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
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
"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
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. …