Textbook Tempest in California: Who Speaks for Hinduism?

— Purnima Bose

DECADES AFTER THEIR arrival in the United States in significant numbers following the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, Indian Americans are entering the political fray.  Like other ethnic communities, Indian Americans are not a monolithic group.  Yet the most conservative Hindu elements have had some success in claiming to represent the whole community in recent debates regarding the certification of sixth grade history textbooks in California.

Every six years, the California State Board of Education (SBE) reviews educational materials for its core subjects (History-Social Science, Mathematics, Reading/ Language Arts, Science).

In 2005, the history-social science texts were up for evaluation.  As mandated, the SBE made the proposed textbooks available for public scrutiny and commentary.  During hearings at the end of September 2005, representatives of several Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu organizations testified to problematic aspects of the educational materials.  Two organizations with ties to militant Hindu nationalist groups in India, the Hindu Educational Foundation (HEF) and the Vedic Foundation (VF), complained vociferously that the textbooks' representations of Hinduism and ancient Indian history were demeaning and stereotypical.(1) As a corrective, the religious organizations submitted lists of suggested additions and deletions from the instructional materials.

To be sure, the textbooks contained some inaccurate and insensitive material.  For instance, one textbook explained that Hindi is written in the 18-letter Arabic script.  Another cheekily titled a section on vegetarianism, "Where's the Beef?" And a third described Hanuman, a simian character from the Ramayana, as "a monkey king," who "loved Ram so much that it is said that he is present every time the Ramayana is told."  This book instructed students, "Look around—see any monkeys?"

References to Wendy's commercials and royal monkeys aside however, the HEF and VF sought to interject more problematic content in the texts, proposing over 200 edits that promoted their sectarian understanding of Hinduism.

Among the HEF's and VF's alterations are that speakers of Indo-European languages ("Aryans") should be represented as being indigenous to India instead of migrating from elsewhere; the caste system should be explained as a benign institution based on division of labor; and the word "Dalits" (the name for groups formerly known as "untouchables") should be excised from textbooks.  Hinduism should be described as a monotheistic faith and references to women's oppression should be omitted.(2)

Combined, these changes equate Ancient India with the history of Hinduism, reducing a diversity of religious practices and beliefs to those associated with the patriarchal, Brahmanical perspective while marginalizing the vital contributions of religious minorities, women, Adivasis (tribals) and Dalits to Indian history.

Thus Spake "Guruji"

There are two major problems with the HEF's and VF's edits.  First, they are not consistent with prevailing scholarship.  Second, they represent a sectarian perspective aligned with extremist Hindu groups in India such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which have been responsible for numerous violations of civil liberties and human rights.

Both the RSS and VHP belong to the militant Hindu conglomerate known as the Sangh Parivar that champions the transformation of India's secular democracy into a Hindu nation.  At the ideological level, militant Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, has evolved into a form of fascism that creates an opposition between "insiders" and "outsiders," seeking to assert Hindu religious identity in nationalist and culturalist terms.(3)

In the 1930s, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, a foundational figure in the RSS revered as "Guruji," ominously declared that "The non-Hindu peoples of Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but the glorification of the Hindu race and culture...  in a word they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen's rights."(4)

Gowalkar's statement offers limited options for non-Hindus, ranging from assimilation to second-class status to expulsion from the Indian polity.  These choices tally with Hindutva's complex classification of religious minorities.  At times, some groups are understood as Hindus or made into "objects of integration" (Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains).  Those groups who have been historically oppressed by the upper castes (Dalits and Adivasis) are claimed as Hindu.

Other groups (Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Jews) are posited as outside the nation because their origins are deemed to be territorially external in spite of their centuries-long presence on the subcontinent.(5) This view is also ironic insofar as many Muslims and Christians were once Hindus: Historically, lower castes, Dalits and Adivasis have converted to Islam and Christianity as a means of social mobility.

While he was not fixated on racial purity, Gowalkar was clearly enamored with Nazism as a pedagogical example.  "To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic races—the Jews.  Race pride at its highest has been manifested here," he approvingly noted, "Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by."(6)

Italian fascism also provided a valuable pedagogical model for the RSS. According to Marzia Casolari, Balkrishna Shivram Moonje, one of the chief architects of the RSS's organizational structure, visited Italian educational institutions and military schools and met with Mussolini in 1931.  A diary entry of his reads, "India and particularly Hindu India need some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus" like those of Mussolini's Balilla organization.(7) Patterned on these lines, the RSS cell structure also emphasized physical training for young people and glorified militarism.

