By Steve FarmerLast week this article in the Indian magazine Frontline reported that the Hindu Right’s attempts to rewrite California school textbooks on India and Hinduism were meeting with strong resistance from renowned historians and scholars in the U.S. and abroad. Steve Farmer is one of those scholars; he reported on that resistance and the smear campaign against another of them, Michael Witzel, on a listserve last December, and gave B&W permission to publish a slightly updated version. There is recent news here.
Part I: The California Textbook Issue
The smear campaign aimed against Michael Witzel is meant in retaliation for the critical role he has played since early November – in collaboration now with hundreds of Indian and Western researchers and S. Asian minority groups – in helping block massive changes in California 6th-grade textbooks demanded by Hindutva political-religious groups. Some of these groups, as noted below, have long-time connections with rightwing groups in India, whose attempts to project Hindutva political-religious ideology into Indian textbooks have been turned back since 2004 (after the rightwing BJP party lost national power) by India’s National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT). (NCERT is the closest thing in India to a national ‘Board of Education’.)
The upshot is that the current US Hindutva moves in California, begun not long after the BJP fell from power, can be tied (along with related moves in Great Britain, involving the BBC) to a much broader international plan to rebuild the declining Hindutva movement in India.
Before November 9th, the Hindutva groups involved in the US had managed to convince the California State Board of of Education and the Department of Education staff – few if any of whom had even heard before of Hindutva (and they say that ignorance is bliss) – that they spoke for what they represented as a homogenous American-Hindu community. In the early months, the Board did not hear from Dalit groups, mainstream Hindu organizations, Tamil Hindus, or any of the many non-religious Hindu groups that have obvious reasons for opposing the Hindutva agenda.
The fictional notion presented to the California Board of Education that the highly fragmented Hindu-American community is homogenous has certainly come as a surprise to the Tamil, Dalit, and other Indian minority groups in the United States with whom we have contacts.
No matter how the final act of the California drama plays out (in March), by now the California Board of Education is acutely aware that the three main groups involved in the California affair – the Vedic Foundation (VF), the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) (on these groups, see Part III) – do not, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, speak for all Hindu-Americans.
While the research community, mainstream Hindus, and Indian minorities were initially caught sleeping by events in California – none of us knew about events there until November 5th, four days before what was to be the final Board of Education meeting on this textbook issue – in the last seven weeks hundreds of non-Hindutva Indian-Americans, a solid base of specialists in South Asian History (one recent letter from such a group has over 130 signatures), and an ever expanding list of South Asian minority groups, including those representing Dalit and tribal groups, have informed the State of California in very clear terms that the three organizations noted above do not represent their interests or opinions.
The role that Michael helped play in awakening non-Hindutva Indian-Americans to events in Sacramento helps explain the vehemence of the attack currently aimed almost exclusively at him personally. The rightwing’s strategy consists in attempting to divert attention from resistance to the Hindutva agenda within the Hindu-American community by representing the setbacks to their California plans as being due to the efforts of one fictional “Aryan Supremicist” Harvard Professor with Nazi roots, etc. – rather than to the efforts of many non-sectarian South Asians and Westerners who have long opposed the Hindutva program.
The first and still most critical battle in California took place on November 8-9th, when a letter endorsed by Michael and approximately four dozen other researchers from India, Pakistan, the United States, Europe, Australia, Taiwan, and Japan (many of them on this List) first alerted the California State Board of Education to the religious-political motivations behind Hindutva attempts to alter history textbooks. The letter was sent out within 48 hours of the time that we first learned of the involvement of Hindutva groups in the textbook affair.
The letter informed the Board about the successful recent NCERT battle over Hindutva alterations of Indian textbooks, which were made when the BJP was in power. It also provided the California Board of Education with links to U.S. State Department papers issued in 2003 and 2004 explicitly warning against the influence of Hindutva groups in education. The importance of the letter and what was going on in California was underlined at the Board of Education meeting in Sacramento on November 9th by James Heitzman, of the University of California at Davis. Heitzman came to the Board meeting armed with an analysis of the full list of proposed edits by the Hindutva groups.
Far from just being the ‘Witzel letter’ (Dr. Heitzman didn’t even know about the letter until after it was submitted) – as the Hindutva organizations like to characterize it – this original letter from the scholarly community to the Board of Education (there have been others since) was endorsed by a long list of mainstream archaeologists, linguists, and historians, including specialists on ancient India from every part of the world.
