Thousands of academics and Indians have signed a petition to stop the California State Board of Education from changing “India” to “South Asia” in its social studies textbooks. Associate Professor at Santa Clara University Rohit Chopra explains what the controversy is about.
What it means to be Hindu and Indian have long been the subject of argument in India.
These disagreements have been amplified since the crowning of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, often taking ugly forms on social media or the street.
In California, a similar conflict is playing out about the representation of Hinduism and India in state textbooks for 11 to 13-year-olds, recalling a fight on the same matter a decade ago.
The debate centres significantly on the renaming of India as South Asia and the role of caste in Indian society.
The rationale for calling the region South Asia, advocated by a group of distinguished academics, is that it is a more accurate descriptive term for the region, one that does not equate India as it existed before 1947 with the modern Indian nation-state.
Terms like “ancient India” and India, they argue, could be confusing in certain contexts for the students, in addition to obscuring the common historical past of modern India and Pakistan respectively.
Media coverage has typically pitted this group of academics as well as secular South Asian organisations against a group of conservative Hindu-American organisations, like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF).
The Hindu-American organisations accuse the academics of wanting to “erase” India itself by recommending the change of name. These groups also seek to remove references to caste prejudice in the textbooks.
The academics, on the other hand, argue that South Asia is a more logically appropriate term than India for the textbooks. They also hold that deleting references to caste contradicts the educational goal that students should develop a rich and nuanced understanding of the region.
Yet this starkly demarcated opposition, while making for good copy, masks some important issues about immigrant identity in the US, understandable parental anxieties, and the politics of the study of Hinduism in the US.
As someone who has researched the global Hindu right, yet is opposed to its politics, as an Indian in the US, and as a parent, I find that the debate, as it has been framed in the media, neglects underlying issues of crucial importance.
A key issue has to do with why groups such as the HAF possess legitimacy among many Hindu students and Hindu communities, not all of whom may share their politically and culturally conservative view of Hinduism?
The answer is simple: the same sorts of groups, regardless of their politics, are also often the first ones to protest racist depictions of Indians or Hindus, such as when American Eagle Outfitters printed the image of Lord Ganesha on flip-flops.
It is not the rock star academics working on South Asia, India, or Hinduism who spearhead such protests, though in their research they do challenge Orientalist and racist stereotypes.
So cultural organisations like the HAF are often the only venue for Indians to get their children to learn about the Indian epics, for instance, through summer camps. That does not make everyone who attends such events a Hindu nationalist or even a Hindu conservative. The same arguably holds for many of those opposing the change of India to South Asia.
In a letter to the New York Times, Nathan Glazer, Professor Emeritus of sociology at Harvard, points to the clunkiness and lack of historical validity of the term South Asia.
I have no strong feeling about the matter, even though the term is bereft of much meaning for me. But it is worth asking of the academics the kinds of questions that academics love asking about everything.
When and where was this term first used? For what reasons? To what extent might it reflect the politics of the American academy, something at which Prof Glazer hints?
The question of caste is more complicated. Removing all references to caste from the textbooks would constitute a consummate act of symbolic violence, echoing the brutal history of violence enacted upon Dalits by caste Hindus over centuries.
Ironically, it would conform to that most American of habits: historical amnesia about America’s own forgetting of its violence against its Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Sikh, or African-American populations.
At the same time, it is a fair point that caste does not exhaust Hinduism, and that for an alarmingly large number of Americans, Hinduism is still little more than caste and cows. Perhaps one might add call centres to that list.
As a parent, I share the worries of many Indian-Americans that my son should not be labelled on the basis of a limited, stereotypical, view of India centred on caste.
The analogy would be Indians viewing White Americans solely as perpetrators of slavery.
If we are to view the controversy through the metaphor of battle, the honours seem to be divided. India will remain in the textbooks, representing a victory for Hindu-American groups.
However, in keeping with the view of the academics and a broad-based coalition of progressive groups, South Asian Histories for All, references to caste will not be removed from the books.
But this is unlikely to be the last we have seen of this battle.
I am not optimistic that the academics and Hindu-American organisations will find any common ground.
But a richer portrayal of Hinduism in the textbooks, warts and all, may be a possible shared objective on which there can be agreement, before the endless wars over Hinduism in the US resume.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor at Santa Clara University, where he teaches media studies. He runs the Twitter account @IndiaExplained and is the co-founder of Auctorly.com