The Brown Man's Burden and His Hinduizing Mission

Though the current leadership of the Sangh is more circumspect in expressing admiration for the Third Reich and Mussolini, their ideology draws from these earlier antecedents.  Chauvinistic values and contempt for religious minorities, Dalits, and women are expressed in a muscular, patriarchal vocabulary that casts Hindus as victims of aggression, justifying violence against others as a form of self-defense.

The Sangh Parivar perceives women as both goddesses and harlots, requiring either protection or punishment.  Hindu masculinity is figured through the idiom of a higher-caste warrior (Kshatriya) identity that valorizes the male body and physical culture.(8)

These beliefs have been actualized in pogroms against religious minorities in which women have been subjected to gender-specific forms of violence.  In its 2003 report on religious freedom in India, the U.S. State Department suggests that the "institutionalization" of Hindutva has lead to a curtailment of religious freedom and human rights abuses against Christians, Adivasis, Sikhs, and Muslims.(9)

Some of the most widespread recent attacks have been against Muslims in Gujarat.  In February 2002, 58 people, including many women and children, died when two train carriages carrying Hindu activists caught fire.(10) Rumors that Muslims had deliberately torched the train rapidly spread.  In the days that followed, Hindus retaliated by killing over 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, and by looting and burning businesses, homes, and mosques.

Human Rights Watch reports: "scores of Muslim girls and women were brutally raped… before being mutilated and burnt to death."  Moreover, it identifies the VHP, RSS, Bajrang Dal (militant youth corps), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political party, as perpetrators of this violence.(11)

The Sangh Parivar mounted an ideological assault later that year through the ruling BJP-lead coalition, which reorganized the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) responsible for educational policy.  The coalition appointed new officers to NCERT and outlined an agenda in keeping with the major tenets of the Hindutva movement.

A crucial aspect of this sectarian makeover was the removal of textbook passages authored by eminent historians and the production of new books that reflected the Sangh's peculiar understanding of Indian history.(12) Some books, for example, omitted the fact that Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated by an RSS acolyte.

In the 2004 elections, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ousted the coalition from office, pledging to "take immediate steps" to reverse the sectarian trend of education under its predecessors.  The UPA is currently in the process of revising the older texts and producing more historically accurate ones.(13)

The RSS has spread its tentacles worldwide by affiliating with the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) which, in turn, has propagated chapters in the United States, England, Trinidad, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.  While the HSS (US) is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural organization and public charity, its website not only features a link to the RSS, but also describes its mission as "ideologically inspired by the RSS vision of a progressive and dynamic Hindu society that can deal with its internal and external challenges, and contribute to the welfare of the whole world."(14)

On its website, we find the HEF is "an educational project of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh," that "strives to replace… various misconceptions with a correct representation of India and Hinduism."(15)

Alluding to the California textbook controversy, a U.S.-based activist underscored the connections between the three groups at a recent conference of RSS and HSS cohorts in India.  "Through the Hindu Education Foundation run by the RSS in California," he bragged, "we have succeeded in correcting the misleading information in text books for primary and secondary classes."(16)

The HEF's resources page includes a link to the VF, describing it as a "similar project."(17) Its connections to Hindutva groups consist of the fact that it is housed in the Barsana Dham, a temple in Austin, Texas, which hosts VHP conferences and dignitaries such as Ashok Singhal (the Working President of VHP India) and B.K. Modi (the Working President-External Affairs of VHP India).(18)

Oddly, for an organization lobbying to alter the content of educational materials, the VF's website is replete with imaginative word forms ("despisations" and "consolence") and malapropisms ("descension" for "descendant").  Much of the rhetoric on this site also echoes that of the HSS, particularly in its emphasis on the necessity of promoting "authentic" Hinduism to counter "the anti-God elements" pervasive in our times.(19)

Back to the Future

Were the parent organizations of the HEF and VF not downright scary, their understanding of history and Hinduism might be comical.  The first entry under "resources" on the HEF's website, for instance, leads to a page called, "A Tribute to Hinduism."  Quoting everyone from Carl Sagan to Frijtof Capra and Robert Oppenheimer, the site asserts that ancient India had everything from supersonic airplanes to electric trains to nuclear weapons.

