white sheet pulled over her head in front of a sacred fire, as if 'she was weighed down by the sheet.' And brides in India don't wear white, only widows do, she said.

'Hinduism is not treated with the same respect as Christianity or Judaism,' Dr. Mihir Meghani, president of the Hindu American Foundation, told the board. Unlike in those faiths, 'the sacred scriptures of Hinduism are referred to as legends or myths.'

Bindra, among other Sikh speakers that day, told the board that the existing textbooks will not help elementary and middle school students in identifying with and respecting the Sikh culture, something that is so important, especially after 9/11.

'Students need to know that almost everyone who wears turbans in America are Sikhs from Punjab in India, and they have nothing to do with the Taliban or Osama bin Laden,' he said.

Among the Hindu groups trying to push for curriculum changes are the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation.

Trying to get more Hindus involved in what it called the 'Curriculum Reform Initiative,' the Vedic Foundation cited a passage in one of the existing textbooks that spoke of Hanuman in a frivolous manner. The foundation pointed out that 'teachings such as these promote the rejection of a valuable spiritual and cultural tradition by Hindu youth.'

But the issue has also pitted one group of Indian Americans against some others. Leftist and political activist Angana Chatterji, who teaches at the San Francisco-based California Institute of Integral Studies, told India-West that like Witzel and his supporters, she believes that those pushing for curriculum changes in the history books are 'Hindu nationalists,' and the changes they are proposing are 'not ethical.'

For example, she said, those pushing for reforms want India to be portrayed as a former 'Hindu state.'

'I agree some parts of the curriculum require re-representation,' Chatterji said, but quickly noted: 'History isn't about how good we feel about ourselves. There's a difference between history and nationalism.'

Former deputy superintendent of the San Mateo and Foster City school districts Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who once served on a math textbook evaluation committee, felt that some of the demands of the Hindu organizations were a stretch - asking that the history textbooks say that Ram Rajya lasted for 1.8 million years, for one.

'A scientific mind is not going to accept that,' Prasad said, pointing out, however, that depicting brides in the manner described by Vijaykar needs to be corrected.

He defended the C.B.E.'s curriculum revision modus operandi as 'fair and just.'

'They are not prejudiced people,' Prasad told India-West, noting that C.B.E. members take their responsibilities very seriously because 'they realize that if they screw up in California, the rest of the nation will be screwed.'

California is the largest purchaser of textbooks and, therefore, educational publishers are careful to win approval from the C.B.E.

'The trend has always been that whatever California adopts, most of the rest of the nation adopts,' Prasad said.