Have Your Textbooks Been Saffronized?

Article ID: JAH123 | By: Mollie Ziegler

This article first appeared in the News Watch column of the Christian Research Journal, volume29, number4 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Most Christian parents in America think of Intelligent Design or sexual education controversies when they hear of curriculum battles. Fighting to keep Heather Has Two Mommies off the required reading list of first-graders, however, may be the least concern for parents hoping to protect their children from indoctrination.

American Hindus with ties to extremists in India have launched a nationwide campaign to rewrite history to reflect a Hindu worldview and hide Hinduism’s darker tenets to make it more attractive to school children. They have already had surprising success in rewriting world religion courses in Virginia, have sued to force the changes in California, and are setting their sights on Texas textbooks.

The American Hindus fighting for the changes have direct ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extreme Hindu Nationalist group that spawned the controversial Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hindu nationalists believe that “invading forces,” such as Christians, historically have oppressed Hindus in their own land. Derided by opponents as xenophobic, racist, and fascist, Hindu nationalists support religious movements indigenous to India, including Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. The movement was launched in the 1920s in response to British rule in India, the political victories that Muslims were having in certain regions, and the success of Christian evangelism that in turn subverted the oppressive Hindu caste, or social class system.

The subsequent religious tension in India has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Christians and Muslims, landing the RSS on the radar of human rights organizations around the world. In regions where Hindu nationalist political parties have power they pass laws against evangelism, fail to prosecute attacks against Christians, and set up insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles for Christians, such as forbidding them from receiving visas or foreign money.

When the BJP came to power in 1998 they appointed Hindu nationalists to the national curriculum development and review committee to “saffronize” textbooks by omitting references that made Hindu nationalists look bad, including such facts as that a Hindu nationalist assassinated Mahatma Ghandi. The U.S. State Department, in its 2002, 2003, and 2004 reports on religious freedom, specifically cited these attempts to Hinduize education as an affront to religious freedom. After the BJP lost power in 2004, the textbooks in India were corrected.

Red, White, and Saffron. Despite the BJP’s failure to rewrite history in India, other Hindu ideologists are attempting this same “saffronization” strategy in the United States. It began in 2004 in Fairfax County, Virginia, a populous and wealthy county just outside of Washington. A Hindu parent, Dr. Rakesh Bahadur, contested aspects of the fifth-grade textbook his daughter was using. That prompted the school district to suggest textbook changes for the fifth, ninth, and tenth grades. The school district asked for community input on the changes. Bahadur responded with a lengthy critique and a petition signed by 118 people. “We read them, and we really couldn’t fairly respond,” Fairfax County’s assistant superintendent for instructional services Ann Monday said at the time. “Quite frankly, none of us had a depth of knowledge in the field.”

This small group of petitioners, with little effort, was able to completely change the curriculum of one of the top-ranked school districts in the country. The school district forced five publishers to change their texts, purchased eight additional textbooks, and supplemented the curriculum with materials that explain Hindu doctrine.

American Hindus with nationalist ties immediately noticed how easily the changes were achieved. At an October 2004 meeting of the Vedic Friends Association at an ashram (i.e., Hindu temple) in Pennsylvania, the association’s academia group hatched plans to take the “program” to other school boards and state curriculum committees, using the RSS’s sister organization in America: the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS).

According to the notes from the Vedic Friends meeting, “A sub committee was formed, which will coordinate the project on the national level.” Less than a year later California was hit with a coordinated campaign to change sixth-grade textbooks. Two groups with ties to Hindu nationalists ended up proposing 500 changes.

One proposed change reflected the desire of Hindu nationalists to hide the horrors of the caste system. The cultural structure of India places citizens into four castes, or classes, of descending honor. Beneath the four main castes are the Dalit, formerly called the “untouchables.” This system was developed some 3,000 years ago and classifies people based on nothing more than the fortune or misfortune of their birth. The nationalists, however, proposed that the phrase “The Aryans created a caste system…” be replaced with “During Vedic times, people were divided into different social groups (varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular profession.”

In reality, however, the system is not merit based. According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Bread for the World, and more than a dozen other national and international human rights groups, Dalits have very few religious or economic rights. They are forced to work in the worst conditions and are not allowed to touch members of the higher castes or even let their shadow fall upon them. They have limited access to food, health care, and housing, because of how poor they are. Hindu nationalists do not want to permit Dalits to leave the Hindu caste system, yet they are not permitted to enter temples or read scriptures. These oppressed poor have been receptive to Christianity.

Nancy Dicks, executive director of the Dalit Freedom Network, a Christian non-profit that works with organizations in India to meet the physical and spiritual needs of Dalits, told the Journal, “Hindu nationalists are trying to cover up the caste system and say it doesn’t exist. But for the large percentage of the population in the lower castes, it does exist and is very unpopular.”

Resistance to Revision. Days before the curriculum commission was to meet to consider these and other changes, Harvard University’s only tenured Sanskrit professor Michael Witzel received word of the changes about to be made and quickly drafted a letter to the Virginia State Board of Education. He argued, “The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise.” The letter was endorsed by 47 other Asian-studies scholars, including Sanskrit professor Robert Goldman and renowned Indian historians Romila Thapar and D. N. Jha.

The Hindutva won the first round, with the commission accepting almost all of their recommendations. The scholars quickly rebounded, however. At the next meeting, they brought Dalits who explained how the proposed changes hid the violent truth of caste-based discrimination.


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Having Dalits protest the changes was such a successful political move that the Hindu nationalists launched fake websites purportedly authored by Dalits and designed to give the impression that Dalits favored the textbook changes. These maneuvers by the Hindu nationalists failed. In March 2006 the school board rejected most of the proposed changes. Within a week, however, the Hindu American Foundation sued to force the changes, and by April the group had hired its first full-time executive director to coordinate further educational activism.

Dalit activists and Asian-studies scholars expect that the next textbook battle will be in Texas. Large states such as Texas and California are attractive targets, since they are large buyers of textbooks. Curriculum changes made to appease school boards in those states end up spreading to other states, Ben Marsh, the Washington coordinator of the Dalit Freedom Network, told the Journal.

Marsh added, “As parents get involved, they should use this as an opportunity to reach out to the Hindu community in the United States. We don’t want to isolate Hindus. What we’re worried about is people coming from India with an agenda.”