A committee that is entrusted with writing history books for schools in the state of California, finds itself at the center of a raging debate over how to tell the story of South Asia as it tries to update textbooks and revise curriculums. The textbook dispute has come up as the state’s Instructional Quality Commission debates a new framework for the kindergarten to 12th grade social science curriculum, an effort meant to include new research and reflect the state’s increasing diversity. The State Board of Education will vote on the final changes next month.
The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly since India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system.
It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign, and a battle of opinion pieces.
According to the Hindu American Foundation, nearly half of the 2.5 million Hindus in the United States live in California. The Hindu-American group has been particularly active in trying to shape California’s history curriculum. “The civilization that is being covered is Indian,” said Suhag Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which started the social media campaign #DontEraseIndia. “When you talk about ancient India, that’s the birthplace of Indian students,” she said.
When the committee met earlier this spring, dozens of students turned out at the State Capitol, some in tears, earnestly telling the educators that anything other than India would amount to erasing their heritage. Among other issues that has prompted criticism are: the portrayal of so-called comfort women in World War II; the Armenian genocide; and the discrimination against Sikhs in the United States.
“We have a lot of people engaged in this because we have such a vibrant, diverse state,” said Tom Adams, the deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, adding, “What we’re really trying to do here is make sure that the children of California have a curriculum that helps them understand all these groups.”
A New York Times report drew attention to “a fight that mirrors similar arguments being made in India, where Hindu nationalist governments have begun overhauls of textbooks in some states. On one side are advocates from the Hindu American Foundation, which seeks to shape the image of Hinduism in the United States. Backed by some scholars, they want the entire area under dispute to be referred to as India, reflecting what they say is the most important influence in the area. They also want the caste system to be explained as a phenomenon of the region, not as a Hindu practice — an idea that is not universally accepted in India. A group of other scholars challenge the historical accuracy of this view. They say the area should be referred to as South Asia. They also say the foundation is trying to sanitize history by wiping out any link between Hinduism and castes.
Quoting Vidhima Shetty, a high school freshman, who had stated, “The board is confusing our cultural terms with geographical terms. By removing India as a term from the textbooks this leaves Indian-American children with no ethnic or cultural identification to turn to. When we acknowledge ourselves as South Asians, us Hindus are forced to re-identify ourselves as something we are not.”
The ongoing strong fight for accuracy in history books has been described by The New York Times as “a reflection of the transformation in California’s population, where Asians, including South Asians, are the fastest-growing demographic.”