LeeEsq in comments the other day pointed to this story in the New York Times, about a controversy over curricular choices in South Asian history.
The dispute centers 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, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.
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.
But the Hindu-American group has been particularly active in trying to shape California’s history curriculum. For the last decade, it has been pushing — unsuccessfully — for public schools to give more attention in the curriculum to the Hindu religion and Indian culture.
The language at issue appears in dozens of places in the sixth- and seventh-grade history curriculum where either the terms India or South Asia could be used. Scholarly groups on both sides have submitted suggestions to the committee.
For example, a reference to “Early Civilizations of India” could be “Early Civilizations of South Asia,” or “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in India” could instead be “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in South Asia.”
“The civilization that is being covered is Indian,” said Suhag Shukla, the 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.
It’s appropriate that this came up in a discussion of the memorialization of treason in defense of slavery; the parallel between the way Confederate apologists and Hindu nationalists deploy symbols and curricula to advocate for their preferred account of history. The effort to portray Caste discrimination and untouchability as something only contingently connected to Hinduism bears a distinct family resemblance to the effort to suggest white supremacy and slavery are somehow marginal to or detachable from the confederate cause. (Right down to the whole “we’re the oppressed ones in the new world order” routine.) It’s tempting to see this as evidence of the spread of right-wing Hindu nationalism, but it appears this particular fight predates the current rise of the BJP.
On a related note, on my reading list for this summer (and I hope/plan to blog about it a bit when I get to it) is the new critical annotated edition of B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar is an important and ignored figure in India’s independence; the most prominent Dalit/untouchable leader of the mid-20th century, India’s first law minister, and key architect of the Indian constitution. This book began as a speech Ambedkar prepared for a conference of reformist Hindus against untouchability. He wasn’t allowed to give the speech, because it departed from the party line (embraced by Gandhi as well) that rejecting untouchability didn’t mean rejecting the Caste system more broadly) and subsequently self-published. The new edition has caused some controversy and attention in part because of the inclusion of a controversial commentary essay by noted novelist Arundhati Roy. From what I can gather, her essay has drawn criticism from all sides. Dalit activists object in principle to a high-caste Gandhian celebrity being associated with the work of their leader and hero. On the other side, her essay has been criticized for cynically using Ambedkar as a convenient stick to hit Gandhi with, rather than taking him seriously as a thinker in his own right.
This is particularly interesting to me in part because the current boomlet of scholarship on Gandhi’s political theory has largely ignored Ambedkar, which is an unfortunate (and, I suspect, potentially revealing) omission. As Gandhi became politically sainted in the Indian nationalist narrative, attention to his adversaries (even adversaries whom Gandhi clearly respected and admired, like Ambedkar) became politically difficult. There’s a large grant set aside for the project of Ambedkar’s collected works that no Indian university has yet taken advantage of). Over the course of his career he had a number of important disputes with Gandhi:
* The Sequencing of social and political revolution
Both Gandhi and Ambedkar wanted to see a political revolution (against the British) and a social revolution (against both inter-religious conflict and the horrors of untouchability). For Gandhi, political revolution was the priority; only after self-rule could India productively tackle its own social problems. For Ambedkar, who owed his opportunities and education to the British policy of employing and educating Dalits, social progress to the point that independence wouldn’t be likely to make matters worse was seen as a prerequisite for political independence. This reticence to endorse immediate political revolution has been used by hackish Hindu nationalists to paint Ambedkar as a colonial sympathizer. This is grossly unfair; Ambedkar viewed the impact of British rule for Dalits as a mixed bag at best and was clear that real emancipation not just for India but for Dalits in India, required Independence.
In the early 30’s, Gandhi and Ambedkar strongly disagreed over a British plan to allow for separate electorates, which would have allowed Dalits to elect Dalits. Ambedkar thought this was crucial; Gandhi was so appalled by it he launched a hunger strike against it. (Ambedkar caved, agreeing to the Poona Pact, which created minimum levels for Dalit representation while abandoning separate electorates. This seems to be a turning point for him in his view of Gandhi; he gave in in part out of fear that Gandhi would literally starve himself to death if he didn’t win.) Gandhi’s strong opposition to this plan was rooted in his vision of Hindu unity; he believed separate electorates would reify existing differences. Ambedkar viewed the control to choose their own representatives as essential for self-defense.
* Untouchability and Hinduism
Gandhi viewed Dalits as a group of people who were Hindu but mistreated by other Hindus. Ambedkar viewed them as an oppressed group forced into a kind of Hindu-but-not-really identity by the dominant caste Hindus. (He speculates that the origins of untouchability might have been as a punishment/retaliation by caste Hindus for Buddhists who defied Hindu dietary law, whereas those Buddhists who ) Gandhi viewed this revisionism as an attack on Hinduism. For the last 20 years of his life, Ambedkar publicly mused about the possibility of a political conversion, at times considering various religions to convert to, often declaring he would not die a Hindu. On his deathbed he announced his conversion to Buddhism, which led to millions of immediate Dalit conversions. To this day, Dalits risk losing the rights Ambedkar fought for in the constitutional convention, which includes various protections against discrimination and access to public employment, if they publicly convert to another religion.)
* Temple Entry
In the 1930’s some of the progressive Princes in India began to promote temple entry laws. Generally, Dalits were banned from from entering most Hindu temples. Ambedkar supported such laws, employing the coercive power of the state to force Temples to allow Dalit entry. Gandhi supported entry rights, but objected to the use of state violence to bring them about, preferring a politics of persuasive protest and nonviolent resistance. A standard western liberal approach to religious freedom would have to side with Gandhi here, of course–the temples are privately owned–but that would require placing Hinduism, conceptually, entirely in the private sphere, which (Ambedkar argued) makes little sense in an Indian context.
In general, this is reflective of some of the differences in their political outlook. Ambedkar was comfortable with the use of the coercive power of the state, whereas Gandhi was an advocate of nonviolence who flirted with anarchism. Gandhi held a romanticized notion of “village democracy” whereas Ambedkar saw the future of a better India in cities, where the centuries of entrenched discrimination might stand a better chance of being reversed.
At any rate, I’m way out of my depth here but I’m convinced Ambedkar deserves more attention as a political thinker–as an advocate for oppressed peoples, for his complicated views on colonialism, his role in shaping the Indian constitution, his views on religion and politics, his feminism (just as the caste system was incompatible with the end of untouchability, in his view, caste obsessions with purity were in his view wholly incompatible with gender equality and meaningful citizenship rights for women.) and his application of Deweyan pragmatism (he studied with Dewey at Columbia and according to one biographer was working on a paper on Dewey’s influence on his thought when he died. While he wrote little about Dewey, as Arun Mukherjee has demonstrated his work often quoted or paraphrased Dewey’s work, especially Democracy and Education, without attribution), and his disputes with Gandhi. With belligerent right-wing Hindu nationalism on the rise he seems particularly worthy of attention now.
Update: Jeremy W., in comments, provides a link to a substantial excerpt from Roy’s controversial introduction.