Debating The California Textbook Controversy
In the shadow of Saraswati
When I was a little boy in Bengal, I looked forward to Saraswati Puja (in other parts called Basant Panchami). We would wear yellow clothes, and give over all our books to an altar upon which would sit a statue of Saraswati, one of the three main goddesses of popular Hinduism. It was a day set aside in our region to ask the goddess to bless our books and musical instruments. The commencement of studies (vidya aarahmbham) is meant to follow this day of reflection. For most kids like me, it was a holiday from studying.
Lately the demon has been in evidence in California. The Sixth Grade textbooks are on ancient Indian history. The books in use reflect the ethnocentrism and racism that one might expect. Some of the information could be forgiven as hasty errors, but there are some howlers that must come from a willful disregard for the history of places outside Europe and Northern America: “Hindi is written with the Arabic alphabet” being one silly one, but there are others. The Curriculum Commission quite rightly considered the revision of the school textbooks.
Revisions are of two kinds. One is a kind of quantitative change, which includes the simple act of correcting errors, as well as adding information to the books that has become available to the historical record through the diligent work of researchers. Such changes are normal to the history profession and for the dissemination of historical knowledge. We historians do this all the time: scour the archives, read new materials, learn how to decipher languages and maps, and eventually add to the narratives that are by and large salutary.
Then there is the second kind of revision, what we might consider a qualitative change of the historical narrative. When the English wrote histories of India, they understood the past to be stagnant and to be barbaric. James Mill, the Utilitarian philosopher and East India Company bureaucrat, produced this narrative in 1817, with the confident assumption that finally, after centuries of timelessness, the British would rescue India. India waited, in Mill’s account, for British deliverance.
When the nationalist movement matured in the 1880s onward, the disgruntled civil servants and other professionals began to tell their own version of Indian history. The great Bengali man of letters, Bankimchandra Chatterjee wrote, “We have no history. We must have a history.” In the midst of the battle for more opportunities for the bureaucrats, and later in the battle for Swaraj, the historical narrative of India had to be created. It is in the writing of history that a nation is able to create its imagination of itself, and indeed this is what the nationalist historians did. While some (like Bankim) went into the soul to craft fictional narratives, others went after the evidence.
R. C. Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji rewrote the British assumptions of progress, as they showed how British rule destroyed the social development achieved by the Indian people and stifled any progress for the vast mass (this became known as the “Drain of Wealth” thesis); V. D. Savarkar (despite his viscous hatred of Muslims) immortalized the 1857 uprising; and, eventually, Jawaharlal Nehru used his time in jail to produce a most elegant biography of the composite culture of the Indian people (his 1946 Discovery of India). In addition, in the Diaspora, the Bengali-English-Swedish writer Rajini Palme Dutt published the extraordinarily influential India Today (1945), which laid out the history of the subcontinent based on its contemporary aspirations. All these books were written in response to the denigrations of the British story about India.
Independent India made little addition to these nationalist narratives until the 1970s. Stodgy books that glorified the nation ignored the fractures that had begun to open up within the new republic. The tale of Rajas and Brahmins, and later of Mughal Emperors and British commissars, and finally of the Freedom Movement’s leaders, bored the minds of at least two generations of students. European and U. S. books on India were worse. They had not the advantage of the nationalist revisions. But both shared the misfortune of being elite narratives: the one, the nationalist, being careful to promote the vision of a nation suppressed and then resplendent after 1947, the other, the Euro-American, willfully able to disregard the complexity of the Indian social formation and its struggles.
I remember being invited to central New York state to give a lecture at a conference of community college teachers in the mid-1990s. When I finished my talk on the complex struggles over caste over the past thousand years (a mammoth topic no doubt), the organizer carped that I had not simply explained the idea of “caste” in the Purusha Sukta and left it at that (the text is well-known: brahmanosya mukhamasit, bahu rajanyah kritaha, uru tadasya yadvaishyaha, padhyagam shudro ajayata…..to wit, Brahmins come from the head, and what not). He wanted me to offer a static portrait of Indian society, with caste as a frozen practice. The nationalist in me wanted to say that caste is fungible and more fluid than this sociological sand-trap of the Vedic texts. However, this would not only deny the reality of caste oppression, but it would also insufficiently explain the massive upsurge of caste based political movements, and of the centrality of caste as the constraint to Indian modernity. In other words, neither the colonial nor the early nationalist narratives are enough.
In the 1970s, historians began to place struggles at the center of the narrative of history. This was known as “social history,” and it entailed the study of competing values across classes and castes, with an emphasis on gender and ethnicity. Later scholars would challenge the way the environment operated in the logic of Indian history. All this was beneficial. It did not come without stresses and strains. For one, this new historical dynamics (whose main practitioners were mainly Marxists) had an investment in the world of labor and of the dispossessed. This meant that, while their narratives adhered to the strict evidentiary protocols of history, they did nonetheless write a “history from below,” a history that put at its center the values and visions of the working people of Indian history. From a U. S. angle, this was called “people’s history.” Historians of India in the U. S. did not go for this approach by and large, and even those that did had little impact on the history books written for Grade Six. Those books reek of the colonial prejudices that patronize the world and treat it as important, but lesser than the story of Europe and its peoples.
When the Hindutva groups gained strength in the 1980s, they did so on the claim of culture rather than on any substantial political platform. They called for the destruction of mosques, the construction of temples, the removal of street names, etc. In other words, the BJP and its various filial organizations emerged as central actors in a debate over history. They produced a narrative much narrower than that of the Marxists, of the early nationalists and of the colonialists: for them, India had a great ancient past when the Brahmin-Kshatriyas ruled; India went downhill after the “Muslim” invasion; the British were bad, but at least they provided technology; and it was now for the “Hindu” parties to redeem India and expunge the “Muslim” element. Not for the BJP historian the complexities of caste, of class, of gender, of region, etc. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 was an attempt to rewrite the history books on the streets, while the take-over of the Indian Council of Historical Research was an attempt to do the same in the academy. The BJP assault has been put on hold with their defeat from governance.
When the State Board in California asked for assistance from historians of India and the community of Indian Americans, these previous debates replayed themselves. Most of what is happening in California is not new: it repeats these earlier arguments. The books need revision. That is without doubt. But whose story gets told? The Hindu American Foundation and its allies want to replicate a BJP type story that avoids the many important challenges facing Indian society (such as caste oppression and gender disparities, not to speak of the massive class distinctions and hierarchies that continue to bedevil the lives of Indians). How can one underestimate these divides, given the epidemic of farmer suicides, of anti-dalit violence, of femicide? On the other hand, one can appreciate the unease among upwardly mobile Indian Americans who want an unblemished account taught to their kids so that they can feel proud in their classrooms – this is the bland promise of multiculturalism. So we tell our children that India is great, and that there are no problems. Then we take our kids to India to visit the grandparents, and they are startled to experience the disparities and cultural cruelty toward certain sections of society. This is a recipe for self-hatred and for cultural schizophrenia.
I have a personal investment in a more complex narrative of Indian history. Not only am I a historian who has written such a book (a social history of a Dalit community), but I am also a father. I want my two children to experience an India that has a history to which they can be proud, and yet one that impels them to fight to make the India of our dreams in the future rather than indulge in a fantasy of an India Shining. India could shine. It isn’t shining now. Where is Saraswati when we need her?