This site also boasts that while the Aryans made it to the moon, ancient India could claim the distinction of being the only destination in the world for UFOs.  Scientific-minded readers can be assured that "Vedic technology does not resemble our world of nuts and bolts, or even microchips.  Mystic power, especially manifest as sonic vibration plays a major role.  The right sound—vibrated as a mantra, can launch terrible weapons, directly kill, summon beings from other realms, or even create exotic aircraft."(20)

Equally wacky is the VF's chronology of Indian history and Hinduism.  According to this group, the "Hindu religion was first revealed 111.52 trillion years ago" (before the Big Bang, apparently).  Hinduism appears prior to Indian history which is dated as "1972 million years ago" (roughly 1.7 billion years before the dinosaurs).(21)

Like the HEF's resources, the VF insists on India's singular status, perhaps explaining what made it so attractive for UFO landings: "India… is such a place on the earth planet which is not much affected by the natural calamities and disasters like the ice age and the prolonged spine chilling, icy cold storms and blizzards that happen in America and the European countries at the beginning and at the recessing period of these ice ages."(22)

Scholars and Progressives Strike Back

Given these views, it is little wonder that the HEF's and VF's foray into the California educational system alarmed numerous academics specializing in South Asian studies, progressive Hindus, and secular South Asian community groups.

In early November 2005, 47 internationally renowned scholars of Ancient India, including Romila Thapar, 2003 Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the Library of Congress, and Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, expressed their objections to the HEF's and VF's interventions in a letter to the SBE.

Characterizing the textbook changes as "unscholarly" and "politically and religiously motivated," the letter alerted California officials that similar campaigns to alter textbooks in India had been rejected by government authorities.  U.S. adoption of the proposed edits would "lead without fail to an international educational scandal."(23)

This letter was followed by one in early December, signed by over 140 U.S.-based scholars of South Asia, many of South Asian descent, protesting the changes proposed by the HEF and VF. It urged the SBE to recognize the "complex and pluralistic" nature of Hinduism, along with the necessity of speaking frankly about "the historical relationship of Hinduism to the ongoing and debilitating inequality of the caste system" and discrimination against women.(24)

At this juncture, South Asian community groups such as Friends of South Asia, the Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace, the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America, and the Coalition Against Communalism joined the debate.

In public hearings held by the SBE between January and March 2006, parents, university students, working professionals, and first-generation immigrants eloquently testified to the importance of presenting children with accurate, scholarly information on all aspects of ancient Indian history.  Some of the most moving statements came from individuals who had personally experienced caste oppression.

"The caste system is the single most important repressive social phenomenon that has been unique to Hinduism for over 3,000 years and should therefore find a place in the textbooks," reminded Rama Krishna Bhupathi, a Dalit.

Concerned parent Thillai Kumaran, who stated his lower-caste origins during his testimony, strenuously objected to the textbooks' suggestion that the caste system is no longer relevant in modern India.  "Hinduism continues to affect the social status of people in India, and has condemned millions of Dalits as social outcasts," he said.(25)

Supporters of the HEF and VF argued the textbooks presented Hinduism stereotypically and could damage the self-esteem of their children.  Jihane Ayed of Ruder Finn, a public relations firm representing both organizations, explained, "What is at stake here is the embarrassment and humiliation that these Hindu children continue to face because of the way textbooks portray their faith and culture."(26) Such sentiments were a common refrain in hearings and their media interviews, thus positioning Indian Americans as a beleaguered minority that uniformly experiences racism.(27)

Racism is indeed a fact of life for working-class Indian Americans.  Following 9/11, Sikhs specifically have been targeted for attacks by patriotic zealots and detention by the government.  But the many Indian Americans who comprise the professional-managerial class do not face the level of hostility routinely confronted by African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.  These professionals are part of the HEF's and VF's membership, and have contributed to making Indian Americans the country's wealthiest ethnic group.(28)

Based on her past experiences as a middle-school student, Veena Dubal disputed the idea that learning unpleasant aspects of history was harmful: "Like many of my European-American classmates whose ancestral histories could be traced to a time before women and people of color were given independent legal identities and allowed political participation… I was painfully embarrassed to read about the injustices committed in my parents' homeland.  Yet it was precisely these lessons that taught me about the necessity for universal civil liberties and human rights."(29)

Going to Court

Apparently, the California State Board of Education agreed.  On March 8, 2006, it voted to reject the HEF's and VF's edits and endorsed an alternate set of recommendations proposed by an SBE subcommittee, which included scholars.

