Framing the California textbooks debate

BY VAMSEE JULURI| IN Media Monitoring | 16/06/2016
How did the US and Indian media convert an attempt to erase ‘’India’ and ‘Hinduism’ into a fight between ‘bad’ Hindus and ‘good’ secularists?
VAMSEE JULURI shows how the debate was reframed by the media


The debate about how Indian history will be taught in California’s schools received a great amount of media attention in India and the United States.  While the review process of the History Social Science Frameworks has been underway for over a year, with comments being made by scholars, parents, students, and community organizations at different stages of the process, it is telling that there was relatively little or no coverage in India or the United States until March 2016. 

The Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) issued a draft last September, heard public comments, then issued another draft in December, and finally closed comments in February. What triggered a major media debate though was the decision that followed.

About ten days before its scheduled March 24th meeting, the IQC announced the outcome of the CHSSP review of the public comment offered by scholars and the public on the draft narrative. There were 131 edits offered to the narrative separately by various professors of Hinduism and religious studies, Hindu advocacy organizations like HAF and HEF, a scholarly body consisting of archeologists and historians advising the Uberoi Foundation, parents and other community groups.

 Only seven edits out of 131 were accepted.

On the other hand, a group of fifteen professors calling themselves the South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG) also submitted a list of 78 edits, out of which 62 were accepted.  Around 30 of these edits pertained to two clearly stated academic positions expressed by the SAFG in their letters: a) that most references to India before 1947 be changed to “South Asia” and b) references to “Hinduism” be changed to “religion of ancient India.” 

These changes also must be seen in the context of a decade long debate about how Hinduism is portrayed in the curriculum, with dozens of students testifying about how discriminatory, derogatory and dated the lessons were (see The discriminatory dimension lay in the fact that there were virtually no critical discussions of  issues like slavery, colonialism and genocide in the history of other religions (see the following analysis on comparative depictions here) whereas the discussion on Hinduism was overwhelmingly about caste and had little about ancient Indian philosophy, culture, and accomplishments (although California laws call for the curriculum to recognize positive accomplishments of diverse cultures and instill pride in one's heritage).

The derogatory and dated dimensions lay in the fact that even as late as the 2014 draft, the language continued to use old colonial-era terminology and a watered down "Aryan Invasion" narrative with its racialist undertones ("Brahmins claimed Indo-Aryan heritage" for example, and "penetrated" into India), leading sometimes to awkward classroom exercises in which 12 year olds could get asked to play "priests," "servants" and "untouchables."

These concerns however did not persuade several South Asia studies scholars and some Dalit activists and their self-identified upper caste supporters from viewing those criticizing them as Hindu nationalists out to sanitize caste discrimination. While some changes took place in the draft over the months in 2015, several points singularly and clearly critical of Hinduism on caste and gender issues remained.

These facts are useful to keep in mind while looking at the media coverage that came about from March: while the caste debate was an important ongoing one, there were no edits from Hindu groups or scholars on caste that were actually accepted at that point. On the other hand, the SAFG’s recommendations for removing “India” and “Hinduism” from key places in the narrative were overwhelmingly accepted, and that was the action which triggered the events and media coverage that followed.

The Scholars for People Petition 

The main subject of the first few reports in March was the protest against the proposed acceptance of the SAFG recommendations that would replace meaningful and historically valid terms of reference like India and Hinduism with phrases like South Asia, Indian Subcontinent, Northern Indian plains, and “ancient Indian religion.” The community petition initiated by Scholars for People, a forum of professional and lay scholars and public intellectuals, gathered over ten thousand signatures within three to four days (and peaked at 25,000 supporters later). The petition, along with several other letters of protest from scholars and community groups, led to a reconsideration by the IQC of several of these edits at its March 24th meeting. 

While the initial news reports about the textbooks focused on the petition and the changes being proposed to how India would be referred, subsequent news reports began to reframe or attempt to reframe the debate in various ways as I discuss below.

