India History Spat Hits US ; California Educators Have Unleashed Debate with Textbook Revisions

Article excerpt

In the halls of Sacramento, a special commission is rewriting Indian history: debating whether Aryan invaders conquered the subcontinent, whether Brahman priests had more rights than untouchables, and even whether ancient Indians ate beef.

That this seemingly arcane Indian debate has spilled over into California's board of education is a sign of the growing political muscle of Indian immigrants and the rising American interest in Asia.

The foes - who include established historians and Hindu nationalist revisionists - are familiar to each other in India. But America may increasingly become their new battlefield as other US states follow California in rewriting their own textbooks to bone up on Asian history.

At stake, say scholars who include some of the most elite historians on India, may be a truthful picture of one of the world's emerging powers - one arrived at by academic standards of proof rather than assertions of national or religious pride.

"Some of the groups involved here are not qualified to write textbooks, they do not draw lines between myth and history," says Anu Mandavilli, an Indian doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, and activist against the Hindu right. Speaking of one of the groups, the Vedic Foundation in Austin, Texas, she adds, "On their website, they claim that Hindu civilization started 111.5 trillion years ago. That makes Hinduism billions of years older than the Big Bang." (The assertion has since been pulled from the site.)

"It would be ridiculous if it weren't so dangerous."

Revisionist debates hot in many nations

Communities use history to define themselves - their core ideals, achievements, and grudges. Small wonder, then, that history is frequently reevaluated as political pendulums shift, or as long- oppressed minority groups finally get their say. History, and efforts to revise it, have touched off recent controversies between Japan and its neighbors over its World War II past, as well as between France and its former colonies over the portrayal of imperialism.

Here in India, Hindu nationalists have pushed forcefully for revisionism after what they see as centuries of cultural domination by the British Raj and Muslim Mogul Empire.

Instigating the California debate were two US-based Hindu groups with long ties to Hindu nationalist parties in India. One, the Vedic Foundation, is a small Hindu sect that aims at simplifying Hinduism to the worship of one god, Vishnu. The other, the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), was founded in 2004 by a branch of the right-wing Indian group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

This year, as California's Board of Education commissioned and put up for review textbooks to be used in its 6th-grade classrooms, these two groups came forward with demands for substantial changes.

Textbooks did have glaring mistakes

Some of the changes were no-brainers. One section said, incorrectly, that the Hindi language is written in Arabic script. One photo caption misidentified a Muslim as a Brahman priest.

But instead of focusing on such errors, the groups took steps to add their own nationalist imprint to Indian history.

In one edit, the HEF asked the textbook publisher to change a sentence describing discrimination against women in ancient society to the following: "Men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than women."

In another edit, the HEF objected to a sentence that said that Aryan rulers had "created a caste system" in India that kept groups separated according to their jobs. The HEF asked this to be changed to the following: "During Vedic times, people were divided into different social groups (varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular profession."

The hottest debate centered on when Indian civilization began, and by whom. For the past 150 years, most historical, linguistic, and archaeological research has dated India's earliest settlements to around 2600 BC. …