The Textbook Wars

Donald Trump has called the Black Lives Matter campaign “divisive,” calling instead for “unity” - echoing precisely the terminology of Hindutva advocates. No wonder the saffron brigade is so pleased with Trump.



Sometimes censorship is a collective effort. It is not always imposed top-down by an all-powerful State; it can also be the result of a concerted push by concerned citizens. And even where Indian culture is concerned, censorship is not just limited to India. Take, for example, the efforts of groups like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) to change World History textbooks in the American state of California. Of course, they wouldn’t describe their efforts as censorship; they claim they’re trying to make American textbooks more fair and equal. But at its heart, their campaign is essentially aimed at censorship.

More specifically, it’s aimed at erasing certain voices from the historical record, largely those of women and the oppressed castes. The groups are demanding that the words “Dalit” and “patriarchy” be removed from textbooks, among other changes. As if, by magically removing these words, one could also magically erase centuries of caste and gender oppression.

Perhaps you’ve heard about this controversy. It’s been going on for a long time, over a decade now, and has gotten occasional coverage in the Indian media. It reflects the ongoing divide in the American NRI community, a divide that can be gauged by the community’s reaction to Modi’s famous New York visit, with a rapturous audience inside Madison Square Garden and fiery protesters outside.

With the California textbook controversy, it’s clear who’s on the pro-Modi side.

Groups like HAF and HEF have innocuous sounding names, but they have clear links to the Sangh Parivar, and their censorship requests are fully aligned with the Hindutva campaign to rewrite the history of the subcontinent.

Their goal is to portray ancient India as a glorious, undivided utopia, whose storied civilization fell into decline only with the arrival of treacherous Muslim invaders.

At the center of this idealised history is the idea of unity: that Indian/Hindu society (the two are conflated in Hindutva rhetoric) was once a powerful, undivided whole, and that any conflict is the result of external disturbance. In a powerful booklet about the rise of the Sangh Parivar, A Mass Movement Against Democracy, the scholar Shankar Gopalakrishnan emphasizes that a forced “unity” is at the core of Hindutva ideology. According to this logic, any conflict in society is attributed to either individual confusion or ignorance or to the interference of outsiders (chiefly Muslims, Christians and Communists). Caste conflict; gender conflict: these are outright ignored, or explained away as the pernicious influence of a society infiltrated by outsiders.

It must irk groups like the HEF and HAF, then, that their main opponents in the California textbook controversy are not “outsiders,” but other Indian Americans, and especially Dalit Americans who have strong doubts about the supposedly peaceful unity of ancient (not to mention modern) India. A counter-campaign, resisting the saffronisation of American textbooks, is being run by several organisations, including South Asian Histories for All (SAHFA), a group that includes Dalits, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Ravidassias, Sikhs and progressive Hindus.

Groups like SAHFA are putting forward valuable critiques of RSS ideology, and are insistent that India’s true diversity – including its histories of repression and resistance – be portrayed. They are also going beyond the subcontinent to address other contentious issues dealt with in the California curriculum, including LGBT issues, Filipino-American history and Japanese colonialism in Korea.

This intervention is quite welcome, especially given the sad state of most history and social studies textbooks in the United States. For instance, the historian James Loewen reviewed twelve leading American History textbooks, and found that they were “an embarrassing amalgam of bland optimism, blind patriotism, and misinformation pure and simple, weighing in at an average of four-and-a-half pounds and 888 pages.” He details these findings in his insightful book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. The crux of his argument is that history textbooks are dreadfully boring because they strenuously avoid any mention of conflict and controversy, and make few connections to relevant present-day issues. One textbook author summarizes his own textbook like this: “a McDonald’s version of history – if it has any flavor, people won’t buy it.”

Loewen is particularly interested in American history, although the conclusions he draws can be applied more broadly. He finds that the textbooks take on a tone of omniscience and certainty, showing American history as continuous progress from one high point to the next. If there are any problems, tensions or conflicts, these are inevitably resolved because American civilization is so noble. There is no drama, no doubt, no shades of gray. The titles of the textbook are telling: The Great Republic, The American Way, Land of Promise, Rise of the American Nation.

In these textbooks, uncertainties are avoided precisely because they could lead to uncomfortable questions: for instance, if the United States is the land of promise, why was it built on the genocide of native Americans, and why did slavery persist for so long?

And for that matter, why is racial oppression still so prevalent in the United States now, as the Black Lives Matter campaign has highlighted?

Conservative whites have reacted to the Black Lives Matter campaign in predictable ways. For instance, Donald Trump has called it “divisive,” calling instead for “unity” – echoing precisely the terminology of Hindutva advocates. (No wonder the saffron brigade is so pleased with Trump.) Trump’s call for unity also resonates with the typical language of U.S. textbooks, which downplay any tension or conflict in their portrayal of “the American dream.” As Loewen notes, “Publishers market the [text]books as tools for helping students to ‘discover’ our ‘common beliefs’ and ‘appreciate our heritage.’” But “our heritage” is often just a codeword for “white heritage,” which means that textbooks actively alienate students of color.

Groups like HEF and HAF essentially want to rewrite American textbooks so that (upper-caste, male) Hindus can join white Americans in the pantheon of victors who preside over faultlessly united, undivided, unchanging civilizations. In opposition to this, the SAHFA vision of history is a more just one – and a more interesting one as well.


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