There were close to 30 news reports and analyses that appeared from the time of the March decision to delete or alter references to India and Hinduism and the conclusion of the May 19th meeting of the full membership of IQC. In this period, there were also several op-eds and blog posts about the issue, many written by scholars and activists involved with the process of submitting suggestions to the IQC including myself. I do not include below either my articles or those of others involved in the process but several of them can be found in the Indian Express, Huffington Post, and elsewhere.  I have also not included exclusive interviews with those involved, and focused mainly on how the issue was perceived and presented by those not intimately involved with it.

My main objective in presenting the following table is to show how different writers and publications framed the debate, in terms of the headlines they chose as well as the way in which they presented different participants in the process (as a debate in academia, or as fight between academia and Hindu nationalist organizations, for example) . This is not yet an exhaustive analysis, but it fairly clear from the data below that the coverage of the issue began in late March initially as a response to a specific event—the protest against the acceptance of the India/Hinduism erasures—and then went on to reframe it in terms of a fight between Hindu nationalist groups and secular or interfaith groups, an allegation brought up frequently in reports about the California textbook issue since 2005. 



Media Coverage of California Textbook Controversy

(Key: “I” – India naming issue; “H” – Hinduism; “D”- Dalit; “HN” – Hindu Nationalist;)




Framing/ Notes


Times of India

“Should pre1947 India be called South Asia: US Academics Lock Horns Over Name”


(“academics lock horns”)


SF Examiner

“USF Professor Denounces Proposed Elimination of India from CA Textbooks”



PTI Report in NDTV, India Today etc

“Hindus Oppose Proposed Textbook Changes in California”

H, I


Diya TV

“Contentious debate over India’s history in California textbooks”

I, H, D

(notes there are esteemed scholars on both sides but SAFG refused to comment on record)


LA Times

“Nobody wants to erase India from the textbooks: Here’s the real deal”

I  (petition framed as false claim, narrowed to Indus Valley references, other deletions ignored, see The Hoot on this)


India West

“HAF launches new campaign to oppose California textbook edits”

H, I


Washington Post

“Hindu Group Opposes Proposed Textbook Edits”

H, I



“A debate in California brings to fore denials of caste”

D, HN, H


Inside Higher Education

“The religious war against American scholars on India”

HN; “religious war” by Hindus; India petition noted as part of this narrative


The Wire

“Hindutva efforts to rewrite history in California fail”


(factual errors- DCF did not submit changes, no result on 3/28 to warrant declaring “failure”)


NY Times

“Debate erupts in California over curriculum on Indian history”

I, H, D

“fight mirrors HN arguments in India”



“There’s a new battle raging in California about history textbooks: Here’s what you need to know”

HN, D, I

(“Hindu Nationalists v. marginalized people”)


NBC News Asian America

“South Asian community debates India, South Asia ahead of textbook updates”

I, H, D


San Jose Mercury News

“War over words surfaces in California’s classrooms over India’s history”

I, H, D


KQED Forum

“South Asian community split over language for California’s textbooks”

I, H, D



“California to decide today whether Hindu groups can decide what Dalits call themselves in textbooks”



India Facts

“California textbook controversy: India not to be replaced with ‘South Asia’”



Open Magazine

“Hinduism in American Textbooks: Culture of Complaint”




“California to modify how India is depicted in sixth and seventh grade textbooks”

D, HN, I


India West

“India will not be replaced with South Asia in California Textbooks”



Times of India

“’India’ survives, in California textbooks”



NY Times

“California to revise how India is portrayed in textbooks”

I, D


India West

“Interfaith coalition clashes with Hindu groups over textbook portrayal”

D, HN, I


First Post

“California community debates ‘saffronising’ textbooks, Dalits, rewriting of South Asian history”

HN, D, I

“Hindu groups who want history they are comfortable with” v others



“Why Hindu groups are against California textbook change”


“Secular S. Asians v conservative Hindu groups”



