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2005 has been a terrible year for the human rights of African Americans in the United States. Facing assaults on livelihoods, falling incomes, rampant police violence and brutality, cuts in social spending and a generally cruel and undisguised contempt from the reactionary Bush administration, African Americans will remember 2005 as the year that saw the destruction of the great city of New Orleans, first by the hurricane (made possible by years of neglect and siphoning of levee funds to the “war on terror”), followed by the cruel racism of the state, media and mainstream white society as survivors were classified as “looters”, “holdouts” and “thugs”, which opened the way for a full-scale forcible displacement of the African American population of the city. To date, the city’s whiter and affluent residents have received far more generosity and care from the government, corporations and mainstream media than have African Americans. Worse, most of the city’s poorest residents, overwhelmingly African American, are being deliberately kept out of their city, their homes and residences targeted for bulldozing and sale through the use of nefarious means reflective of the worst legacies of racist America. 

This means then that the struggle of African Americans for equality and justice in America is not a historical event lodged in the past but an ongoing and present reality necessitated by institutionalized racism and oppression. This is where the comparison between African Americans and immigrant communities becomes a problematic issue. As bad as any form of racism is, it is a stretch for instance to suggest that the treatment of Indian Americans is comparable to the oppression of African Americans. But it is a bizarre departure from reality when a supremacist movement represented by a well-funded, very affluent section of the immigrant Indian American community claims to be oppressed like African Americans, especially when this claim is couched not in the aftermath of some terrible episode of racial violence or institutionalized brutality, but in the context of an effort to rewrite middle-school history textbooks in California.  

California’s school textbooks come up for review every six years. Recently the State Board of Education has become the center of an intense struggle over the content of middle school history textbooks pertaining to ancient India. [1] It is widely acknowledged by scholars that these textbooks leave much to be desired, some of these problems being factual errors (such as the idea that Hindi is written in the Arabic script with 18 letters) and others glaring displays of text writers’ ignorance and ethnocentrism (such as asking “do you see any monkeys around” after stating that Hindus worship a monkey god). What is needed is a thorough inspection and revision of these textbooks to overcome these problems with the view of advancing knowledge of ancient India consistent with the available historical research on the subject. Sensing an opportunity given the shoddy nature of these textbooks, an alliance of organizations with names such as “Vedic Foundation,” “Hindu Education Foundation” and “Hindu American Foundation” have attempted to radically rewrite these textbooks by proposing various edits that not only fail to address the problems inherent in these textbooks, but actually attempt to promote views that are consistent with Hindu supremacist ideology. 

The edits proposed by these organizations are consistent with the institutional and ideological ties these organizations have with the Hindu supremacist movement (Hindutva) led by the R.S.S. (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) in India. What is surprising and disturbing for anybody concerned with the rights of minority communities in the United States, is that these supremacist organizations have cast their efforts to rewrite California’s textbooks as if they were a struggle for minority rights. This claim could hardly be farther from the truth. The HEF and VF have together proposed edits to the textbooks that seek to erase the importance and centrality of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization by asserting without evidence and contrary to the established body of historical evidence, that Indo-Europeans (Aryans) are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. They wish to mask and downplay the oppressive character of the caste system by treating it as if it were a form of social contract between people endowed with different capacities. This is a grievous insult to the historical experience of Dalits (erstwhile “untouchables”) and Sudras (lowest caste, mostly manual laborers and peasants). Additionally these proposed “edits” change references to the unequal rights of women in caste Hindu society into idyllic notions of “different duties” for men and women. 

Take for example the following paragraph from a MacMillan/McGraw Hill published history textbook, and the alternative proposed by the HEF which follows: 

MacMillan/McGraw Hill, page 252 last paragraph: 

“There was one group that did not belong to any varna. Its members were called untouchables. They performed work other Indians thought was too dirty, such as collecting trash, skinning animals, or handling dead bodies.” 

HEF wanted to delete the above paragraph and replace it with: 

“There was one group that did not belong to any varna. Its members were called untouchables because they performed dirty work such as skinning animals or handling dead bodies.”  

