The Latest in a 10-Year Battle Over How California Teaches South Asian History

By Asam Ahmad Apr 01, 2016

Update: April 5, 2016, 11:40 a.m. 

The California State Board of Education has moved the next hearing on the issue up, from May 29 to May 11 and 12.


California reviews its textbooks every six years. For more than a decade, conservative Hindu-American groups have been lobbying the California State Board of Education to change what public-school textbooks say about South Asian history.

The groups, including the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies and the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), have claimed that social science and history textbooks for middle and high school students vilify Hindu culture, are orientalist in nature and are factually inaccurate. 

But opponents say [PDF] the changes the conservative groups are lobbying for hide the subcontinent’s history of caste apartheid, gender disparity and sectarian violence.

South Asian Faculty Group, an ad hoc group of South Asian academics that opposes the changes,* won a significant victory at the latest public school board hearing on the issue on March 26. The group presented 76 of their own edits of the materials to the board. Sixty-two of them were accepted. All are being contested by the HAF and its conservative coalition. 

Samir Kalra, HAF’s senior director and human rights fellow, denies that his group is trying to promote revisionist history. "What is worrisome is that this is being framed as an attempt to whitewash history. What we should be asking is if Hinduism is being treated in the same way as other faiths. We’re striving for pluralism," writes Kalra in an April 6 e-mail to Colorlines. "We want to ensure that all California schoolchildren have a basic understanding of the state’s diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural groups and their contributions without political or ideological considerations attached."**

Why such a protracted fight? California is one of the largest textbook markets in the country. "[The conservative groups] have invested thousands of dollars into this fight," says Thenmozhi Soundarajan, an organizer with the Ambedkar Association of California and Dalit History Month who opposes the changes. "They have already won in Virginia and Texas. A win in California would mean a change to all textbooks.”

The struggle over textbooks and curricula demonstrates the ways that South Asian identity as a racial category is being contested and redefined in America. Soundarajan says that attempts at homogenizing this identity “hide the distinct violence of hierarchy that exist between castes, faiths, languages and countries.” 

Indeed, many of the textbook changes proposed by the HAF, Uberoi and DCF serve to obscure the origins of many South Asians in America. Their version of history would eliminate specific ethnic markers of the first South Asian to emigrate to the United States or rename them as “Hindu” or “Indian.”

For example, HAF suggests substituting references to Sikh culture with "Indian." Sikhs are an oppressed minority in India, and most of the first South Asians to migrate to North America were Sikh. Sikhs bore the brunt of American racism and xenophobia due to their visible marker of turbans. Sikh scholar Jaideep Singh covers the issue in a 2015 letter to the California State Board of Education: "Considering Sikhs’ overwhelming numerical dominance within migration [to America in the early 20th century], their demonization by exclusionists, and their prevalence in media depictions that focused on their racial and religious markers—turbans and prominent black beards on dark brown bodies—it is far more accurate, and important, to keep the word ‘Sikh’ in the curriculum." While the first Indian-American member of Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, was Sikh, HAF wants to describe him only as an “immigrant of Indian origin.” 

Along with blurring Sikh identity, conservative Hindu groups are also trying to delete references to the apartheid-like caste system that still structures the lives of millions of South Asians both in India and its diaspora from California textbooks. 

The caste system is “the dominant system of oppression that has shaped all of our institutions,” says Soundarajan. "Ignoring it misses the key axis of power that our identities are shaped around.”

Shiva Bajpai, a DCF leader, has gone as far as to call the caste system “beneficial.” “In every society some people are at the bottom of the economic scale,” he wrote in a paper submitted to the board. “Other societies solved this problem by enslaving people; [t]he caste system actually offered many advantages.” (The Uberoi foundation funded the paper under the auspices of its Institute for Curriculum Advancement.)

According to Kalra, HAF "strongly condemns caste discrimination" but is pushing to redefine it as a regional social system rather than a Hindu religious mandate. "Such discrimination goes against Hindu teachings. Our public comments, which were backed by numerous academics, reflected our desire to highlight caste as an Indian social practice, and not a Hindu theological one. Caste is an issue for communities of all faiths in the Indian subcontinent, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian."

(The International Dalit Solidarity Network, a Dalit group dedicated to ending caste discrimination, notes on its website that "in South Asia, caste discrimination is traditionally rooted in the Hindu caste system, according to which Dalits are considered ‘outcasts’. However, caste systems and the ensuing discrimination have spread into Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities.")

​Overall, the fight over textbooks is part of conservative Hindu groups’ strategy to fundamentally alter the way South Asian history is taught in the United States. In May 2015, UC Irvine announced an endowment worth $3.24 million that would support four chairs with the DCF and the conservative Thakkar family. But the school ended the arrangement when officials realized how many pedagogical strings were attached to the funding.

The Sikh Coalition has led resistance to the revision campaign over the years, and a loose coalition of other South Asian organizations have been active as well, including Alliance for Justice and Accountability, Ambedkar Association of California, Indian Muslim Council and the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action. Shri Ravidassia gurdwaras (places of worship) from Rio Linda, Sacramento, Fremont and Yuba City, California, have also opposed the changes.

"This is not just a California issue,” says Harjit Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s community development manager. “What happens in California will set a precedent for other states to follow. The accuracy of our history is at stake for the entire nation."

California’s State Board of Education next meets on May 29, 2016. It is expected to ratify the South Asian Faculty Group’s changes then.

Asam Ahmad is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Black Girl Dangerous, Youngist, Now and briarpatch.

*Piece has been updated for clarity. An earlier version implied that South Asian Faculty Group represented other organizations opposed to the changes at the March 26 school board hearing. It did not. 

**Colorlines contributor Asam Ahmad e-mailed Uberoi and DCF for comment and did not receive responses. In error, he did not contact HAF in advance of publication. Post-publication, Colorlines obtained and incorporated comments from a HAF representative. Colorlines also added information from the International Dalit Solidarity Network.