The matter does not end there, however.  The Hindu American Foundation, the legal arm of the HEF, has filed a lawsuit against the SBE in the California Superior Court, charging procedural violations of the textbook adoption process.  They are joined by the California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials, who filed another lawsuit against the SBE in federal court.

California's decision regarding the content of its textbooks has repercussions elsewhere; as other states follow its lead in textbook adoption.

Angana Chatterji remarks: "Fiction as history does not benefit Indian-American and other California school-goers, for whom engagement with the past must facilitate a deep questioning of how things come to be, of what constitutes knowledge, of how knowledge is contested, so that the study of history informs the work of citizenship."(30)

The California controversy demonstrates what happens when ethnic pride cast as revisionist history collides with scholarship that understands history as complex human interactions.  California children and those in other states deserve historically accurate educational materials to aid their comprehension of our multicultural and increasingly globalized geography.

Notes

  1. For a thoughtful account of the relationship between the California textbook controversy and the Sangh Parivar, see a fact sheet compiled by graduate students in the Anthropology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, "Hindu Nationalists/Supremacists Campaign to Change California Textbooks"; available from http:// southasiafaculty.net/catextbooks/files/CAEd_TextbookChanges_Factsheet.pdf; accessed 9 March 2006.
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  2. Sample edits of the HEF and VF are posted on the Friends of South Asia website: http://www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/TextbookEdits.html
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  3. For a detailed analysis of the ideology of the Sangh Parivar and its penetration into contemporary Indian culture, see Chetan Bhatt, Hindu Nationalism Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).  Also, Aijaz Ahmad, "On the Ruins of Ayodhya: Communalist Offensive and Recovery of the Secular," On Communalism and Globalization: Offensives of the Far Right (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2004).
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  4. Qtd. in Bhatt, 130.
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  5. Sabrang Communications & Publishing and the South Asian Citizens Web, "Hindutva: The Growth of Violent Hindu Nationalism," The Foreign Exchange of Hate: IDRF and the American Funding of Hindutva (Mumbai, 2002).  Available from http://stopfundinghate.org/sacw/appendixa.html; accessed 13 March 2006.
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  6. Madhav Sadashiv Gowalkar, We, Or Our Nationhood Defined (Nagpur: Bharat Prakashan Publications, 1939): 35.
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  7. Qtd. in Marzia Casolari, "Hindutva's Foreign Tie-Up in the 1930s: Archival Evidence," Economic and Political Weekly.  (22 January 2000): 220.  Available from http://www.sacw.net/DC/CommunalismCollection/ArticlesArchive/casolari.pdf; accessed 14 March 2006.
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  8. Ahmad, 14.
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  9. Bureau of Democracy, Human Right and Labor, US Department of State, India: International Religious Freedom Report 2003.  Available from http://www.state.gov/g/ drl/rls/irf/2003/24470.htm; accessed 14 March 2006.
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  10. The Banerjee Commission, constituted by the Railway Board, has suggested that the fire originated inside the compartments, instantly engulfing them in flames ("Uncovering the Tracks."  Hindustan Times, March 5, 2006).  For a scientific analysis of the physical evidence, see the Hazards Centre, "An Enquiry into the Reasons for Burning of Coach-6 of the Sabarmati Express."  Available from http://www.combatlaw.org/information.php?article_id=540&issue_id=21; accessed 17 March 2006.  See also Darshan Desai, "There Was No Waiting Mob," Outlook.  3 July 2004.  Available from http://www.countercurrents.org/guj-desai030704.htm; accessed 17 March 2006.
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  11. Human Rights Watch, "'We Have No Orders to Save You': State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat."  Vol. 14.  No. 3(c): 4; available from http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/india/gujarat.pdf; accessed 16 March 2006.  For a detailed account of gender-specific violence, consult the International Initiative for Justice, Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat 2003; available from http://www.onlinevolunteers.org/gujarat/reports/iijg/2003/; accessed 17 March 2006.
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  12. Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2005), 63.  See also, the Delhi Historian's Group.  Communalisation of Education.  2002; available from http://www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/NCERT_Delhi_Historians__Group.pdf; accessed 16 March 2006.