What this edit suggests through the subtle use of the word “because” is a causal relationship that inverts the reality of caste society. People are supposedly classified as untouchables because of the “dirty work” they do. In reality the term “untouchable” was part of an imposed social order whereby forms of labor considered impure by the social elites were imposed on those classified as untouchables. Elsewhere the HEF changes references to the mention of the “four castes” in the Rig Veda (an ancient sacred text of the Brahmins) into the “interrelationship and interdependence of the four classes” again with the intention of erasing caste as a system of discrimination and inequality. For a comprehensive account of the proposed edits by the HEF and the VF please see: www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/TextbookEdits.html 

The similarities between racism and the caste-based discrimination prevalent in India has been the subject of vigorous debates, most recently at the 2001 U.N. Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. [2] Dalit efforts to make the issue of Dalit human rights a part of the conference’s agenda faced stiff opposition from Hindu supremacist organizations in India who objected to this inclusion on the grounds that the abolition of the caste system would constitute a violation of Hindu human rights! The HEF and VF however believe that the oppression of Dalits in contemporary India is nonexistent since in their view such things cannot happen in post-independence India where untouchability is outlawed in the constitution. Such a denial is definitely comparable to the ridiculous notion that racism in the United States is nonexistent since the law forbids it! In fact the erasure of caste based discrimination proposed by these edits is far worse: the HEF and VF want to remove the word Dalit itself from the textbooks. These supremacist organizations are in effect targeting for silencing and erasure from history and the present, the very people who suffered most from millennia of caste-based discrimination.  

The HEF and VF are attempting to foist a view of ancient India that is consistent with the Hindu supremacist movement’s ahistorical assertions that Aryans (i.e. Hindus of the higher castes) are indigenous to India. This claim to indigenousness is inspired by and informs a chauvinist politics that sees all cultural “others” as outsiders and foreigners and thereby less-deserving of full rights. The Indus Valley Civilization has remained a historical problem for Hindutva’s proponents since it clearly proves a pre-Aryan indigenous civilizational complex that some have identified as Dravidian. The ancient Vedas (sacred texts of the upper caste Hindus) is replete with references and praise for light-skinned “gods” (Devas) vanquishing dark-skinned “Dasyus”. The rise of Aryan society in ancient India is therefore simultaneous to the decline and disruption of the Indus Valley civilization, AND the rise of the hegemonic caste system, which placed conquered peoples within lower and subordinate ranks while invading/migrating and lighter skinned Aryans became the upper castes of what then became Hinduism over thousands of years. Those defined by Aryan society as “untouchables” suffered the worst forms of institutionalized barbarism every created by human beings — for thousands of years they have lived condemned to the worst occupations, segregated socially, economically, culturally — and to this day targeted for brutalization by upper caste Hindus throughout India. (“50 Years of Independence , Still Untouchable,” Combat Law – the Human Rights Magazine, Vol. 1 Issue 4). 

By claiming that this effort to Hinduize ancient Indian history and erase the history of untouchability in the process represent the interests of an aggrieved minority, Hindutva activists insult the historical and contemporary legacy of struggles against racism and discrimination. In an article titled “Harvard Professor launches anti-Hindu crusade” that appears on a Hindu right-wing website, S. Kalyanaraman, an advisor to the HEF, and a senior ideologue of the Hindutva movement in the U.S., draws a parallel between white racists who protested against Harvard University for admitting African Americans in 1850, and the activists and scholars including some from Harvard University who intervened to oppose the HEF from having its way in the textbook-rewrite controversy. Casting himself and his allies as “victims” Kalyanaraman reduces the momentous struggles of African Americans in racist 19th century America to the level of the Hindutva movement’s efforts to sneak in supremacist propaganda through textbook edits.  

The human rights struggles of African Americans are now put on the same level as the “rights” claimed by Hindutva supremacists! Yankee Hindutva (i.e. the U.S. based Hindutva movement) is not a movement for minority rights by any stretch of the imagination — it is in truth the equivalent of an Indian Jim Crow movement seeking entry into the classrooms of sixth-graders by disguising itself as a representative of a victimized minority. Hindutva cannot project itself in the United States the way it does in India — arrogantly displaying its chauvinism in the public sphere since there it is a majoritarian movement. Even as recent as the second week of January 2006, the VHP and its affiliates have embarked on a campaign of violence and intimidation of Christians in the Adivasi (indigenous) regions of the Indian state of Orissa. While its U.S. affiliates feign victimhood and demand minority “rights” to write their own prejudices into the textbooks of U.S. sixth graders, the Indian VHP has no need for such antics – it is busy distributing swords and spikes to its cadres with the goal of fanning mayhem and murder for Hindutva. [3] The same advisor of the HEF noted above does not disguise his contempt for Indian Muslims as for instance in his outburst against the ideal of secularism: 

“It is time to attack the ‘secular’. It is a dirty word, a dirty system and should be used as a word of abuse against anyone who does not adhere to Sanatana Dharma . . . I think secularism should be deemed a negation of Dharma, anti-Dharma, a word of abuse and hence rejected altogether.” (“Secularism and Islam are incompatible,” by S. Kalyanaraman)

Notes: Secularism in India generally refers to the idea that there should be no discrimination against anyone on the basis of their religion or community. “Sanatana Dharma” is a term often used by upper caste Hindus to describe their religion as the “eternal law.”

