India history spat hits US

California educators have unleashed debate with textbook revisions.

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. And most established historical research contends that the cornerstone of Indian civilization - the practice of Hindu religion - was codified by people who came from outside India, specifically Aryan language speakers from the steppes of Central Asia.

Many Hindu nationalists are upset by the notion that Hinduism could be yet another religion, like Islam and Christianity, with foreign roots. The HEF and Vedic Foundation both lobbied hard to change the wording of California's textbooks so that Hinduism would be described as purely home grown.

"Textbooks must mention that none of the [ancient] texts, nor any Indian tradition, has a recollection of any Aryan invasion or migration," writes S. Kalyanaraman, an engineer and prominent pro-Hindu activist, in an e-mail to this reporter. He and other revisionists refer to recent studies that don't support an Aryan migration, including skeletal anthropology research that claims to show a continuity of record from Neolithic times. Such research has not convinced top Indologists to abandon the Aryan theory, however.

The final changes in California's textbooks are expected in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, mainstream academics, both in America and abroad, are setting off alarm bells.

"It was a whitewash," says Michael Witzel, a Harvard University Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, who testified before the commission in Sacramento. "The textbooks before were not very good, but at least they were more or less presentable. Now, it is completely incorrect."

Aryan invasion a British-era theory

Early proponents of the "Aryan Invasion Theory" proposed in 1850 by philologist Max Mueller may have had political agendas to justify the subjugation of the subcontinent, Mr. Witzel says, but the preponderance of evidence shows that Aryans came to India, with their horses, their chariots, and their religious beliefs, from outside.

"Unquestionably, all sides of Indian history must be repeatedly re-examined," wrote Witzel and comparative historian Steve Farmer, in an influential article in the Indian magazine Frontline in 2000. "But any massive revisions must arise from the discovery of new evidence, not from desires to boost national or sectarian pride at any cost."

On the other side of the debate, the historian Meenakshi Jain, a self-described nationalist, says that history is meant to be rewritten, depending on the perspective and needs of the present time.

"Indic civilization has been a big victim of misrepresentation and belittling of our culture," says Ms. Jain, a historian at Delhi University and author of a high school history textbook accepted by India's previous government, led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Pride has its place in history?

Like many Hindus, Jain is proud of the accomplishments of Indian history, such as the fact that three small Hindu kingdoms - Kabul, Zabul, and Sindh - were able to hold off invading Muslim armies for 400 years. She also thinks that students should learn that some of India's most famous temples were commissioned not by upper caste Hindu kings but by aboriginal tribes, who in modern times have been relegated to "backward status."

"There is no such thing as an objective history," Jain says. "So when we write a textbook, we should make students aware of the status of current research of leading scholars in the field. It should not shut out a love for motherland, a pride in your past. If you teach that your country is backward, that it has no redeeming features in our civilization, it can damage a young perspective."

But no matter which version of Indian history California adopts for its 6th graders, it is bound to aggravate someone. The Board of Education has already heard from South Indians who argued that the HEF and Vedic Foundation represent a North Indian upper-caste perspective.

"We were saying, 'These groups don't speak for us,' " says Anu Mandavilli, herself a South Indian. When groups like the Vedic Foundation try to simplify Hinduism as the worship of a single god, "they have their own agendas."

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