A few of the international signers whose work is well-known in the field include Patrick Olivelle (who is a native S. Asian), of the University of of Texas; Harry Falk, of Free University, Berlin; Madhav Deshpande of the University of Michigan; Muneo Tokunaga of Kyoto University in Japan; Maurizio Tosi, of the University of Bologna in Italy; Richard Meadow of Harvard University and Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin (Co-Directors of the long-running Harappa Archaeological Research Project); well-known Indian researchers including Romila Thapar, Shereen Ratnagar, D.N. Jha, and others; Hartmut Scharfe and Stanley Wolpert, both emeritus professors of UCLA; Asko Parpola, of Helsinki University; and so on.
The endorsers are a highly diverse international group that represents many opposing research perspectives: but despite these differences, all are uniformly opposed to Hindutva fabrications of history, with which they are all familiar. As a group they don’t have even a faint resemblance to the imaginary group of “Harvard leftists” fantasized in the Hindutva slander campaign directed at Michael Witzel (see Part II, below).
As a result of this first letter, the massive rewrites of the chapters on India submitted to the Board of Education by the Vedic Foundation for the submitted textbooks were rejected in toto by the Board – and have remained off the table ever since.
That was our first victory, and it’s a lasting one.
If it hadn’t been for the November 8th letter sent out by international scholars, things could have turned out very badly at the November 9th meeting. If the Vedic Foundation rewrites had actually made it into the textbooks, the absurdity of their positions would have eventually forced those textbooks to be withdrawn – as was recently the case in India – at an estimated cost in the case of California of several hundred million dollars. (Those figures are not given lightly, and are drawn directly from publishing industry estimates.)
The textbook-issue waters became murkier at a meeting in Sacramento on December 1-2 – held not by the State Board of Education, as misreported in the India press, but by a subsidiary (and totally advisory) body known as the Curriculum Commission (CC). Events at the December 1-2 CC meeting were far more chaotic than at the November 9th State Board of Education meeting, due largely to the fact that the audience was packed to the walls with Hindutva supporters.
The fact that no South Asian opponents of Hindutva were at the meetings involved some miscalculation on our part: no one expected much to happen at the CC meeting, since the Board of Education had explicitly directed the CC (with legal force) on November 9th to judge all proposed edits solely on the basis of historical accuracy, and not on religious grounds. To this end, the Department of Education staff had drawn up a report based on a full review of previously proposed edits (from the VF and HEF) made by Stanley Wolpert, James Heitzman, and Michael Witzel, who were officially appointed as a Content Review Panel (CRP) specifically to fulfill this task. The original expectation was that the CC meeting would end quickly with acceptance of the Department of Education staff report.
Against those expectations, the meeting was chaotic – we’ll publish some funny eye witness accounts at some point – with the result that after much wrangling with the Department of Education staff, several conservative members of the CC took control of the meeting and largely ignored the Department of Education staff report. The result, after hours of arguing and confusion, was that a number of blatantly religious edits were left in the history books and several new edits (breaking all historical precedents and the explicit directive of the Board of Education) were stuck into them ‘on the fly’. The result, as everyone on all sides recognized at the end, was an inconsistent mess that has left everyone involved in a quandary about what to do next.
As one publishing insider puts it: “California is a mess.”
For now, let it be noted that it is clear to everyone (1) that the advisory CC, whose role in the vetting process is finished, violated the Board of Education’s legal directive from November 9th that stated that issues of historical accuracy alone must determine what makes it into the ancient India edits; and (2) that the publishers, the Department of Education, and everyone else involved knows that the current gross mess of inconsistent edits has to be cleaned up before anything goes to press.
But all that said, one key point by now is crystal clear. Recently Hindutva forces have begun to claim publicly (as in the Pioneer article; see below), apparently to rally their sagging troops, that what happened on December 1-2 in the CC meeting was some kind of victory for their side. This is a radical about-face from their reactions at the end of the CC meeting on December 2, when (as on November 9th) they again went away furious that the massive Vedic Foundation rewrites of the publishers’ texts – which are as comical as they are absurd (e.g., placing the Buddha and Asoka in the early 2nd millennium BCE) – didn’t make it into California textbooks.
Those rewrites weren’t accepted by the California Board of Education on November 9th; those rewrites weren’t supported by even the most conservative of the CC members on December 2; and now that academic and anti-Hindutva forces have been awakened by what almost happened in California, no rewrites like this will make it into US textbooks the next time this little drama plays out in some new state with adoption processes. (The next really big battle will not be until Texas, and that won’t occur until the end of the decade.)
Part II: Recent Smears against Michael Witzel
When other things fail, Hindutva groups traditionally try slander. And that’s what they are now trying with Michael Witzel.
