California Struggles With Colonialism’s Ghosts
by Vamsee Juluri on 25 Dec 2015 3 Comments
Imagine if a sixth class world history textbook in America was using the following images to illustrate its lessons on the history of various world religions:

-        For the lesson on Christianity, we find a photo of a woman being burned as a witch.

-        For the lesson on Islam, there is a photo of a woman being stoned to death by a mob.

-        And just for the lesson on Hinduism alone, there is a photo of a beautiful ancient temple.


A few months ago, I mentioned this example at a gathering of writers and literary enthusiasts in America. Naturally, some of the people in the audience turned rather livid with outrage at the thought of this brazen Islamophobic prejudice. How wrong this world is! How easy the Hindus have it in America, even as Muslims face nasty discrimination like this… I could picture the thoughts behind those concerned faces.


Fortunately, though, that textbook was just a hypothetical example.


Unfortunately, though - and no one even knew how to react when I shared the truth - the middle school textbooks on world history in California feature:

-        For the lesson on Christianity, a photo of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper

-        For the lesson on Islam, a photo of the Blue Mosque in Turkey

-      And for the Hinduism lesson, a photo of a woman (captioned as an untouchable) carrying garbage away from a dirty street next to an inset photo of a seemingly sneering man (captioned as a Brahmin)


Hindu history lessons in American classrooms are an intellectual, cultural, and moral disaster, an institutionalised form of discrimination that Hindus alone seem to still face in a land that is otherwise largely committed to equality and fair play. For several decades now, generations of children in America, both of Indian origin and others, have been learning just one limited, skewed, and spiteful set of “facts” about India and Hindu history.


For most of this time, even as a whole generation of Indian American children came of age putting aside traumatic memories of racist bullying in schools, the community seldom did anything about it, except to perhaps share anecdotes about American ignorance about foreign cultures on weekends with each other. That indifference, in my view, was a coping tactic, part of the “don’t rock the boat” attitude of an immigrant culture that often valued individual success in material terms and left the broader consequences of a social evil like racism to its own course.


But contrary to the myth about Indian Americans being a bubble unto themselves, in time, they did realize that something had to be done, that other immigrant and minority communities too had faced the ill tides of lessons written from a narrow, Eurocentric perspective long before America had civil rights, immigration, or its present enlightened attitude to welcoming diversity. The laws about school lessons were, in principle, designed to ensure that the lessons presented a largely positive introduction to diversity and other cultures, and to ensure that the depiction of all cultures was largely balanced (in other words, avoid the sort of “singling out” that happens when two religions have art and refinement to define them in the textbooks and another an absence of humanity and sanitation).


In 2005, a group of Indian parents in California took the trouble to find out exactly what the law was, and asked for changes to the lessons on Hinduism, hoping to end decades of institutionalised discrimination and racist ignorance. Unfortunately, the changes were scuttled for the most part because of a powerful intervention by a large number of academic experts on South Asia, who had decided that these changes were tantamount to a campaign to “saffronise” history by Hindutva forces.


I questioned the South Asianist “consensus” led by Professors Witzel and Thapar at that time, largely because I did not see how on earth one could interpret the struggles of a minority group facing an issue of minority-discrimination in America as nothing more than the machinations of a majority group in India, much less a majoritarian agenda in India (considering also that the history lessons in India have never really been updated substantially to correct colonial beliefs like Aryan invasions/migrations and such either).


Had it been the case that the Hindu parents or community organisations involved with the textbook process had asked for changes that glorified Hindus and demonized Muslims and other minorities in India, then one could have sympathized with such concerns about “saffronisation,” and one would have been right to challenge such changes.


But the fact remains that all they had asked for was fair treatment at par with other religions, and all they had asked for was for the inclusion of facts: a discussion of the philosophies and worldview of Hinduism with its ethics, cultural practices, spiritual and artistic accomplishments (at par with the lessons on Judeo-Christianity), an accurate presentation of Indian social problems in context and at par with social problems associated with other religions, if at all, and at the very least an acknowledgment that the colonial-era racist fantasy tale of Hinduism being brought to India by invading Aryans was being seriously questioned by professional and lay scholars alike on the basis of several forms of evidence.


After several years, the Board of Education has issued a new draft of the History and Social Science Standards (the syllabus, so to speak, on which future textbooks will be based, for at least the next decade or so, not only in California, but also in other parts of the US given that California textbooks work as an informal model nationwide). In this draft, we can see certain improvements, such as the rejection of the Aryan Invasion theory, and also a broadening of the curriculum to include periods and events beyond the same 3-4 topics that inevitably appear in educational and popular children’s history books (Indus Valley, Aryans, Mughals and Gandhi). At the same time though, the draft curriculum continues to maintain a strong “invasion” or “settler” narrative, describing ancient Indian history in terms of an alien force “penetrating” or “colonising” India with Hinduism (or “Brahmanism” as they still call it).


There have been several comments offered on this draft by concerned organisations and scholars (I wrote an independent statement as well with my suggestions). There has also been a letter submitted by a group of South Asian studies professors urging the board to move back from even some of these minor changes. One contention of the South Asianist position is that it is historically inaccurate to even call the lesson “Ancient Indian history” – their claim is that India didn’t exist before 1947, so the lessons should be called “Ancient South Asian History” (presumably, they have not heard of "Bharat"). They also believe that it is wrong to use the word "Hindu" for any discussion of Indian history before the 13th century since Hinduism did not show signs of being an organised religion until then. They also ask the board to correct the misspelled “Telagu” in the draft curriculum to - another misspelling - “Telegu” (in Telugu, the word is always written with the “u” symbol, and all other variations are etic impositions which should be corrected).


The bigger picture, though, that I hope everyone will recognise, is the fact that we, scholars and citizens, Indians and diaspora, are all living through a time of intellectual hunger and change. At a time like this, it only sounds increasingly conservative and ghettoized when a section of the scholarly community keeps insisting from its pulpit that this change is nothing more than a communal or ideological agenda.


In truth, it is the beginning of a much needed (and overdue) paradigm shift in the direction of the decolonisation of academia. The scholars and professors who are supporting the need for changes, the volunteer parents working tirelessly, and most of all, the children who are speaking up against discrimination and ignorance in California’s schools, are all part of this change.


Simply put, I cannot think of another time in recent history when hundreds of middle and high school students have gone up to the microphone at the state school board meeting, and boldly challenged the narrow academic dogma that seems to infest an exalted section of the South Asia studies community today (watch the videos of their testimonies at


I urge you to listen to them. When you do, you will be reminded that real learning does not happen when canonical guardians of musty racist dogmas zealously police their books. Instead, you will see real learning happening, as a living, visible, phenomenon, when children with their small bodies and barely begun lives, stand before adults, well outside their comfort zones, and their eyes and faces light up with conviction, and they begin to speak from their hearts what they believe to be true. In them, you will see a reminder that this earth simply cannot bear to sustain the consequences of our ignorance any more.


I hope, for their sake, and for the sake of everyone and everything on this earth, that California chooses knowledge over ignorance this time.


Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence

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