Controversial U.S. textbooks get nod

The California State Board of Education (SBE) on Thursday approved 10 textbooks and rejected two, taking on board several demands made by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and dismissing concerns raised by Dalit groups.

The curriculum framework and ensuing textbooks had become a subject of intense tussle among Indian American groups over questions related to the portrayal of Indian society and religions. Caste questions have been particularly contentious. Assertions in the approved textbooks include references to the Indus Valley civilisation as ‘Indus Saraswati’ civilisation; that Aryan migration to the subcontinent may not have happened at all and the varna system was “based on an individual’s natural abilities”.

The HAF, supported by a group of 38 academics led by Jeffrey D. Long, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, had sought the rejection of textbook drafts submitted by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “for adversely reflecting upon Hinduism and failing to include adequate materials about the LGBT community”. The group had demanded further changes to the drafts by other publishers such as the National Geographic, which were not approved.

SBE President Mike Kirst said the final public hearing on Thursday leading up to the approval of the drafts “was the longest in the history of the state Board,” according to EdSource portal. Around 500 people spoke on Thursday.

HAF leaders said they were happy about the outcome. “Most of our demands have been met,” said Suhag A. Shukla, executive director, HAF. Samir Kalra, HAF’s Senior Director, said the organisation had worked with most publishers who incorporated suggestions made to them. “We wanted the drafts of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to be rejected and it has been accepted,” he said.

Legal remedies

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, co-founder of South Asian Histories for All Coalition (SAHFA), and representing “caste-oppressed immigrant groups”, said the hearing on Thursday was a “systematic disenfranchisement” of Dalits. “They completely overwhelmed the process with numerical strength. We will seek legal remedies.”

She said the approved textbooks had “discriminatory content that rewrite South Asian history to be in line with Hindu nationalist fiction.”

“The approved textbooks erase the inherent, institutional and ongoing caste oppression of Dalits and religious minorities like Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs. They also erase the historical and ongoing resistance to Brahmin Hindu violence by Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and others.”

Adverse reflection

Asked to explain “adverse reflection upon Hinduism” — a complaint raised by the HAF — Ms. Shukla said: “Many of these adverse reflections are rooted in the images and captions selected for use by textbook publishers.” She said many of the drafts showed “subsequent Indic religions as an improvement upon or superior to Hinduism, and gloss over the dynamic relationships between the various Indic religions” and the HAF sought replacement of “stereotyped and exoticised images depicting Hinduism and India as poor, primitive, and dirty”.

The HAF argued that according to the the framework approved last year, “textbooks are required to explain the difference between varna and jati varna being best understood as an individual’s personality type based on gunas or inherent qualities, and jati or class which is often based on occupation or guild”.

The SBE’s approvals and rejections are based on textbook drafts as they existed on September 28, when the Instructional Quality Commission considered them. Further representations made by groups and changes promised by publishers have not been incorporated. Ms. Shukla said the HAF hoped these changes would be incorporated as well.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 2:55:53 PM |

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