The Hindutva misinformation campaign, which started several weeks ago, reached new heights with publication of a grotesquely distorted article on Christmas day in the rightwing New Delhi newspaper, The Pioneer.
Its many inaccuracies will be obvious immediately to those who have read the background materials presented in Part I, above. Other inaccuracies will be noted below.
The timing – and at points even the exact language – of this blatantly defamatory piece overlaps with an Internet petition aimed at Harvard University (my copy arrived on Christmas eve), which among much else calls for the disbanding of Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies (not coincidentally, Michael’s department).
The cover letter of the petition – all of it that many people will probably see before signing it – starts with what appears at first to be a progressive agenda, perfect for Christmas eve:
To defend the best liberal traditions that we all hold dear, I hope you will take a moment to please sign the petition at the url below, to support our effort to get the religious hate groups (you know which ones..) from using Harvard facilities and resources. The Petition is developed by well-wishers of Harvard university, concerned over the increasing intrusion by religious hate groups into our environment. I am sure you will agree with us.
The inside of the petition, which is several clicks away, drops the ‘liberal’ facade. A few highlights:
- Our Indo-Eurasian Research List is characterized (just as it is in the Pioneer article) as an “Internet hate group”.
- Harvard is linked with supposed “anti-Semitic Nazi groups”, and Michael is characterized as “Harvard’s Aryan Supremicist Sanskrit Professor.” (The irony of the fact that real historical links existed in its formative years between Hindutva and the Nazis is apparently unknown to the petition’s authors.)
- I’m characterized as Michael’s “assistant”, apparently working with him at Harvard, despite the fact that I live in California, many of thousands of kilometers away from Harvard, on the opposite side of the United States.
- One choice quotation from the petition pictures Michael as an “Aryan Supremicist” – the writers apparently have blond blue-eyed Germans in mind – and me as a “Creationist”, which I suspect would please my relatives, who have long suspected that I harbor irreligious evolutionary tendencies:
Witzel’s screeching against the community is often part of his marketing of the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ (AIT), now re-packaged as “Aryan Influx Theory”. This marries Farmer’s Creationist dogma, with Witzel’s Aryan Supremacist requirement that all civilization must have emanated from his ‘Aryan’ Caucasian roots. Devoid of intellectual substance, this gang personally abuses anyone who cites the growing scientific evidence debunking ‘AIT’. The evidence points to distributed local evolution of civilization, independent of any Caucasian influx.
Back to the Pioneer piece :
Just a few points on one scientific issue and on various defamatory materials in the text: it would take a book to straighten out all half truths and lies in this hatchet job:
1. The idea that DNA studies support the Hindutva view that there was no movement of Indo-Eurasian speakers in antiquity into India, ascribed in the article to S. Metzenberg (one of the conservative members of the advisory CC, who is not on the Board of Education) is ludicrous. For every study that makes such claims, as another CC member (the physicist C. Munger) accurately pointed out to Metzenberg, others can be cited that ‘prove’ exactly the opposite. As is well known to every researcher in population genetics, such studies are based on modern genetic data back-projected into historical times using very iffy theoretical models of genetic drift. The result is that the error bars are literally thousands of years long in every such study.
2. The idea that Michael has “contempt for Indians who live and work in the US” is ridiculous: he works with them daily, and counts them among his best friends and students. (Obviously many of them have also endorsed the Board of Education letters, and many others are on this List.)
3. Michael is the last person I would ever think of as a ‘racist’. Anyone who knows his immediate family, which is more Asian than Caucasian (!), in fact, would be more than a bit startled to hear such claims.
4. The quotations ascribed to Michael in the Pioneer article are consistently ripped out of context and reformulated to make it appear that they involve hate or ridicule aimed at the S. Asian community. It would take a lot of time to show this quotation by quotation, but to do so would be intellectually trivial. There isn’t an ounce of hate that I’ve ever seen in Michael Witzel, after knowing and collaborating with him on many articles and projects now in the last half decade.
5. Previous idiocies in publisher-submitted textbooks have absolutely nothing to do with Michael and have in fact been sharply criticized by him in discussions with both the publishers and the California Department of Education. Historical inaccuracies arising from corporate ignorance, however, are obviously quite distinct from Hindutva groups trying to stick politically and religiously inspired edits into US kids’ 6th-grade textbooks.
