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Indian Groups Contest California Textbook Content

India-West, News Report, Viji Sundaram Posted: Feb 16, 2006

HAYWARD, Calif. Even as the California Board of Education (CBE) is trying to grapple with the contentious and loudly debated issue of corrections requested from Hindu groups in proposed textbooks for sixth-graders, another group is trying to make its voice heard over the din.

Some dalits (widely thought of in India as an oppressed people) across the U.S. are demanding that the term, dalit, used only in one of the nine proposed textbooks currently being reviewed by the CBE, not be elided (omitted), as the Hindu groups want, and that a photo of a dalit cleaning a latrine be replaced with one of a dalit engaged in a faith practice.

They also say that it would serve the dalits' cause better if the textbooks said that "untouchability is a living reality in India," instead of simply going by the Hindu groups' suggestion that the books say that it is illegal to treat someone as an untouchable, Vikram Masson, co-founder of Navya Shastra, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that speaks out against caste-related issues, told India-West.

Acknowledging that "the Hinduism sections (in the textbooks) are extremely poor to begin with" and need to be corrected, Masson, who is himself not a dalit and is a parent of a school-going child in New Jersey, observed: "It is curious (the Hindu groups) would want to elide the word, dalit. We believe the heritage of Hinduism is positive enough, and there is no need to cover up any inadequacies."

New Jersey resident Jebaroja Singh, whose dalit grandparents converted to Christianity many years ago, seemed to echo those sentiments.

"When there has been a history of discrimination against dalits, why should we paint a rosy picture in the textbooks?" asked Singh, who teaches racism and sexism in the U.S. at William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J. Masson is married to a Christian priest.

But others argue that since the textbooks primarily deal with ancient India, a time when the word, dalit, was not even coined, to not remove it would be inappropriate.

For over a year now, two U.S.-based Hindu groups - the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation - as well as scores of Hindu parents, have been pushing for corrections in the social studies and history courses in the sixth-grade textbooks, saying that the books not only do not accurately represent India's ancient culture and history, they sometimes denigrate it. Every six years, textbook publishers offer the CBE drafts of textbooks they plan to bring out for the board's acceptance. Public hearings form an integral part of the review process.

At those hearings last year, the Hindu groups asserted that the books were historically inaccurate in saying such things as Hinduism evolved in India from the Aryans who invaded the country in 1500 B.C.; that Sanskrit was a dead language; that Hindi is written in Arabic script; that the Aryan rulers had created a caste system, under which the dalits were forced to perform menial tasks.

According to many scholars, prior to 600 A.D., the terms used in India to describe a so-called untouchable were chandala and shudra, and only about one percent of the population fell under that category.

Citing from the book, "The Wonder That Was India," by the late ancient history scholar A.L. Basham, southern California resident and retired UCLA ancient history professor Shiva Bajpai told India-West: "In fact, it was not blood that made a group untouchable, but conduct."

"So a Brahmin could be viewed as a chandala if he behaved badly," Bajpai said.

Over the last several decades, the term dalit a Marathi word that means oppressed - has been gaining more currency in India, with the rise of growing activism among the approximately 150 million people at the bottom of the caste system, who accuse members of the upper caste of pervasive discrimination for centuries.

The late Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, struggled to win dalits like himself equal rights. He renounced Hinduism in the process, saying the religion perpetuated the caste system. Mahatma Gandhi worked toward uplifting the dalits' status, bestowing upon them the term, Harijan, which means "children of God." However, many dalits and activists do not like to be called that. "They say if you are born from God, your parentage is questionable," said Masson.

Even the group of historians and academics headed by Harvard University Sanskrit professor Michael Witzel, who is opposing many of the corrections the Hindu groups have suggested, accusing them of attempting to whitewash Indian history, has accepted the Hindu groups' suggestion to delete negative references to untouchability, said Santa Rosa, Calif., resident Vishal Agarwal, who described himself as an "independent scholar."

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