New York: Led by hundreds of high school students, teachers, parents of Indian kids in American schools and “outraged” grandpas and grandmas, more than 20,000 people have signed off on a stinging letter protesting the recommended changes to California state textbooks from Grades VI to X that could eliminate crucial historical references to India.
Calling this the “largest civil rights movement of Indian Americans in the last 40 years” Dr Vamsee Juluri, who teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco, says the struggle here is for all Indian Americans who represent the “last remaining legally and professionally sanctioned victims of racism.”
Getting diasporans to lobby for national interests is usually hard but here is a case where the next army of millennial voters is speaking out in a country with a swiftly changing demographic. Asians and Latinos are the two fastest growing ethnic groups in the US where the share of white voters is going down year on year.
India’s diaspora, which is about 25m strong, has traditionally been a means of projecting soft power and burnishing the country’s image. Now, that cohort is stepping on the gas.
— Vamsee Juluri (@VamseeJuluri) March 19, 2016
Petitioning the California Board of Education, Juluri writes: “You seem to have been taken for a ride! You cannot seriously expect California’s educational system to be respected anywhere in the world if you go ahead with your recent decision to delete all references to “India” in middle school history lessons and replace this word with the geopolitically motivated Cold War era relic of a phrase “South Asia.” Would you presume to deny the reality of India’s existence and history, and its deep significance to Indian American students in California, simply because a few misinformed professors of ‘South Asia Studies’ wrote you a letter recommending you re-educate California’s children in this bizarre manner?”
This is not simply about Hinduism, it’s about world history textbooks and what we are teaching our 6th graders, Juluri clarifies.
The suggested changes to the framework could appear in sixth-to-tenth grade textbooks in California beginning in 2017 but the war cry is already getting heard and the education board is showing signs of backing off, says Juluri.
“Shocking”, “absurd”, “Let India be India, just like you are not changing America’s name” are the theme of thousands of responses on the online petition.
Indians on America’s west coast have long been wrangling with such “distortions” but what makes the #CaliforniaTextbooks fight to stand out is that it is the first time students are leading the charge for the Indian community’s representation in American public life and discourse.
Many parts of California — especially Silicon Valley, the 50-mile stretch between San Francisco and San Jose, are expressions of iconoclastic freedom and phenomenal productivity. Now, with a student-led movement on behalf of the Indian diaspora, Indian Americans may well have a new brag tag in the West – civil rights.
Firstpost spoke with Dr Vamsee Juluri in San Francisco. Below is the full text of the interview.
Politically, where is this coming from?
The entire argument of the South Asia faculty has been that whatever they’re doing is progressive and intellectually rigorous and is for a liberal South Asian ideal. They have been assuming this mantle and portraying all Hindu parents and students and community groups as Hindutva and extremist and revisionist. So that’s the weird thing. Politically, one would think we should be on the side of the faculty because they’re for the good stuff and the other side is fanatics. But in practice, the South Asia faculty action is very distorted and inadvertently even.
So, how do you differentiate, what is the defense against the ‘fanatics’ tag?
I’ve been following this for 10 years and been looking very closely at what people are asking for and it is very very clear that this is a huge popular uprising. This is the Indian American civil rights movement – the California textbooks. After 40 years of Indians being in America, they’ve not participated in any big Indian-American civic process — everybody comes settles down, gets a job and builds temples. But this (California textbooks) is a huge engagement with American civic life. The community is getting this act together – when it started out, there were a few small religious groups but it’s gotten a lot better in the last few years although not fully there yet. You cannot describe the changes they are asking for as fundamentalist because they are rational and reasonable. On the other side, the South Asia faculty have gone from a position of a questionable nature to complete absurdity. They have made a lot of changes that are selfself-contradictory extreme.
Their report goes into 12 pages, would you say some recommendations are more “extreme” than others?
When you say there was no India (before 1947), you are erasing an entire generation’s ability to identify with their heritage. Now, when you erase Hinduism and say there was never such a thing as Hinduism and at the same time you retain references to Hinduism and India when it comes to caste oppression, it’s bizarre, you’re crushing people into silence. So what kind of a political agenda does erasing India serve? Let me put it like this. Long term, if the legitimacy of the existence of India is denied like this…if you say that India started to exist only from 1947, I think it serves some very nefarious agendas.
Nefarious agendas…could you offer a specific example?
There was a line in the 7th grade curriculum about how just before European colonialism, India and the Muslim world experienced great prosperity. The South Asia faculty got that line changed to this – the Islamic civilization as a whole stretching from Mediterranean sea to the Indian Ocean region experienced prosperity. So what have they done? They have made it seem that before the British came, India was just a part of the Islamic civilization. They have not acknowledged the Vijayanagara empire here or the fact that India was both Hindu and Muslim at this time. So it serves a revisionist agenda where geo-politically, in 10-15 years, if this kind of thing continues, and it’s already happening, if it starts brainwashing 6th grade kids like this, people are going to start thinking there was never an India, and it also starts to revive weird partition-era arguments questioning the legitimacy of India’s independence and existence except as a “possession” of the Mughals and the British.
What is this South Asia faculty? Who are these people suggesting edits?
These are not unknown professors. They teach South Asian history or literature, post colonial studies. There are about 15 professors who have signed off on the recommended changes and the first letter was submitted under the lead name of Kamala Visveswaran — all well known scholars. Unfortunately, they are not realising that whatever their positions are in the field can and should be debated in conferences and graduate level courses and scholarly papers but to rush them into the minds of 6th grade children without considering the situation on the ground is not right – they are dismissing all push-back as fundamentalism. This is a debate that should have taken place on the sidelines of the school process well in time to have evolved into appropriate school-level recommendations.