APPENDIX

Meet the Hindu supremacist editors of California’s middle school textbooks – the HEF, VF and HAF and the Hindutva movement. 

1. “Vedic Foundation” (VF): (http://vedicfoundation.org) 

The Vedic Foundation may not be institutionally part of the RSS family of organizations but its conflation of India and Hinduism is identical to the RSS view that India and Hinduism are one and the same. It is also the case that the Vedic Foundation, like various new-age cults has a following that consists of people who have no problems with the Foundation’s bizarre claim that its work “describes the history of India and the religion of India (Bharatvarsh) of 155.521972 trillion years.” The close ideological affinity between the VF and the Sangh Parivar is perhaps best exemplified in this current effort to Hindutva-ize American history textbooks. See www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/About_HEF_and_VF.html 

2. “Hindu Education Foundation” (HEF) (http://hindueducation.org) 

HEF was set up and run specifically for the textbook rewrite effort by a team of Hindutva operatives in the United States. The HEF is acknowledged as a “project” of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS, the core RSS affiliate in the US). The HEF consists of 15 members of which almost all are activists, ideologues and leaders in prominent Hindutva organizations throughout the U.S. (www.hindueducation.org/advisors.htm)

Recently an activist of the HSS attending an RSS event in India stated on the Times of India: “Through the Hindu Education Foundation run by the RSS in California, we have succeeded in correcting the misleading information in text books for primary and secondary classes,” said Soni. — RSS ABROAD: ‘We are striving to keep our culture alive,’ TIMES NEWS NETWORK, December 31, 2005, Page 5.”

Also see: www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/About_HEF_and_VF.html  

3. “Hindu American Foundation” (HAF) (http://hinduamericanfoundation.org) 

The HAF provides legal assistance to the VF and HEF in the textbook rewrite effort. Its founder and president Mihir Meghani co-founded the Hindu Students Council (a project of the VHPA, US affiliate of the VHP, itself created by the RSS) more than a decade ago. HAF claims to represent “Hindu Americans” and waxes eloquent about “human rights” but its agenda is in sync with the Hindutva movement and not with any genuine human rights concerns. A few years ago Meghani made the following statement: 

“The future of Bharat is set. Hindutva is here to stay. It is up to the Muslims whether they will be included in the new nationalistic spirit of Bharat. It is up to the government and the Muslim leadership whether theywish to increase Hindu furor or work with the Hindu leadership to show that Muslims and the government will consider Hindu sentiments. The era of one-way compromise of Hindus is over, for from now on, secularism must mean that all parties must compromise.”

Meghani wrote this in a piece titled “Hindutva, the Great Nationalist Ideology” which can be read on the website of the BJP.  

To the best of our knowledge Mr. Meghani has neither repudiated this statement nor the sentiments behind it. Threatening Muslims in this disgusting manner disqualifies Meghani’s claims to represent any human rights concerns. If anything the notion that the human rights of one cultural/religious community is expendable and at the mercy of another community is utterly at odds with the universalism that the idea of human rights implies. Meghani’s HAF promotes a sectarian Hindu outlook by appropriating human rights discourse and supports an agenda that is inimical to all minorities in India. 

This same “human rights” outfit condemned the denial of a U.S. visa by the State Department to the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi (widely held responsible for the organized genocide of Muslims by Hindutva organizations in the state of Gujarat in 2002) as “Hinduphobic,” and expressed “distress” over the arrest (in a murder case) of a prominent religious head of the Kanchi Mutt, an institution that remains fervently pro-caste system and anti-Dalit. Undaunted by such contradictions, the HAF expends resources attacking critics and opponents of Hindutva as anti-Hindus. Why would an organization committed to Hindutva project its cause in terms of a “minority” seeking “human rights?” It is perhaps more likely that the HAF’s organizational effort is to enable the Hindutva agenda to sneak through the backdoor of multiculturalism by deceiving the U.S. public and the CA board of education into thinking that it (the HAF and its allies) represent an aggrieved and marginalized community seeking inclusion and equality. 

Raja Swamy is a writer and activist based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at: raja.swamy@gmail.com.

RELATED ARTICLE

* Now, Hindu Nationalists Rewriting California Textbooks by Angana Chatterji

REFERENCES

[1] “Speak Out Against the Hindutva Assault on California’s History Textbooks.”

[2] “Fighting Caste Bias, Shefali Srinivas,” Women’s eNews, September 2001.

[3] “Stop VHP reconversion drive, Minorities panel tells Centre,” Indian Express, January 15, 2006.

by Raja Swamy, www.dissidentvoice.org ,January 19, 2006

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