harappan figures

The Battle to Represent Marginalized Histories in California Textbooks

Textbook controversies are nothing new — and they are important. From Texas, where textbooks gloss over slavery and Jim Crow, to, well, Texas, where biology textbooks like to inform us that creationism is a scientific theory on par with evolution, textbooks have long been a space of debating social power.

This article from Aria Thaker in The Caravan does a great job of taking apart the most recent controversy, about the teaching of Indian — and particularly Hindu — history in California.

Basically, conservative Hindu-American groups are attempting to push a number of edits into California’s public school history teachers’ guides. These edits contest the use of “South Asia” for pre-Independence India and minimize the role of caste injustice and gender injustice in Indian — and specifically Hindu — history. Progressive South-Asian American groups, including Dalit (“Untouchable” caste) groups, Indian Muslim groups, and South Asian studies scholars, are resisting the changes.

Activists’ critiques of these edits say they are not only historically inaccurate, but represent an ideological approach to history that minimizes the histories of oppressed communities. A number of the groups advocating for these changes endorse a Hindutva ideology, or the idea that (upper-caste) Hindus ought to have cultural and religious dominance in religiously and ethnically diverse India.

Activists connect the current battle to larger struggles over historical narrative and power, especially in the context of ongoing right-wing crackdowns against intellectual freedom and anti-caste activism in India. As Thaker writes:

In a statement for public release, Umar Malick, the president of the Indian American Muslim Council, said, “Hindu-supremacist groups in India have a long track record of meddling with the history books to advance their views and spread hatred among communities. We are seeing the same players now trying to get their hands on the US curriculum through revisions to the CA textbook framework.”

Activists also point out a very tricky aspect of the debate: Namely, that conservative groups are using the language of social justice to support edits that would effectively erase the histories of marginalized groups. Some advocates for the edits present their agenda as one of returning South Asian history to South Asian people and away from the Western academy. At first, this makes sense: The legacy of colonialism is still alive and well in a ton of Western writing on India. But, as activists point out, the changes suggested aren’t about accurately representing Indian history at all– they’re about promoting a certain vision of Indian history that favors dominant groups.

Of course, this isn’t only a problem that affects the study of Indian history — historical injustices haunt American textbooks, often minimized or unnamed. This case is thus important not only for the history of India, but for setting a standard for accurate, rich history curricula that confront — not erase — legacies of inequality.

The board’s final decision will come out in May.

The cover image is a figurine from the Harappan Civilization, a Bronze-Age South Asian civilization whose history is one of many political battlegrounds in South Asian historiography. She is clearly pissed off about being a pawn in right-wing political agendas.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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