Lack of perspective

Hindu Childrens Book 01We've been covering the Hindutva textbook controversy in California for a few months. The Los Angeles Times' Theresa Watanabe has a piece on the Hindu nationalists who are fighting to make the changes that's worth a read. This story has not gotten enough coverage so it's great that Watanabe is looking into it. The impetus for the story is that the California State Board of Educaction's five-member history-social science committee is set to recommend final action for the full board at its March 8 meeting. She begins by telling the story of Abhijit Kurup, a young Hindu who didn't recognize his religion when he was taught about it in government schools years ago. He is joining with other Hindus in a campaign urging textbook changes.

One requested change, for instance, would say women had "different" rights than men, not fewer.

But their efforts have sparked a heated counter-campaign by scholars and others who accuse the groups of trying to fabricate history and gloss over the treatment of women and minorities in India, where Hinduism is the dominant religion. Some also contend that the requested textbook changes are so similar to those imposed by Hindu nationalist groups in India that California should not put its stamp of approval on them.

Watanabe mentions a bit about the conflict. However, she doesn't really explain why the notion that the caste system would be portrayed as one where women had different rights instead of fewer rights is so offensive to so many people who fought or remember efforts to subvert the system. And what is not quite explored in the piece is what Hindu nationalists believe in a larger political context. She offers little perspective on the nationalists' outsize influence -- such as how large a group they are or how they are viewed in India or by Hindus here in the States. Mostly she portrays the fight as between Ivy League scholars and Hindu adherents:

"This is the first time Hindu groups are trying to protest against 300 years of prejudice," said Madhulika Singh, a Bay Area computer networking specialist. She says her son told her he didn't want to be Hindu anymore after studying ancient India and Hinduism in sixth grade.

I do not know Madhulika Singh, but I imagine the one Watanabe quotes is the same one who is affiliated with the Hindu Educational Foundation, a group with Hindu nationalist ties which is fighting to change the textbooks to match its particular views. Why not mention that? It doesn't really hurt the article to mention that Singh, who makes such a powerful claim about her son's religious identity, is also intimately involved with one of the more partisan groups in the debate. The group comes up in the very next paragraph of Watanabe's story. Perhaps it's just coincidence about the name, but if not, the affiliation should be mentioned.

Indeed, the issue is seen on both continents as the first major test of Hindu political clout in the United States and showcases the growing influence and political savvy of Indian Americans, now one of the nation's fastest-growing ethnic groups. Led by the California-based Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation in Texas, a broad-based group of temples, educators and community organizations has mobilized on the issue, drawing extensive news coverage in the Indian media here and abroad.

Okay, I have been following this story more than the average American and I have no idea what it means to say that the Vedic Foundation is a broad-based group. That doesn't say anything. It doesn't mean anything. Do a small minority of American Hindus affiliate with it? A majority? Something inbetween?

Not until the second to the last paragraph are readers told that not all Hindus share Hindu nationalist views about the merits of the caste system, "different" roles for men and women, whether Hinduism is polytheistic and where Hinduism originated. Watanabe ends the story by quoting a UCLA professor who think the Hindu nationalist views are ridiculous.

It reminded me of a comment from reader Ryan Overbey last month when we spoke about the issue. He blamed the problems with press coverage of this story on his view that reporters are generalists:

So suddenly the story changed from some minor changes to make CA textbooks more sensitive, to a bunch of scientifically unjustifiable changes motivated by wacky religious groups with connections to right wing politics.

It's fairly upsetting that the press didn't notice what was happening earlier (it was up to academic Indologists to figure out what was going on and put a stop to it). But you can chalk this up to a problem with the press generally: being for the most part generalists, they can hardly be expected to unravel a Hindutva agenda by reading a seemingly innocuous list of textbook changes. Scholars and scientists are much better at that sort of thing.

It just seems weird that after many months of this textbook battle waging on, so few reporters have had the desire to dig in and find out more about Hindu nationalists behind the fight.

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