educational politics

Last hearing today: Should the word 'Dalit' be used in California textbooks?

Also being debated: should the region be called India or South Asia?

The California State Board of Education will on Thursday begin its final public hearing for its periodic revision of the state’s curriculum framework.

At stake is the word “Dalit”, which the board had removed on the recommendation of Hindu groups during the first round of edits when the process began at the end of 2015. Also up for debate is whether the geographical region around India should be called India or South Asia in school textbooks.

The reason these edits are so important is because other US states use California’s curriculum framework as the basis for their own, said Abdullah Momin of the Indian American Muslim Council, a member of the South Asia Histories for All Coalition. These edits will then go on beyond just California’s school children.

“It is not the purpose of history to bolster or diminish any community,” Momin said. “History in its totality is never black or white. These edits don’t even have a mention of the word ‘Dalit’.”

This review process has been hotly debated online and offline. Hindu groups led the charge for India with a coordinated PR campaign publicising #DontEraseIndia on social media.

The South Asia Histories For All Coalition, a grassroots group of people of several castes, faiths and nationalities of South Asian origin, however, has hit back to expose what they call the inherent casteism of other edits that have been hidden by the furore over naming India.

Dalit history denied

For the coalition, the scuffle over geographical names pales in comparison to the far larger issue of erasures of entire identities and religions. Their concerns include edits that deny or smoothen over caste discrimination, attempt to subsume religions such as Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism into the larger umbrella of Hinduism, and which position Muslims and Christians as barbaric and violent invaders.

One of the earliest edits at the first round of consultations was the removal of the word “Dalit”, in response to a recommendation by the Uberoi Foundation, a religious research group, that said the term was a “20th-century political term […] which encompasses a much larger group in which true Untouchables are a small minority. Dalit is not a term from Sanskrit, nor from Hindu social history, but a contemporary political construct to gain leverage mostly in elections and for economic concessions.”

The Uberoi Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

The Hindu American Foundation, on the other hand, removed the word “Untouchable” in its proposed edit and instead veered into an elaboration on the four varnas. For its part, even though it does not deny the existence of caste, it does not believe caste has origins in Hinduism.

“We believe that the historical and current day atrocity of caste-based discrimination should be taught to students in order to teach important lessons about social problems and social justice,” wrote Suhag Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation in an email to “Where we disagree with the current framing […] is the conflating with the core teachings of Hinduism, a social evil present in all religious communities in India and other countries in South Asia. We would like to see caste presented as a system that has changed over time, rather than the static system it is depicted as currently.”

The foundation makes it a point to emphasise that they do not speak for all Hindu groups. They also believe that their edits will genuinely reduce the bullying Hindu children face in American schools and have even come out with a report saying so.

But their opponents want more evidence. “My heart goes out to every child that is bullied,” said Harjit Kaur of the Sikh Coalition, a member of the coalition. “A majority of Sikh students also face bullying. I just don’t think the Hindu American Foundation has produced any evidence that bullying is linked to the mention of caste.”

The foundation's contention that the caste system is not scripturally related to Hinduism but is a social structure endemic to India was hotly contested by other Hindu groups in 2010 when it issued a report making this claim.

Not only do these edits deny the history and reality of Dalits by suggesting that the caste system and the violent discrimination associated with it was a matter of choice not birth, the coalition argues, it also then denies them the story of their successful challenges to the system.

“It is tempting to think that surely if they know the facts they would think the opposite,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan a co-founder of the Dalit History Month Project, which is a member of the coalition. “But this is not about facts, it’s about ideology. They are making very sophisticated choices for which messages will work for which audience. There is a lot of strategy in this.”

Seeking online support

After the commission rejected several changes suggested by Hindu groups at the first round of review, the Hindu American Foundation turned to social media. They led their campaign with the hashtag #DontEraseIndia and asked students to give testimonies about having been bullied in school.

The campaign said that proposed edits in textbooks would replace India with South Asia for good, leading to the implication that India did not exist as an entity before its partition. The South Asia Faculty Group’s edits do ask for India to be replaced with South Asia, but only in 24 of 93 such instances, where using the term might lead to confusion for South Asian students coming from countries other than India. They have left three quarters of the mentions of India unchallenged.

“From a perspective of identity, not only scholars, but Hindus, and most Indians, identify with the culture, varying practices, and philosophies of the Vedic period as the earliest forms or foundation of their culture, traditions, and beliefs, or at the very least, the heritage of their ancestors and country,” wrote Shukla. “In contrast, other South Asian countries do not. […] Pakistan was founded on the explicit premise that it shared greater connections with the culture, history, and belief systems of countries in the “Islamic world,” rather than with those of ancient India and Hinduism, and it is therefore unfair to force this historical self-definition on Pakistanis.”

In response, the South Asia Histories For All Coalition also stepped up their social media campaign by turning the attention to casteist edits, which has led to widespread media coverage of their demands.

“Even in 2006, there were Dalit voices speaking against the proposed edits, but they were not heard,” said Soundararajan. “Now with social networking, we can break through that media wall.”

One of the images widely circulated by them were slides from a Hindu American Foundation presentation explaining the difference between varna and jati, which eventually forced the Hindu American Foundation to step back and claim that they had been misrepresented with an old version of the presentation. They posted instead a newer version of these slides in their defence. Many of the slides are identical in content.

Both presentations make the same point that rigid birth-based jatis did not have scriptural backing, which is what was called out on social media.

Image credit: Hindu American Foundation
Image credit: Hindu American Foundation
Image credit: Hindu American Foundation
Image credit: Hindu American Foundation

Edit history

This is the second time there has been a disagreement between various South Asian groups on what children in California are taught. In 2006, when the History and Social Science textbooks of the grade six came up for review, several organisations attempted to push edits focussed largely on a Vedic Hinduism that denied the caste system.

When the state board rejected the proposed edits that would erase caste identities, the Hindu American Foundation sued the board for keeping the process closed. The court ruled that the board would have to open its textbook edit process but that the previous edits stood nonetheless.

This time, it is the entire curriculum framework, from grades one through 12.

The debate has become ugly. Kaur said that she had been called a Khalistani for objecting to revisions to the framework that suggested Sikhism was not a reaction to Brahminical power and instead a reaction to the Mughals.

“This argument is very demeaning to us,” Kaur said. “I was born and raised in the United States. I love my Sikh faith and I am very Punjabi. Their edits run a lot deeper than just textbook edits. They want to usurp Sikhs back into Hinduism.”

According to Shukla, while caste is indeed a problem, textbooks are not the place for it.

"India needs to sort out its caste problem – all dimensions of it including legal, political, reservations, and violence," said Shukla. "However, those debates do not need to be brought to the U.S., and definitely not 6th and 7th grade classrooms in America."

Countered Soundararajan: “By sanitising history, you’re not giving children the tools to deal with the world that they live in, instead of the world that they want. If you don’t teach them the history of these struggles, then you’re also not teaching them that there is a way out and that history is something that we can change.”

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