India in the Textbooks

     Hindu activists are at work to rewrite high school textbooks in California.  The simple act of choosing what to say about a country as large, diverse, and ancient as India is in itself a political exercise.  Is history purely subjective (as one of the authorities in the article thinks)?  And, at what point do we need to balance pride in our cultural heritage against a real examination of the record on women’s rights and class conflict?     

      For a much better exposition of these issues in the context of American history textbooks, check out one of my favorite books ever, “Lies My Teacher Told Me”…  

     The activists in Sacramento do have a point – If memory serves, at Oviedo High School, we spent one day in world history on all of Asia (really just China, Japan, and India), and the rest of the year on Europe and the Americas.  The only three things I recall the textbooks mentioning about India were Mahatma Gandhi, the caste system, and sati – two out of three being very negative images of Hinduism.  Many of my South Asian friends have echoed the same memory. 

      But, we have to be careful of revisionist Hindu nationalists in America like the Vedic Foundation, who run a lot of groups with seemingly benign educational motives (Hindu summer camps, etc.), but provide large amounts of funding for nationalist groups in India like the VHP, RSS, and other state-by-state organizations.  I’m afraid that because of the small numbers of Indians in the U.S., these groups are wielding a disproportionate amount of representative power with school boards and other government agencies on South Asian topics, presenting a conservative and traditional vision of Hinduism and India, in contrast to a more critical retelling of our history. 

      Throughout the rewriting process, we all need to realize that it will be impossible to construct a high school textbook portrayal of India that is pleasing to everyone AND entirely correct factually – struggling further with those issues is what college is for…  


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