Hindu Nationalists and California’s History Curriculum: Pepper Chongh


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak once asked us to consider that the histories of people at the margins are constantly in competition with dominant histories– that when a marginal woman speaks in dissent, the narratives of more powerful social groups can silence or supplant others.[1] This concept is at the heart of controversies around the revision of history textbooks throughout the world. It’s at the heart of the current debates on South Asian history in the California public school curriculum, up for revision this year.

In 2005-6, U.S. wings of Hindu nationalist groups named together as the Sangh Parivar[2] (the Sangh) attempted to insert changes into California’s 6th grade history textbooks. Rewriting history is one of the Sangh’s political projects toward the realization of a Hindu nation, where upper-caste Hindus dominate and benefit from all aspects of society to the exclusion and subordination of all other groups. The 2005-6 effort follows another in India in 2002-2003, when the successful insertion of Hindu nationalist histories into Indian textbooks resulted in a protest walkout by education ministers from 16 states and a scholar-led suit filed before India’s Supreme Court to block the new textbooks. In 2006, South Asian scholars and minority and other progressive activists defeated the U.S. Sangh in a public clash.[3] The California State Board of Education (SBE) rejected most of the Sangh’s edits, leading the Sangh to file two lawsuits against the SBE, both of which lost on claims of discrimination against Hindus.

Since 2006, Sangh groups have led anti-minority mass violence in India—against Christians in the state of Orissa (now Odisha)[4] in 2007-2008, and against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh (Muzaffarnagar) in 2013. These violent events echo the state- and police-supported pogroms[5]against Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat, where scholars and activists documented Hindu chauvinist and Nazi-inspired content in educational materials in the time period leading up to the mass sexual violence and killings. The concerns regarding textbook histories are transnational, linked to identity, belonging, and marginalization connected to gender, class, race, and caste.

This year, the SBE is updating the California History-Social Science Framework, a government-produced curriculum guidebook for educators and textbook publishers. Several Sangh groups have participated in the government’s public input process to suggest changes to Framework content. Similar to those from the 2005-6 campaign,[6]the Sangh’s recommendations this time include: excising the word “Dalit” (formerly “Untouchable” persons); devaluing the Aryan Migration Theory[7]; de-linking caste oppression from religion/Hinduism; diluting or erasing birth as the defining criterion of caste; removing the word “patriarchy” to describe ancient realities of South Asia;inserting the Saraswati River in connection with the Indus Valley Civilization; erasing Ravidassi and Sikh resistance to caste oppression; and inserting changes to support a historical narrative of foreign Muslim invaders vs. Hindu victims, among others.

People unfamiliar with India’s discursive and cultural worlds have expressed bewilderment at the tumult these suggestions sparked in South Asian diasporic communities. Many of the U.S. Sangh’s edit suggestions are coded to assert a Hindu nationalist version of South Asian history, energizing bigotries and anti-minority targeting. In addition to being historically inaccurate, many Sangh suggestions are also painful to those who have suffered and resisted Hindu nationalist and caste-based violence, including Christians, Dalits, Muslims, Ravidassias, Sikhs, progressive Hindus, and others opposing the Sangh’s nativist and supremacist politics.This explains the rise of South Asia scholars and the interfaith and inter-caste group South Asian Histories for All (SAHFA), composed of members from these communities,in opposition to the Sangh.

The U.S. Sangh made numerous changes in the first round of input in 2014, including the removal of the term “Dalit,” the self-chosen identity of those most intensely targeted by caste oppression.In the second round (December 2015-February 2016), a South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG)– comprising of academics from well-respected U.S. universities, mostly scholars of South Asian heritage– suggested changes to remove inaccurate information and nationalism-coded language from the Framework. The SAFG’s edits are supported by SAHFA and are consonant with the recommendations of an independent Dalit-Bahujan faculty group.These groups and their allies are now facing off against the U.S. Sangh.

The Sangh’s Many Faces

As the Sangh does in India, the U.S. Sangh seeks to represent all Hindus, taking form as multiple organizations that work in a coordinated fashion.In the Framework controversy, the Sangh groups include:the California Parents for the Equalization of Education Materials (CAPEEM), the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), and Uberoi Foundation.

All of them have made recommendations to revise the Framework to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), the curriculum advisory body to the SBE, and all of them are linked to the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the U.S. wing of the India-based Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is known outside of India for its affiliation with Nathuram Godse, the assassin of M.K. Gandhi. It and its affiliates have been reported by the U.S. Commission on International Freedom, the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,India-based citizens groups, and Indian governmental bodies to have carried out mass and targeted physical and sexualized violence against their opponents and religious minorities. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has characterized the India-based Sangh as “extremist.” Sangh violence, including the use of rape against minority communities, is discursively underpinned by Hindu nationalist histories.

The Sangh’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), rules India at this time. Shortly after coming to power in 2014, the BJP government appointed an RSS leader as the chair of a prestigious historical research institution, and in late 2015, 53 leading Indian scholars issued a public statement against the chilled atmosphere for intellectual freedom in India, where “differences of opinion are being sought to be settled by using physical violence” and “the [BJP] regime seems to want… a kind of legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others.”In May 2016, it was reported that a newly revised textbook in the Indian state of Rajasthan omitted the assassination of M.K. Gandhi by Nathuram Godse.In the U.S., media attention has been directed away from such trajectories in India and toward the Sangh-led outcry over the replacement of a minority of the instances of the term “India” in the Framework with a selection of geographical terms, such as “South Asia.”