6. The fictionalized account in the Pioneer article that makes it appear that Michael appeared before the Board of Education (which the article confuses with the Curriculum Commission), which subsequently rejected his views as “unscholarly, insensitive, biased and devoid of facts – heaping ridicule on the Harvard brand” never happened. Michael never went to California, never appeared before the Board, and certainly wasn’t at the CC meeting. Far from having his views rejected by the Board of Education, he was specifically charged by the Board of Education (as part of an official ‘Content Review Panel’ with Dr. Wolpert and Dr. Heitzman) with vetting the earlier edits submitted by the VF and HEF.
7. Just as in the petitions aimed at Harvard, the Indo-Eurasian Research list is once again misrepresented in The Pioneer as an “Internet hate group.” Opposing attempts to rewrite history for political and religious purposes does not qualify us or any other group for such a label. These rightwing groups have had a terrible effect on research in premodern fields, and correcting the false image they present of history is an unfortunate (and obviously thankless) part of our job.
There are three Hindu groups involved closely in the California proceedings. We’ve said a bit about them before, so here I’ll just give the quickest of summaries:
1. The VEDIC FOUNDATION in Texas. Their proposed edits to California textbooks are the most ridiculous of all of them. This is no wonder, given their views of ancient history, which have it (in webpages now largely removed) that Indian civilization reaches back 1,972 million years – over 1.7 billion years before the age of dinosaurs.
From Internet Archives for one of their rapidly disappearing webpages.
(Don’t miss this little gem if you haven’t seen it before!)
For those of you who don’t recognize the political significance of the standard Hindutva claim that ‘Aryans’ are homegrown in India, please pay close attention to the first item on their “Do You Know” list!
2. The HINDU EDUCATION FOUNDATION, in Silicon Valley. This is a much more politically oriented group than the VF. It arose as a “project” of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) (as noted in an HSS webpage now only available to password holders, though as usual a copy lives on in our files). The group was set up specifically for projects like the California campaign. Its “Advisors” include infamous Hindutva propagandists including S. Kalyanaraman and David Frawley – the latter the American adherent of “Vedic Astrology” and the “Out of India” theory who claims in his books that American Indians came from India.
3. The HINDU AMERICAN FOUNDATION. This is the most problematic of the groups, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, since their public persona has it that they are a “Human Rights Organization” representing 2 million (!) Hindu Americans. Please note that according to US census figures this is far more than the total number of Indians (Muslims, Dalits, and Tamils included) living in the US, let alone conservative Hindus.
You won’t find a visible trace of Hindutva anyplace on their webpage, but when you dig beneath the surface, you’ll soon find that the President of HAF, Mihir Meghani, has a long history of links with the rightwing in India. See, e.g., his famous manifesto from 1998 – “Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology” – which is still found (at this minute, anyway) on the official BJP website in India.
Read this one carefully: it is another gem, although not very funny.
- Besides holding the Wales Chair in Sanskrit at Harvard University, Michael was elected as a Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.
- He is the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Oriental Series, the oldest continuous Western publication series in the field, which first appeared in 1891.
- Michael is editor-in-chief of Mother Tongue, one of the most innovative research journals devoted to comparative and historical linguistics. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, which has published a long series of important studies in the past decade.
Michael’s own writings in the past several decades have fundamentally altered the way that all of us, both in Indology and comparative history (my field), have viewed ancient India in particular and ancient history in general. One of the most influential of his studies appeared in a ground-breaking book that he edited in 1997, Inside and Outside the Texts: New Approaches to the Vedas, which contains major essays not only by Michael but by Joel Brereton, George Cardona, Tatyana Elizarenkova, Harry Falk, Hans Henrich Hock, Asko Parpola, Wilhelm Rau, and many others. Michael’s essays in this volume have fundamentally changed the way we picture historical data in Vedic texts, and they have had a long lasting effect on my own research. (The two of us are now extending part of this work in dimensions that reach far beyond India.)
Finally, it should be mentioned that the 1989 workshop that gave rise to Inside and Outside the Texts grew eventually into the increasingly important yearly Harvard Roundtables on the Ethnogenisis of South and Central Asia, which is now entering its 8th year. (This year’s conference was held in Kyoto, Japan, and next year’s will again be held in Asia, at a very exciting location still not publicly announced.)
The Indo-Eurasian Research List is an off-shoot of those Roundable meetings. Certainly no one who works through our archives with any care, starting at the beginning, will end up concluding that we are an “Internet hate List”.
Let me end on a personal note: Michael Witzel is one of the most intelligent, most humanistic, and also one oif the very funniest men I know. He is a wonderful collaborator to boot, and it has been a privilege to work with him.
The smear campaign aimed at him is obscene – it is the first word that comes to mind thinking about it – and I hope and expect that a lot of other people will speak out in his public defense.