South Asia itself is a cold war formulation – are the “scholars” confused between the geographical scope of area studies and the historical realities of large powers like ‘India’ or ‘Hindustan’?
That’s right. The term South Asia was coined out of geo-political considerations in the cold war period by the State department. In Universities, South Asia became a way of organising an inter disciplinary order for faculty in different departments working on that region. But this way of imposing South Asia and taking it back 5000 years is bizarre. Even within South Asia studies, there will be, say, a China center but nobody wants to erase their own identity — is any scholar of Chinese history going to send letters saying let’s remove the mention of China and say just East Asia?
How long has this been going on?
I first heard about this in 2005. A lot of the South Asia faculty were saying that Hindu extremists are trying to rewrite history in Sacramento. I initially took it at face value, even the Wall Street Journal was writing about it, I thought maybe these Hindu groups were talking about teaching California students that ancient India invented pushpak vimanas stuff. On closer study, I realised that they were not. It was actually the textbooks that were full of myths and old colonial fantasies full of mistakes and racist condesension towards India and Hinduism. The Hindu groups were for the most part were being respectful and asking for common sense things. Many communities face this kind of thing but they are able to cobble together strong community led movements and get it corrected.
I’m quoting from a letter you’ve appended to the petition…”Meetings were contentious, heated, outside parties jumped in and lawsuits were filed…” Who are these outside parties?
I think Bajpai and Arumuganathaswami have done the maximum work on this but they’ve been branded as right wing. In 2005, when the Hindu parents told the Department of Education that there were problems, they were initially sympathetic and happy to let Bajpai correct these things. The Board pretty much agreed to whatever Prof Bajpai recommended but at the last minute, a Harvard Sanskrit professor rebranded the whole thing as Hindutva extremists saffronising history. I am told that a lot of people were flown in to destroy Bajpai’s case.
Again, my first question…so what’s driving this?
Since I am located here within academia and I am familiar with the work of a lot of these scholars, I think their intentions are genuine and they really think that they on the side of minorities but the changes they are asking for are contradictory to their stated goals. The bigger problem is that what has happened in America as far as we Indians are concerned is that you have these far left academicians who are Marxist and subaltern studies kind of people who have been co-opted by extreme right wing forces from other politico-religious formations. So you have left wing South Asian academics doing things which serve the interests of certain other groups advancing intolerant (they think no other religion but theirs should exist) and imperialist (they think their nation’s destiny is to restore their great religion-based world empire) agendas. Otherwise, there’s no real principle or precedence to what they are doing. Nobody’s changing the name of Greece or Rome or China so why India?
Is that because we don’t push back hard enough?
Americans in general have to have some factual understanding of Indians.
Other minority communities have invested intellectually, economically, politically in changing the old colonial misrepresentaions of them. You’ll find people on mainstream TV fighting Islamophobia, a lot of studies have been done on how Arabs are portrayed in the movies, anti-Semitism. But the academicians who study India rarely do that because they think India and Hinduism are the problem. They don’t see a need to speak for India or Hindus, as a whole, as if Indians and Hindus don’t include the poor and marginalized communities in them too. If America does not understand India correctly, the last bastion standing against some violent and intolerant extremist forces that are sweeping worldwide will fall…then we’ll know how progressive South Asia studies can be!
So, what after the petition?
Two days ago, there was a meeting of the Instructional Quality Commission and what they did was to kind of acknowledge some of these changes have really upset people and they reviewed a lot of things. Several of the suggestions of replacing India with South Asia were rejected. So now, they’re going ahead with the somewhat weird situation where they’re going to use the word India but use the word South Asia in brackets next to it. So the struggle continues.The board of education has to stop getting pushed by one group of academics like this and realize that this is basically a disputed position in academia. Denying that India and Hinduism exist may be a fashionable fancy and even an aggressively dominant view in academia but then there is a growing movement consisting of other scholars who are batting for facts and commonsense here and demonstrating how self-contradictory, baseless, and far-fetched some of these majoritarian views are.
Are you saying you are in the minority?
Of course, today if we stand up and say India and Hinduism existed before 1947, people in academia shun you for it. The good thing is that in 10-20 years, it may change… it is becoming increasingly clear to many in the scholarly community that the currently dominant “South Asia studies canon” is just a rehashed version of 19th century German Indology that distorted the entire history of India and came up with this formula that Germans and Indians sort of had the same ancestry called the Aryans. The whole edifice of South Asia studies resistance to questioning Aryan stuff in Indian history lessons is just that. The South Asia studies dogma thinks Hinduism as it exists is Hindu nationalism/extremism! But the real question for scholars to explore now is: is South Asia studies as it exists now really just a reinvented form of colonial orientalism?
How palpable is Indophobia?
Indophobia is a systematic intellectual distortion in history books and in the media, I don’t mean it at a personal level. It’s not open like anti-black racism in the 50’s or even something seen palpably in everyday life perhaps in most parts of the United States. But it is real, and it will have consequences if left unaddressed for India and for the world. So one of the course corrections I am trying to do for the textbooks movement is in making it engage with not just Hinduphobia but Indophobia too, for this is something that concerns all Indians and not just Hindus. The textbook movement started out with a religion focus I think not necessarily because Hindus spearheading it wanted to exclude others, but simply because of the perceived way in which American society responds to minority/immigrant identities better if it is framed as “religion” rather than as nationality perhaps. But one thing should be clear to everyone following this, and perhaps getting misled by all the old news stories they may find about “religious extremism” and such. This is not a religion studies curriculum we are talking about, but world history, and India’s place in it. It concerns all Indians and Indian-origin people around the world now.
(The article was originally published in firstpost.com)