“Passport shame: What’s really at the heart of the California textbook row on Hinduism”

H, D, NRIs


Times of India/

“Interfaith coalition clashes with Hindu groups over portrayal of India in California textbooks”


“coalition of 24 orgs representing several south Asian cultures” v “Indian American orgs representing traditional Hindu values”


From “South Asia v. India” to “Hindutva v. Dalits”

A broad question to consider about the overall coverage is how the issue came to be reframed from one based on a specific eventthe acceptance by the CHSSP in March of 30 odd edits that would have removed or replaced India and Hinduism to essentially one about a fear that Hindu or Hindutva groups were trying to sanitize the history of caste oppression in India. While it is important to debate what positions various groups and scholars were trying to advance and why (after all, it was not just alleged “Hindutva groups” but also scholars like  Ramdas Lamb and Diana Eck (see the Social Science and Religion Faculty Group letter here )  who signed off on letters calling among other things for a rethinking about how caste was being depicted in the frameworks), for the sake of the present article I will not judge the merits or faults of the “caste sanitization” allegations but merely focus on how the primary issue, the India/South Asia debate, came to be misrepresented if not overtly marginalized.

The first attempt to misrepresent the India issue in the press appeared on April 1st in a report in the Los Angeles Times (see my response to it in The Hoot earlier here). The “defense,” broadly speaking, being made for the SAFG was that they had not really tried to erase India (I do not believe there was an explicit defense made of their recommendation to erase “Hinduism” and replace it with “ancient Indian religion” as far as I recall) and were only trying to specify the location of the Indus Valley Civilization in present-day Pakistan. 

While a few edits offered by the SAFG arguably had to do with Indus Valley locations, the fact there were several far more blatant erasures of India even in later sections (for example, a line about “India and the Muslim world” being changed to “Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean”), that clearly showed a much wider mandate than “geographic precision.” Although the LA Times slightly corrected itself after my pointing out some fundamental errors in its piece, the effort to downplay the erasure of India persisted in several reports afterwards.  The May 6th New York Times report, for example, referred to the India v South Asia issue not as what it was, a clear position expressed by SAFG that most references before 1947 ought to say “South Asia” and not India, but whether to respect the pluralism of the region which includes Pakistan and Nepal today and as essentially an “image” issue where Hindu groups wanted India’s “influence” to be reflected.

If the actual issue of the attempted denial of India’s existence before 1947 by the SAFG and the CHSSP was downplayed with such flimsy distortions in some reports, the resuscitation of the California textbooks debate as part of some grand “religious war” on scholars by Hindutva forces began to set the stage for a parallel narrative. On April 12, Inside Higher Education published an extensive article entitled “The religious war against American scholars on India,” featuring quotes from several scholars and community organization members. What was surprising about this piece was the fact that a petition that was focused very plainly on the question of what to call India was somehow mentioned as part of laundry list of alleged acts of “religious war” by Hindus against American scholars; as far as I know, it is not an act of “religious warfare” to use the term India instead of South Asia for India.

The Scholars for People petition was subsequently not mentioned at all (or mentioned in passing alongside the HAF’s Don’t Erase India hashtag campaign even though that came later) in several reports. Instead, several reports chose to present the debate as a conflict between “Hindu nationalists and marginalized people” (, which also threw in the words “fundamentalist” for good measure), or as a “clash” between an “interfaith coalition and Hindu groups” (India West).  By early June, the debate was being framed as one between a “coalition of 24 organizations representing several South Asian cultures” versus “Indian American organizations representing traditional Hindu values.”

