India’s News 24 reports on the fight in California. (@news24tvchannel on Twitter)
India’s News 24 reports on the fight in California. (@news24tvchannel on Twitter)

It’s no surprise nowadays that teaching history is not an objective practice given who gets to write history. In California, a contentious debate has been brewing about just how to teach the history of the South Asian region fairly and accurately as the state tries to update the state’s sixth and seventh grade textbooks.

On one hand is a community of Indians and Hindu Americans who started a campaign called #DontEraseIndia. Beginning April 6, the advocacy group Hindu American Foundation (HAF) began a campaign to keep both the history of Hindu and India accurate in textbooks.

On the other hand is a group that calls itself the South Asia Faculty Textbook Committee, consisting of South Asian scholars from Stanford, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and UCLA, among others. HAF said its campaign was prompted by recent suggestions by the group in response to California Department of Education’s  (CDE) effort to update the state’s history and social science curriculum. The faculty committee presented suggestions to change mentions of “India” and replace it with “South Asia,” and mentions of “Hinduism” to be replaced with “ancient Indian religion.”

On May 17, a faculty group that favors keeping India and Hinduism in the current framework also submitted a document of recommendations to the CDE.

This debate is still ongoing and has been for almost a decade. The textbook issue at hand will culminate in a vote by the state board of education on July 13 and 14, with several reviews by the Instructional Quality Commission and public comment periods prior to the vote on May 19 and 20. The commission is the body that reviews such changes and then makes recommendations to the state Board of Education.

“India right now is undergoing … quite a few political changes. Academics here are divided how to understand not only Hinduism but also Indian history,” says Murali Balaji, HAF’s director of education and curriculum reform. “So their debates are spilling into the mainstream discourse including K-12 content. … Ideological conflicts within academia are spilling into mainstream.”

The debate mirrors similar arguments being made in India, where Hindu nationalist governments have begun overhauls of textbooks in some states. Many people, from both Indian and Hindu communities as well as scholars, take the faculty group’s suggestion as erasing the Indian civilization or heritage’s contribution to modern history.

“HAF is not opposed to the term South Asia as a geographical construct,” Balaji said. “However from a historical sense, the term India has always been used within time-specific periods … like ‘ancient India’ not the term ‘ancient South Asia.’”

Under the proposed changes, “Early Civilizations of India” would be replaced with “Early Civilizations of South Asia.”  And “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in India” would be replaced with “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in South Asia.”

Until 1947, the subcontinent itself was mainly referred to as India by way of its Persian Cognate “Hindu,” originating from the Indus river. However, the modern subcontinent does look different today following the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947. What used to be referred to as India was split into two sovereign states: the Dominion of Pakistan (later split into modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the Union of India, now being modern-day India.

“To use [‘South Asia’] in this way implies civilizational continuity between ‘Ancient South Asia’ and all of modern South Asia, which is an offense against both history and common sense,” wrote HAF’s Raman Khanna in The Aerogram. “The beliefs and culture of the Vedic people have little to do with the practices and beliefs of majorities in modern-day Pakistan or Bangladesh.”

So far, a petition to keep the term “India” has garnered nearly 25,000 signatures. Many students and faculty members have also attended the IQC meetings on these curriculum changes to publicly testify.

In a letter dated February 24 sent by the South Asia Faculty Textbook Committee in response to the petition, the group clarified that there seems to be no standardized usage across fields on whether to use the term “Ancient India,” “pre-modern South Asia,” or others. After reviewing, they said they opted to use a “context-dependent” approach when using the terms, “Ancient India,” “India,” “Indian subcontinent,” and “South Asia.”

“‘Ancient India’ is common in the source material, when discussing the Indus Valley Civilization, we believe it will cause less confusion to students to refer to the ‘Early Civilization of South Asia’ or ‘Ancient South Asia’ because much of the Indus Valley is now in modern Pakistan,” the faculty committee wrote. “Conflating ‘Ancient India’ with the modern nation-state of India deprives students from learning about the shared civilizational heritage of India and Pakistan.”

Thomas Hansen, a professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Stanford University, has butted heads with HAF for more than a decade over how Indian history is taught in California.

“Our duty is to make sure that the history is keeping with the scholarly research rather than give in to what a particular group wants,” he told the New York Times.  

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