"As long as caste in India does exist...and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem." ~ Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development
As part of the periodic textbook review process (which occurs every six years), the California State Board of Education has been the subject of lobbying by Conservative Hindu-American groups, primarily the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies (UF) and the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF). This lobbying seeks to present a Hindu nationalist lens on the origins of subcontinent history, erase the violent history Hinduism as a religion has perpetrated in the name of caste based apartheid, and erase the gender inequality inherent in Hindu scripture.
Several progressive Indian diasporic organizations around the US have opposed these designs and on March 28th won a decisive victory when 62 of 74 suggested recommendations were accepted by the History Social Science Committee who were tasked to review, compile and endorse all edits before submitting them to the Board of Education.
Groups such as HAF/UF/DCF, which try to paint themselves as progressive organizations in the US through their claims of Hinduphobia or anti-Indian racism, now lay exposed for their own bigotry by being apologists for a system that has denied dignity to millions of Indians from marginalized communities who are victims of caste apartheid. I, as an ally to the struggle to end caste apartheid, vehemently call them out.
My Background and the Context Of Conservative Hindu Culture
In the interest of transparency, I must declare that I am a proud Ambedkarite and a member of the #Don'tEraseOurHistory coalition that is leading the opposition to the blatant "savarna-washing" of California textbooks. This coalition is an inter-faith, inter-caste, multi-racial coalition that has been organizing to counter groups like the Hindu American Foundation, Uberoi Foundation, and Dharma Civilization Foundation.
I would also like to state at this time that I myself was born to a Hindu family, more so in a Brahmin family. While I firmly reject caste as an inhuman construct now, I am also a first-hand witness of what caste supremacy looks like, I can attest to how casteism is ingrained from a very early age. Rituals of purity, maintaining safe distances without touch, ascription to texts such as the Manusmriti which openly espouses casteism, and strongly believing in one's own superior qualities, are what I without dispute, grew up with. My experience was not the exception, but the rule and anyone who is honest about the lived reality of caste apartheid in India and in the diaspora today would agree.
This attitude is translated into upper-caste networks that one maintains through immediate family and friends while growing up. These incestuous cycles of hatred towards "the other" manifests in various forms — in our contempt for reservations (affirmative action for the marginalized), in our continued dominance of knowledge production, and in the daily atrocities faced by several Dalit and other marginalized communities in India.
These upper caste networks that dominate Indian society, then get faithfully replicated in the diasporas of the developed world. It is this upper-caste diaspora that forms the bulk of organizations such as the HAF. In a Coalition Against Genocide Report, the story of organizations like the HAF are laid bare:
HAF is a classic American Sangh story. It was conceptualized and developed within the belly of the American Sangh: the Hindu Students Council and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-America's Governing Council and a team of Sangh loyalists with clearly marked histories in various Sangh organizations were brought together as the leadership to execute the HAF plan. Thus any claims that the HAF makes to being unaffiliated and independent is unfounded. The HAF is independent and unaffiliated only in one sense of the word — legally. It is its own 501c3 and it files its own 990s. But in institutional and personnel terms — it is not just like the Sangh, but is an organization born and bred within and of the Sangh.
Organizations like these invite and support extremely hateful figures, such as Baba Ramdev and Sadhvi Rithambara, who continue to make derogatory remarks about LGBTs, women, lower castes, and incite violence against marginalized minorities across India. How then can HAF make a claim to being a progressive organization when it endorses such characters?
There is no denying that Desis in general are subjects of white supremacist racism in the US, but while standing against this racism, it is equally, if not more important, to acknowledge our own complicity in upholding caste based apartheid and the denial of basic human rights to other religious and cultural minorities in India who represent vast populations — larger even than the total population of the United States!
These are not realities that Hindu organizations can deny. It is an act of sheer duplicity to, on one hand appropriate the language of oppressed communities, and then to claim Hindus are a religious minority under siege in the US, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, while remaining perfectly silent about Hindu fundamentalist policies in India. There is no debate about the fact that Indian elite society is dominated by upper-caste Hindus. It is under the watch of this ruling class, that we have seen BJP, RSS, and VHP figures espouse the raping of Muslim women in their graves, dismiss the murderers of Dalit children as the death of dogs, and much worse. Why then the silence on these issues? Why then the claim to progressiveness?
On the Battle for Textbooks
The battle for curriculum frameworks abroad is rooted to ideological battles at home. When you look at the requested changes by Hindu American Foundation, Uberoi Foundation, and Dharma Civilization Foundation it is clear that this is not about history. It is instead related to prestige, power, and policy.
One shocking thing that becomes clear right away is that the themes of the edits are almost identical to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) changes mandated by the BJP in their last round of power. The edits fall into the following categories:
• Change the Indus Valley Civilization to Sindh-Sarasvati Civilization
• Assert that Indus Valley Civilization was Hindu civilization thus claiming "nativity" to the subcontinent.
• Diminish the conversation of caste and obscure its origins in Hindu religious belief.
• Specifically raise the profile of Hindu characters throughout the lineage of Indian history
• Highlight only instances of violence by Muslim rulers against Hindus as genocide.
The goal for these edits in a US context is part of a strategy to create a unified story of a glorious Hindu Shastra nation and an attempt to counter the narrative in which Dalits, Muslims, and other cultural minorities have begun to break through the culture of impunity in India, to speak about the atrocities of caste apartheid and religious intolerance. Desperate to counter the stories of violence that these marginalized communities have fled from, and to make sure questions on caste-apartheid and religious freedom are not raised on international platforms, they are preemptively wanting to present a defanged Hinduism that erases atrocity and is digestible for commercial adoption.
Further, the battle on textbooks helps lay the ground for their other policy endeavors, which include funding American political candidates sympathetic to their specific foreign policy efforts. This includes blocking bills in the US on the genocide in Gujarat, and informing the US Department for Homeland Security on the issues of "Hinduphobia".
Finally, their attempt to change California textbooks is part of a larger project to establish their own pipelines of knowledge production as the norm. In the first 2006 California Textbook battle, they were criticized heavily for not having experts who challenged the expertise of established departments for South Asian studies in the US and in India. Their response was then to raise massive multi-million dollar endowments and attempt to create their own centers for Dharmic studies, to create centers of knowledge production in American institutions that could counter consensus in this field. To date they have only won at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and were defeated at University of California Irvine. This disturbing trend of attempts to muscle and fund Hindutva knowledge production is exactly why we must defeat them in every platform possible.
The danger of accepting the false progressiveness of conservative Hindu groups is the danger of inviting a lion in sheep's clothing. These groups are dangerous and are not separate from the Sangh but are part and party to the strategy of violence and denial of caste apartheid and religious intolerance. Anyone who would aspire to anti-caste politics and a progressive South Asian identity, must unite in calling these groups and exposing them in any space they attempt to impose these strategies. For in this case, silence is part of the long culture of impunity that allows the violence of Hindutva to flourish and we cannot and will not allow it.
Vinay Bhat works as a management consultant and lives in the Bay Area of the US.