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  13. Bureau of Democracy, Human Right and Labor, US Department of State.  India: International Religious Freedom Report 2005; available from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2005/51618.htm; accessed 13 March 2006.
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  14. HSS, FAQ; available from http://www.hssus.org/content/view/19/40/; accessed 12 March 2006.
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  15. HSS, http://www.hssus.org/boudhik/BY05Q3_tarun.pdf ; accessed 12 March 2006.  This passage is buried in a magazine on page fifteen of this site.
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  16. Times News Network.  "We are Striving to Keep Our Culture Alive."  Times of India.  Ahmdabad Edition.  31 December 2005: 5.  Available from http://www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/TimesOfIndia_Article_RSSAbroad.html; accessed 14 March 2006.
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  17. HSS, "Resources"; available from http://www.hindueducation.org/resources.html; accessed 15 March 2006.
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  18. Anthropology Program Graduate Students CIIS, "Fact Sheet."
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  19. VF; available from http://www.thevedicfoundation.org/authentic_hinduism/what_is_authentic_hinduism.htm; accessed 15 March 2006.
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  20. See in particular "Vimanas"; available from http:/www. atributetohinduism.com/Vimanas.htm#High-Tech%20Vedic%20Culture%A0; accessed 15 March 2006.
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  21. VF, "Do You Know?"; available from http://web.archive.org/web/20030803191007/http://thevedicfoundation.org/communities/do_you_know.htm ; accessed 15 March 2006.
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  22. VF, "Unbroken Continuity of Indian Civilization"; available from http://66.102.7.104/search?q=cache:2ENDvSPn0sMJ:www.thevedicfoundation.org/bhartiya history/Unbroken_Continuity_of_Indian_Civilization.htm+%22unbroken+continuity+of+indian+civilization%22&hl; accessed pm 15 March 2006.  For a detailed description of how Hindutva groups falsify history, see Sunaina Maira and Raja Swamy's "History Hungama; California Textbook Debate," Siliconeer, February 2006; available from http://www.siliconeer.com/past_issues/2006/february2006.html#Anchor—COV-11304; accessed 9 March 2006.
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  23. Michael Witzel; available from http://www.southasiafaculty.net/catext/letters/Indologists_CBE1.pd.; accessed 11 March 2006.
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  24. South Asian Faculty Network; available from http:// southasiafaculty.net/catextbooks/letters/FacultyCBELetter2.pdf; accessed 11 March 2006.
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  25. Qtd. in FOSA, "Victory over Hindu Nationalists in California Textbooks Rewrite"; available from http://www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/FOSACACPress Release_022806.html; accessed 11 March 2006.
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  26. Qtd. in Charles Burress, "Hindu Groups Lose Fight to Change Textbooks," San Francisco Chronicle, 10 March 2006.; available from http://tinyurl.com/zrnbp; accessed 11 March 2006.
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  27. Shalini Gera and Girish Agrawal explore this facet of the HEF's and VF's rhetoric in "Hindutva Goes to School."  Tehelka, 28 January 2006; available from http:// www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/Tehelka_Article_HindutvaGoesToSchool_01282006.html; accessed 10 March 2006.  See also Ra Ravishankar, "Religious Supremacy Under the Garb of Anti- Racism."  India West, 28 February 2006; available from http://www.friendsofsouthasia.org/ textbook/IndiaWest_Article_ReligiousSupremacy.html; accessed 10 March 2006.
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  28. Ramin Setoodeh, "American Masala."  Newsweek, 6 March 2006, 39.
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  29. Qtd. in FOSA, "Victory over Hindu Nationalists in California Textbooks Rewrite."
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  30. Angana Chatterji, "Now Hindu Nationalists Rewriting California Textbooks," India West.  8 January 2006; available from http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?  ItemID=9485; accessed 17 March 2006.
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*For further background on commujnalism and Hindutva in India, see "The Curse of Communalism," an interview with Di-ak Malik, ATC 106 (Sept.-Oct. 2003), "Compromises on the Road to Hell" by Kunal Chattopadhyay, ATC 98 (May-June 2002); and "India: State, Gender, Community" by Soma Marik (ATC 91, March-April 2001.)


Purnima Bose is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Cultural Studies Program at Indiana University, Bloomington.

ATC 122, May-June 2006