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The California History Textbook Debate: Why Progressive South Asians and Hindus Must Speak Up

The California History Textbook Debate: Why Progressive South Asians and Hindus Must Speak Up

What should California’s sixth and seventh graders learn from their history and social studies books about the South Asian region and South Asian religions? Over the past few months, community advocates, organizations, and scholars have been engaged in a contentious process, proposing edits and counter-edits about how California textbooks should describe and characterize the South Asian region, South Asian history, and religions followed by South Asians.

On one side of the debate is a diverse coalition of 24 interfaith and intercaste organizations called South Asian Histories For All, which has been holding the line against the efforts of a well-funded Hindu lobby that includes groups such as the Hindu American Foundation, the Uberoi Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation and the California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM). These groups, as Eesha Pandit mentions in her piece here, have faced questions about their ties to Hindu nationalism. The South Asian Histories for All coalition has pointed out that the suggestions proposed by this Hindu lobby include distortions of Sikh and Muslim history, and the characterization of the caste system as merely a regional set of social practices, rather than as an oppressive institution rooted in Hinduism that discriminates against and marginalizes communities.

Progressive South Asians and Hindus must pay attention to these misleading, inaccurate and revisionist narratives, and most importantly, we must speak up. Doing so is often neither easy nor comfortable. In writing this piece, for example, I contended with my own caste privilege. As a light-skinned South Indian who was born into an Iyer Brahmin family, as my last name very visibly attests, I have operated for decades under the assumption that the caste system is an antiquated structure of a past that we left behind when my family immigrated to the United States from India in the mid-1980s.

But this is simply not true. Like many others, I have unwittingly and unknowingly gained benefits from being a member of a high Hindu caste, even if I do not subscribe to or embrace this identity in my daily life.

This is because as with many other ingrained biases and perceptions that South Asians hold, caste discrimination has migrated with the diaspora. Within the Hindu community in India, the United Kingdom and the United States, caste privilege and caste discrimination continue to exist, often unnoticed and under the surface, but with loud reverberations on the communities that are excluded and marginalized. We can spot it in the hierarchy of access within institutions that privilege Hindus, the hegemony of the Hindu religion in inter-faith spaces, the delivery of Hindu religious services, the decisions related to marriage within many families, and the unspoken standards of cultural and social acceptability that implicitly advantage people who are upper-caste, Hindu, and light-skinned.

This even happens in the non-profit sector and social justice spaces. During my work at a progressive national South Asian American organization for a decade, for example, my peers and I were very vigilant about creating safe spaces at community events that respected the diversity and complexity of class, immigration status, and language ability navigated by South Asians. But, we did not think enough about creating caste-safe spaces, in large part because of my own lack of understanding about the ongoing influence of caste bias in the diaspora.

Clearly, the caste system and its effects are not a remnant of the past or only a set of regional practices. Learning the truths then about the origins and ongoing impact of the caste system is not a wasted effort, especially for American children growing up in a country where the racial demographics are changing rapidly. If framed and presented truthfully, information in our children’s history textbooks about the caste system will result in increased empathy and understanding for others. Students will also be better equipped to make connections with other systems of oppression that they are learning about inside and outside their classrooms. In the same ways that learning about the system of Jim Crow segregation in the American South, the Japanese American internment, and the post 9/11 environment for Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim provides students with a critical lens to analyze race and immigration in America, so will information about the caste system give students an important critical lens to approach and understand the effects of discrimination and exclusion. Sanitizing history and erasing the experiences of marginalized peoples is not a worthwhile cause for those of us committed to diversity, justice, and equality.

One of the arguments that has emerged about the characterization of the caste system in the California textbook debate is that Indian and Hindu children will be forced to explain or defend their religion’s unsavory practices. The Washington Post has reported on a statement made by Akanksha Maddi, a California ninth grader, through the Hindu American Foundation. Maddi wrote: “My classmates and teachers think that we Hindus still believe in primitive and unjust practices…I don’t want my friends to look down upon me and my culture because of my textbook.”

I’m sure that many of us can relate to Maddi’s sentiments given our own experiences of being singled out in classrooms and having to respond to questions from peers and teachers. But our experiences will not change simply by excluding or mischaracterizing information about the caste system. Instead of focusing on the erasure or revision of history and practice, we should be ensuring that teachers are properly trained to present material in classrooms and are creating safe learning environments where no child has to experience what Maddi has. That’s how systemic change will happen.

Let’s also be clear about how and why anti-Hindu bigotry happens. While examples of anti-Hindu bigotry can be found in South Asian American history – think of the mobs that targeted “Hindoo” migrant workers at the turn of the twentieth century, or the Dotbusters who harassed and assaulted Indians in Jersey City in the 1980s, or the vandalism against Hindu temples in post 9/11 America – this type of discrimination occurs because Hindus and Indians are perceived as foreigners, outsiders, job-stealers, undesirable immigrants and “Muslim terrorists.” Anti-Hindu bias does not occur because its perpetrators have an analysis about or are motivated by caste bias. Caste is not easy to spot, whereas the characteristics of being brown in America today – the vulnerability factor for South Asians – are often very obvious.

The California textbook struggle offers an opportunity for progressive and upper caste Hindus to raise our voices. That means acknowledging our own caste privileges and the ways we benefit from it. It means committing to working towards the dismantlement of the caste system altogether, one that has been characterized by activists to slavery and apartheid. If South Asians are involved in efforts and rhetoric to tear down the system of white supremacy and to support Black and Latino communities in the United States around police brutality or the deportation crisis, we must also just as fiercely raise our voices against caste discrimination, Hindutva, and the influence of the Hindu nationalist lobby, especially in higher education.

