Hot debate in US over teaching India's history

Dispute centres on whether region should be referred to as India or South Asia

LOS ANGELES • Victors are said to write history. But in California, history is being written by a committee that is at the centre of a raging debate over how to tell the story of South Asia as it tries to update textbooks and revise curriculums for grades six and seven (equivalent to Primary 6 and Secondary 1).

The dispute centres on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there, particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947.

It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women's role in society and the vestiges of the caste system.

It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces. When the committee met earlier this spring, dozens of students turned out in Sacramento county, some in tears, earnestly telling the educators that anything other than India would amount to erasing their heritage.

On one side are advocates from the Hindu American Foundation, which seeks to shape the image of Hinduism in the United States. Backed by some scholars, they want the entire area under dispute to be referred to as India, reflecting what they say is the most important influence in the area. They also want the caste system to be explained as a phenomenon of the region, not as a Hindu practice.


It would be like calling ancient Rome 'Italy'.

DR THOMAS HANSEN, a professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Stanford University.

A group of other scholars challenges the historical accuracy of this view. This group says the area should be referred to as South Asia.

"The civilisation that is being covered is Indian," said Ms Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which started the social media campaign #DontEraseIndia.

"When you talk about ancient India, that's the birthplace of Indian students," she said.

The foundation also says the caste system should not be taught as part of the Hindu religion and culture, but rather explained more generally as part of the region's history.

"This is an issue not only about accuracy, but also cultural competency," Ms Shukla said.

But scholars like Dr Thomas Hansen, a professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Stanford University, say this position glosses over an uncomfortable topic.

"The issue is when you can use the term Indian and when you can use Hinduism," he said, as opposed to South Asia. "This group has a lot of interest in calling everything Hindu and Indian so that it can equate modern-day India with historic roots. But it's absurd. It would be like calling ancient Rome 'Italy'."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'Hot debate in US over teaching India's history'. Subscribe