Objectivity and Advocacy: Some Suggestions

On May 19th the IQC met and discussed about 30 edits pertaining to Indian history. It reversed fully or partially the earlier CHSSP acceptance of 18 out of 20 edits that would have erased India or Hinduism. It continued to support the SAFG’s position on caste and Hinduism, although it reversed the earlier decision to delete the names of Vyasa and Valmiki as suggested by SAFG.  It also, at the last minute, reversed an earlier edit that had been accepted about Islam and slavery, presumably forgetting the previous rationale for its acceptance (one of the criticisms made by Hindu parents and students was that the lessons failed to show equitable treatment of all cultures; Hinduism alone was singled out for criticism on caste while other religions were not mentioned for their role in colonialism, genocide, slavery, misogyny etc.).

The IQC passed on its recommendation to the State Board of Education, which will make its decision in July. The overall outcome of the May 19 meeting may be described as one in which the Scholars for People mandate was successfully fulfilled (the India/South Asia issue), and an important omission corrected in reinstating the word Dalit in the frameworks. The framework will call on teachers to continue to use the words “India” and “Hinduism,” and continue to situate caste in Hinduism, and will begin using the word Dalit for the first time. They will also include one or two positive examples about Hindu thought,  an improvement after years of advocacy by students, parents, and community groups. (The IQC had also reversed the earlier acceptance of a suggestion by SAFG to delete a line noting that ancient Hindu thought accepted religious diversity).

There are two important lessons for those trying to understand this issue objectively. The first of these is the value of framing a debate in terms that reflect reality; there is clearly a visible divide in academia now about Hinduism and Indian history. It cannot be conveniently concealed any longer with all the old tired clichés about a fight between scholars and progressives on the one hand and conservativeHindu/Hindutva/Hindu nationalist/Hindu fundamentalist groups indulging in religious warfare against them on the other hand.

 Several reports in the past few weeks did regrettably try very hard to ignore or silence the fact that some of the most eminent names in academia in the United States and in India were calling on the SAFG and their supporters to reconsider their zealous assumptions. Even if some reports like those in the New York Times and Times of India did note that there were now scholarly supporters on both sides of the debate, the tone in others was still extremely condescending and inaccurate (with the caste debate for instance being portrayed as an issue about the “comfortableness of Hindus” vis-a-vis hard facts and scholarship when it was actually very much a debate among and within the scholarly community about how best to talk about caste and other issues).

The bigger picture is this. In 2005, when the California textbooks issue first captured media attention, it was largely a Hindu American community effort led by parents and activists, and perhaps no more than two scholars weighing in on their side. In 2015, there were over 50 professional scholars and faculty publicly expressing their disagreement with the old scholarly guard, which it seems, has now outsourced its defense to a group of community activists some of whom even compared scholars disagreeing with SAFG (which included B. B. Lal, Diana Eck, Jeffery Long, Ramdas Lamb, Barbara McGraw, Ravi Korisettar, Ruth Vanita, and several dozen others) to “tobacco industry scientists who say smoking isn’t bad for you” at the Sacramento hearing on May 19.  That is the level of cynicism which seems to be proving necessary in some circles in order to defend a failing academic paradigm. 

The second point on which reportage on this issue could have been much better is simply in terms of diligence and precision. The seepage of a certain kind of academic activist culture into journalism under the shelter of the set assumptions and myths that seem to make up the South Asia paradigm was also in evidence over the past few weeks. Self-righteous rants upon being confronted by facts contrary to one’s expectations about the world, are not the hallmark of mature journalism. It was telling that there were very few reports that actually cited or linked to the key documents in the whole process, such as the CHSSP edit summary of March, or the letters submitted by some of the faculty groups involved. Of course, it is also telling that the standards on academic debate plummeted too in the six months from the time the first SAFG letter was submitted to the IQC, with its members resorting to name-calling and evasion in their latest letters rather than actually responding to the criticisms of their positions.

The California textbooks issue is clearly about much more than a school book issue, but has somehow become the point of action where reigning paradigms are being challenged in academia, and it would be appropriate for serious reportage to recognize that as well in the future. 


Vamsee Juluri  is Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco, and author of  Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television (Peter Lang),Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence (Westland, 2015) and The Guru Within (Westland, forthcoming).

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