Suhag Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which has started the social media campaign #DontEraseIndia.
Suhag Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which has started the social media campaign #DontEraseIndia.

Victors are said to write history. But in California, history is being written by a committee that is at the center of a raging debate over how to tell the story of South Asia as it tries to update textbooks and revise curriculums for Grades 6 and 7.

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.

When the committee met earlier this spring, dozens of students turned out at the State Capitol, some in tears, earnestly telling the educators that anything other than India would amount to erasing their heritage.

State educators have also heard debates about the portrayal of so-called comfort women in World War II, the Armenian genocide and discrimination against Sikhs in the United States. But none of the arguments have persisted as strongly as the fight over the Indian subcontinent. That is a reflection of the transformation in California’s population, where Asians, including South Asians, are the fastest-growing demographic.

“We have a lot of people engaged in this because we have such a vibrant, diverse state,” said the deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, adding, “What we’re really trying to do here is make sure that the children of California have a curriculum that helps them understand all these groups.”

But first, the committee has to deal with a fight that mirrors similar arguments being made in India, where Hindu nationalist governments have begun overhauls of textbooks in some states.

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 — an idea that is not universally accepted in India.

A group of other scholars challenge the historical accuracy of this view. They say the area should be referred to as South Asia.

They also say the foundation is trying to sanitize history by wiping out any link between Hinduism and castes.

A page from a California textbook describing the caste system in India. Ms. Shetty wondered why a photograph showing an untouchable walking through a trash-strewn street was included in the book.
A page from a California textbook describing the caste system in India. Ms. Shetty wondered why a photograph showing an untouchable walking through a trash-strewn street was included in the book.

The debate has been closely watched by Indian newspapers, which chronicle the smallest changes in the proposals. California students are also jumping in with passion.

Vidhima Shetty, a high school freshman, told the committee that using the term South Asian would be akin to asking her to change her name.

“Names are what define us as people; they represent character and personality,” she said. “The board is confusing our cultural terms with geographical terms. By removing India as a term from the textbooks this leaves Indian-American children with no ethnic or cultural identification to turn to. When we acknowledge ourselves as South Asians, us Hindus are forced to re-identify ourselves as something we are not.”

Perhaps no state other than California, with its large immigrant population, would have such a contentious fight.

There are roughly 2.2 million immigrants from India living in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. California, with its vibrant technology industry, has attracted the most in the nation, as many have settled in the Bay Area and in Southern California.

According to the foundation, nearly half of the 2.5 million Hindus in the United States live in California.

Vidhima Shetty, a high school freshman in San Ramon, Calif. She said that using the term South Asian was akin to asking her to change her name.
Vidhima Shetty, a high school freshman in San Ramon, Calif. She said that using the term South Asian was akin to asking her to change her name.

The textbook dispute has come up as the state’s Instructional Quality Commission debates a new framework for the kindergarten to 12th grade social science curriculum, an effort meant to include new research and reflect the state’s increasing diversity. The State Board of Education will vote on the final changes next month.

The resolution could affect schoolchildren well beyond California’s borders. Although the standards that the commission approves will be written into California’s textbooks, because the state is so large, textbooks that are made based on its framework are often used elsewhere as well.

The Hindu-American group is hardly alone in pushing for changes in the way ethnic groups are portrayed. The state’s committee also heard from Filipino, Korean and Mexican advocates.

“There have been a lot of groups that are eager for us to include their history in the framework.”

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.

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 Thomas Hansen, a professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Stanford University, say this position glosses over an uncomfortable topic.
Mr. Hansen has butted heads with the Hindu American Foundation for more than a decade over how Indian history is taught in California.

“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.”

He said that the caste system was an integral part of Indian society even today with roots in the Hindu religion.

“It distorts reality,” Mr. Hansen said. “This is important for children to understand. Our duty is to make sure that the history is keeping with the scholarly research rather than give in to what a particular group wants.”

Ms. Shukla said her group was not trying to deny the fact that castes exist, but arguing only that tying it to Hinduism was unfair. She said many students had reported being bullied after they completed the current teachings about Hinduism and the caste system.

She recalled that when she was a child in Cupertino in the 1980s, she was asked to stand up in her classes to explain the caste system and answer questions about whether her marriage would be arranged.

“Every religion has some form of caste and discrimination,” Ms. Shukla said. “We’re not trying to deny the fact that this became a hierarchical and discriminatory practice, but this has to be discussed in a nuanced manner.”

During a hearing, dozens of Indian students spoke out against the changes the South Asian scholars have suggested to the commission, accusing them of “Hinduphobia” and robbing them of selfhood.

Ms. Shukla is also pressing the state to include the idea that Hindus in India have a historical acceptance of religious diversity, allowing Jews and Zoroastrians to come to India as they escaped persecution in nearby lands.

Michael Witzel, a Harvard University professor of Sanskrit who has also been pressing California for changes that Hindu advocates have objected to for nearly a decade, said the entire controversy was one of image protection.

“Castes are a hot-button issue, and people living in the United States don’t want to talk about it or want to deny it,” he said. “But it’s ingrained in the society, and it has its roots in sacred texts.”

In the midst of the back-and-forth, said the deputy superintendent, “the commission is trying to strike a balance.”