India History Spat Hits U.S.
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 U.S. 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."
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 U.S.-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.
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