In the context of the California curriculum controversy, CAPEEM, HAF, HEF, and Uberoi Foundation submitted separate and overlapping recommendations, possibly giving the impression of multiple parties coming to similar ideas independently. Their overlapping suggestions include the deletion of the words “Dalit” and “patriarchy,” and the erasure of Sikhism’s challenge to caste authority.

These groups’  alignment with the HSS can also be inferred by examining their funding and leadership.The HEF is the education project of the HSS,[8] and CAPEEM received funding from the HSS in 2007.[9] The Uberoi Foundation’s Chair is Ved Nanda, the President of HSS.[10] And though in May 2016 Hindu American Foundation’s Samir Kalra stated on Diya TV that HAF is an “independent organization”[11] from other groups in the Framework controversy, Uberoi Foundation’s tax returns and annual reports from 2012-2014show that HAF has applied for and received at least$82,000 from the Uberoi Foundation in those three years.

In addition to submitting suggestions to the Framework, the Uberoi  to have connections at the California Department of Education. In this year’s March 24 and May 19 public IQC meetings, the IQC commissioners used the Uberoi Foundation’s documents as a reference for decision-making, a commissioner at times giving voice to Uberoi’s challenges to SAFG recommendations while SAFG members or progressive activists sat in the audience, their voices muted by procedure.

In contrast to the Uberoi Foundation, the presence of CAPEEM and HAF, the two groups that sued the SBE in the past, likely reminds the SBE of the possibility of legal action. In early May 2016, the law firm Olson, Hagel, and Fishburn contacted the SBE representing HAF’s interests, applying further litigious pressure

These U.S.-based ideological allies of the RSS are further supported by a network of others that conduct social and charitable work in the United States (see the 2014 report “Hindu Nationalism in the United States: A Report on Nonprofit Groups”), aided by online activists who harass or threaten scholars and activists critical of their work. These coordinated groups will continue to play a large role in the debates over California curriculum content in the coming years.

The next site of contention: Textbooks

On May 19, close to 100 SAHFA activists attended a public meeting on the Framework revision process before the IQC. Dozens of SAHFA activists gave public comments in opposition to the Sangh’s many edits, winning several changes: the word “Dalit” has been reinserted into the Framework, and sections on caste and patriarchy have remained. Due to the work of the U.S. Sangh, references to Indo-Aryans and many references to the term “South Asia” were removed, and the remaining text states that caste provided “social stability”—notions in alignment with Hindu nationalism and caste oppression. As well, there remains some historically inaccurate and polemical content regarding Islam and Muslims, making more difficult any intelligent and respectful engagements between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Framework will now go to the State Board of Education for final approval on July 14. If the Framework is approved, the update process for California history textbooks will begin, and the next phase of contestations will come. The State Board of Education, whose procedures help to produce the “official history” of Californian classrooms, is no doubt preparing for a long fight, as this struggle over South Asian history is unlikely to dissipate very soon. Even if it did, there will always be other conflicts between marginal and dominant histories. This is a perennial issue of textbook writing in inequitable worlds, and one that needs careful reflection and structural response.

Pepper Chongh is a member of South Asian Histories for All.

[1] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” In Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory : A Reader, edited by Patrick Williamsand Laura Chrisman, 66–111. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Pg. 104.

[2] The Sangh Parivar is a set of sectarian groups committed to a Hindu nationalist worldview, all affiliated in varying waysto the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Groups include Bajrang Dal, Bharatiya Janata Party, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, Sewa International, Vidya Bharti, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

[3]Visweswaran, Kamala, Michael Witzel, Nandini Manjrekar, Dipta Bhog, and Uma Chakravarti. “The Hindutva View of History: Rewriting Textbooks in India and the United States.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 10, no. 2 (2009): 101–12.

[4] Chatterji, Angana. Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present/Narratives from Orissa. Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective, 2009. Pp. 288-339.

[5] Ghassem-Fachandi, Parvis. Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu Nationalism and Anti- Muslim Violence in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

[6] Bose, Purnima. “Hindutva abroad: The California Textbook Controversy.” The Global South2, no. 1 (2008): 11-34.

[7] Edits 1312, 1342, 1343 from the first round of public comments.

[8]HEF’s website registration information is the same as the contact information on the HSS tax return for 2014.  The HSS’s 2014 tax return indicates that it is also “doing business as” Hindu Education Foundation.

[9] According to HSS’s 2007 tax return, pg. 19.

[10]According to the HSS’s 2014 tax return page 7.

[11] DiyaTV. “Hindu American Foundation’s Samir Kalra & South Asian Histories for All’s Anirvan Chatterjee.” May 19, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/DiyaTVusa/videos/10154204595788252/. @6:06.

2 thoughts on “Hindu Nationalists and California’s History Curriculum: Pepper Chongh”

  1. All right -minded and those wary of history by Sanghis must oppose this attempt by them to distort history snd obliterate some identities totally.This tempering with hopistory is very dangerous .It deprives many groups and people of their identities and raison de etre .


  2. Now, ‘ hindu’ history is masked as ‘ Indian history’s . Trump may demand ‘ Christian ‘ history as ‘ US’ history. Fundamentalists history is becoming world history… ” history repeats itself first through tragedy and then through farce..’ … Was Marx not right???!!


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