Hindu Nationalism and the Ongoing Fight Over US History Textbooks

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a crowd in Bhubaneswar, India. (Photo: Narendra Modi)Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a crowd in Bhubaneswar, India. (Photo: Narendra Modi)

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During his three-day visit to the US this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received thunderous applause from the US Congress, easily winning the confidence of his audience by praising and touting India’s “indispensable” partnership with the US while breezing over most issues of meaningful substance. A discussion of the increasingly inflammatory Hindu nationalist rhetoric from the Indian leader and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was conspicuously absent during the prime minister’s appearances with US legislators and with President Obama. US lawmakers appeared too busy giving Modi standing ovations to raise concerns about how Hindu nationalists are gradually pulling India toward authoritarian rule at the expense of religious minorities.

Of course, the BJP’s Hindu nationalist approach to questions of Indian identity has had its echoes in the US as well. Especially in California, a number of Hindu groups with ties to the BJP have become increasingly aggressive in their efforts to influence what is taught in US schools. Last year, the University of California at Irvine was forced to turn down a $1.5 million donation after revelations that the donor had ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extreme right-wing Hindu-centered group in India. If UC Irvine had accepted a grant emphasizing a hardline religious stance, that would have had disastrous consequences for academic independence. Battles over Indian-American issues in US schools have received considerable press attention in both countries, all while several other minority groups engage in heated educational controversies of their own.

The Fight Over California’s Textbooks

A recent dispute over descriptions of ancient India in California’s soon-to-be updated K-12 textbook curriculum illustrates this point. It all started after a few academics proposed replacing the term “India” with “South Asia” in certain contexts, since the region encompasses areas outside of modern India (namely Pakistan and Nepal). The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) fought back, reflecting some of the same Hindu-centric thinking that is currently taking root in India at the expense of minority communities.

Claiming that depictions of the darker elements of Hinduism’s past could expose their children to bullying and embarrassment, the HAF and other groups embarked on a campaign their opponents within the Indian-American community rejected as historical “whitewashing.” Where these groups argued for parity in the teaching of Hinduism compared to other faiths, academics and members of the Dalit caste saw an attempt to gloss over unpleasant traditions of female subjugation and discrimination against the notorious “untouchable” caste.

As Indian novelist Chandrahas Choudhury argues, the Hindu-first ideology espoused by the BJP in India and these activists in the US is deeply rooted in a view that sees Hinduism as “the real unifying thread of the Indian past.” These nationalists believe that “the Hindu way of life should continue to be the motor that stabilizes and drives the present,” Choudhury writes. According to this mindset, minority cultures, especially the country’s 138 million Muslims, can play no meaningful role. Hence the hostility to the idea of a more religiously neutral term for referring to the Indian subcontinent — one that would give the Muslim, Buddhist and other populations of India and its neighbors equal standing with their Hindu neighbors.

Questions of Legacy Not Limited to South Asians

The HAF put considerable effort into downplaying the depictions of religious discrimination, patriarchy and the caste system in India in the upcoming textbook guidelines. Even so, after a protracted fight that made its way to The New York Times, most of the proposed textbook changes were rejected. Meanwhile, other Asian-American groups — including people of Korean, Japanese, Filipino and Vietnamese descent — are continuing to fight for changes in California’s textbooks.

For example, Californians of Korean descent are fighting for the new textbook guidelines to include their home country’s history of the so-called “comfort women” — women who were coerced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Meanwhile, Californians of Vietnamese descent are arguing for recognition of the legacy of sexual violence and crimes perpetrated against civilians by Korean troops during the Vietnam War, a little-discussed issue that nonetheless bears striking similarities to World War II’s comfort women. Their story has largely gone unacknowledged by history books, but recent efforts by Vietnamese survivors and their mixed-race, Korean-Vietnamese children have helped bring their plight to public attention in both South Korea and the United States.

A fair, nuanced approach to these complicated histories is the only way to give children a better understanding of where they come from. Whitewashing painful elements of the narrative to protect students’ identities, as the HAF and its allies are accused of doing, robs them of the chance to learn from their own histories. In India’s case, these disputes mirror disturbing political trends in a home country where religious and caste tensions have long simmered beneath the surface. In the months ahead, as right-wing nationalists continue to present sugarcoated narratives, we must collectively resist these efforts to downplay histories of intergroup violence in India and beyond.