This Thursday, the California Department of Education will be holding another hearing on proposed revisions to the history textbook struggle. Here’s what you can do.

What Can I Do?

  1. The first steps to annihilating caste are to learn more and to speak up. Learn about caste privilege and discrimination with this primer, and share this survey on caste in the diaspora widely.
  1. This week – and especially on Thursday, July 14th – send a message to the California Board of Education. It’s important for non-Californians to do so as well to demonstrate that we are listening and monitoring what is happening in Sacramento. Use or tweak the sample message below (ready for Twitter-use):

I’m a South Asian who wants children to learn the truth abt the caste system, @CADeptEd. Accept the edits of @desihistory4all

You can also call the department at 916-319-0800 or write to them through their online form.

If you are in California, attend the California Board of Education meeting on July 14th in Sacramento. For information please email

  1. Hold events, conversations, and online forums at summer leadership programs, college campuses, and places of worship about issues brought up in the California textbook debate, and how you will deal with them when your state starts to revise guidelines.

Deepa Iyer is the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future. She blogs at and tweets @dviyer.

The Untold Narratives in Post 9/11 America

The Untold Narratives in Post 9/11 America

On the fourteenth anniversary of September 11th, I wrote a piece in The Guardian about the invisible and untold narratives that continue to exist.

“Most of the undergraduates in my courses on Asian- and South Asian American communities, were in kindergarten when the attacks of 11 September 2001 occurred, so they have lived in the reality of post-9/11 America for most of their lives.

But their ability to critically analyze our government’s policies and practices in the post-9/11 environment is limited, because the narrative about the day and its aftermath – lives lost; War on Terror triggered – excludes the stories of South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities in America and their ongoing experiences with hate violence, discrimination, government surveillance and profiling.”

Read more here.

Our Streets, Our Stories

Our Streets, Our Stories

Take a walk towards 204th Street and 35th Avenue in Bayside, Queens, and you might notice a street by the name of Salman Hamdani Way.

Streets in America often get named after people whose stories need to be remembered. I have no doubt that the naming of Salman Hamdani Way this week in Queens was the result of consistent and tenacious advocacy by Salman’s mother, Talat Hamdani. I first met Talat in March 2011 when she spoke at the National South Asian Summit hosted by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). We had asked our speakers to reflect on the ten-year anniversary of the September 11th tragedy, which was to be commemorated later that year. Talat paid a moving tribute to her son, Salman, a Pakistani American who was trained as an EMT and NYPD cadet. Salman had rushed into the Twin Towers on September 11th to be one of the first responders. Salman lost his life that day.

As his family struggled to endure the pain of losing Salman, they had to simultaneously deal with allegations that Salman was somehow linked to the 9/11 attackers. As Talat recounted the story, each of us was touched in some way. A new mother at the time myself, I couldn’t imagine the pain that Talat had endured. At the same time, I remember feeling angry and frustrated by the injustice that Salman and his family faced.

Talat channeled her anger and pain towards publicly remembering Salman’s legacy, and what it means in a post 9/11 America. As time passed, Salman’s name was cleared and he received praise and recognition from New York City leaders, as well as Rep. Keith Ellison, who memorialized Salman in a moving speech during the infamous King hearings on Muslim radicalization. Talat has continued her quest to have Salman’s heroism publicly acknowledged – including at the 9/11 Memorial where his name is not located with the other first responders – and to eliminate the ongoing assumptions of disloyalty weighed against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, as they were against her son.

This week, part of Talat’s quest has been achieved. A street in Queens, on a block where Salman grew up, now bears her son’s name, and hopefully, it will prompt questions from curious children and passers by, seeking to understand who Salman Hamdani was, and what his story means to all of us.


Talat Hamdani with elected leaders at the naming of Salman Hamdani Way on Monday, April 28, 2014 (Picture courtesy of Umair Khan)

Salman represents the often forgotten stories and experiences of many South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims over the past 13 years. As we build national narratives around the post 9/11 experience, the stories of South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims – communities affected by targeting and xenophobia in the name of national security – are often underrepresented or forgotten. What happened to the “disappeared” – the men detained and deported off streets and out of their homes in the weeks after 9/11? What happened to the families devastated by the special registration policy that required boys and men over the age of 16 from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries to report to immigration authorities?

When our stories are told, they are sometimes misrepresented, as seen in the faith-based and community criticisms over the depiction of Islam in the National September 11th Memorial Museum opening in May or in the xenophobic rhetoric of some of our political leaders.

Storytelling, documentation, organizing and advocacy grounded in the struggles as well as in the moments of resistance and leadership within our communities can give us a more complete sense of how we have come together – and how we have unraveled – in post 9/11 America. And for that, we need the voices of organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights that continues to litigate on behalf of detained South Asian and Arab men, of filmmakers like Theresa Thanjan who captured the plight of families devastated by special registration, of groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving which organizes family members of detainees; of national advocacy groups like SAALT, NNAAC and others who move our communities’ experiences into policy and media spaces; and of grassroots efforts like the Bay Area Walking History Tour, which reveals a radical history of South Asians organizing and resisting on the streets of Berkeley, including after 9/11.

And we are indebted to mothers like Talat Hamdani whose love for her son and her pursuit of justice inspires each of us to reach towards her vision of a better America.

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