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Hindu groups sue California Board of Education

March 19, 2006 03:49 IST

The Hindu American Foundation on Friday filed a lawsuit against the California State Board of Education in California Superior Court in Sacramento for alleged failure to follow a fair and open process in adopting changes in 6th grade history textbooks.

The HAF complaint alleges among others that the SBE violated the law when it approved textbooks for sixth grade history-social science that tend to 'demean, stereotype, and reflect adversely' upon Hindus and portray Hinduism as undesirable and holds Hindu beliefs and practices up to ridicule or as inferior.

The lawsuit was filed a week after the board in an unanimous decision on March 8 endorsed the recommendations of a special sub-committee on the issue in what appeared to be the end of a six-month-old battle between rival groups over changes in the text books.

Following four hours of heated public testimony on the issue that began last September, the five-member subcommittee on history and social sciences in an admittedly compromise decision made the recommendation on February 27 for approval of the staff report by the Board of Education.

'Both sides thought we didn't go far enough,' Glee Johnson, state Board of Education president, was quoted as saying that time. 'But a lot of this represented a reasonable compromise,' he said alluding to the changes.

Still, the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation that spearheaded the campaign for correcting what they called distortions and defamatory references to Hinduism in the books had hoped that the board may not ultimately endorse the recommendations.

That hope was dashed on March 8 when the changes were approved.

Ironically, last week both sides – the HEF and VF, and their rivals the Friends of South Asia, the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America and the Coalition Against Communalism that had opposed the edits or changes proposed by the likes of HEF and VF on grounds that they were motivated by sectarian agenda of pro- Hindu forces – claimed victory of sorts over the board endorsement.

'On behalf of Hindu community, we were able to correct a large number of distortions and inaccuracies,' said Khanderao Kand, a spokesperson of the HEF said.

On the other hand, Anu Mandavilli, a volunteer with the Friends of South Asia (FOSA), termed the SBE decision 'a clear victory' for South Asian community groups. 'The Board's 9-0 vote to approve the February 27 recommendations is a clear message to these groups: Don't mess with history, ' Mandavilli said in a statement.

At the center of the controversy that began in September 2005 were an estimated 160-odd revisions, edits as they were called, proposed by groups like the HEF and VF to correct "distortions and defamatory references" to ancient Hinduism in the history textbooks.

In 2005, these two groups in addition to many other individuals sent their proposed changes to the Curriculum Commission, an advisory body to the State Education Board that looks at books every six years and take suggestions for improvement from the members of the public.

The process was almost nearing completion in November 2005 after an ad-hoc committee set up by the commission due to the large volumes of edits suggested approved many of the edits. Just before they were supposed to be sent to the board, Professor Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies in Harvard University and others including noted Historian Stanley Wolpert shot off a letter to the Board.

They said that the nature of the revisions as approved by the ad-hoc committee allegedly at the behest of the Hindu groups were prompted more by the groups' hidden agenda than historical facts.

Over 100 other academics of Indian origin from different educational institutions in the US also wrote a similar letter to the board. Consequently, Witzel, Wolpert and a third academic were retained by the Board and the commission was asked to revisit the changes approved by the committee.

Some of the edits with which the Witzel panel disagreed with the committee action related to women's position in ancient India. For example, the committee approved an edit that said 'men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than women. Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas were revealed' to replace the current statement in the textbooks that 'men had many more rights than women.' The panel disapproved of the committee approval of the change and asked to retain the original.

In December 2005 the commission, in an about turn evidently in the face of the pressure from groups like HEF and VF as well as individuals, decided to revert back to the original edits as approved by the committee, rejecting most of the Witzel panel amendments to the original committee edits following a vote.

In February 2006 the sub-committee, however, announced that it has included some of the edits as proposed by HEF, VF and others, but not all of them and left what the Hindu Press International described was "substantial number" of critical ones. 'Though the SBE has accepted most of the HEF recommendations, we are concerned about the remaining change which would keep the textbooks offensive and historically inaccurate,' Khand said after the March 8 endorsement.

Suhag Shukla, legal counsel for HAF told rediff.com last week that HAF was looking at exploring legal options to challenge the approval of the recommendations.

But rival groups said that threats of legal action are a clear sign of desperation on the part of the VF, HEF and HAF. 'These organizations are perhaps not aware that the board is familiar with lawsuits and cannot be cowed by such threats,' said Thillai Kumaran, of FeTNA.

Shalini Gera on behalf of the Coalition Against Communalism. 'The SBE should be commended for rejecting the sectarian edits advocated by the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation. Their decision represents a major victory for California children, who will benefit from having historically accurate accounts of ancient Indian history.'

After the lawsuit was filed on Friday Nikhil Joshi, a member of the HAF board of directors, said that Hindu Americans have taken a stand against not just the 'illegal machinations' of the SBE and unfair treatment Hindus received during the textbook adoption process.

"This is about treating Hindus in America and their religion with the same level of sensitivity and balance afforded to other religious traditions and their practitioners," he said.

HAF asks in the lawsuit that the description of the role and status of women in Hinduism be 'neutral and consistent' with the treatment accorded to this issue in the context of other religions; the description of the caste system and the social practice of 'untouchability' be historically accurate and consistent with descriptions of social inequities in other societies and Hinduism not be unfavorably compared with other religions or made to appear as a more regressive or archaic belief system.

The suit alleged that the SBE decided to ignore the recommendations only in regards to the edits suggested by Hindu groups. It also alleged that the SBE violated the California Open Meeting Act among other procedural violations when it made numerous private determinations that effectively subverted the public process.

HAF is seeking a temporary restraining order to halt the publishing of the textbooks until the issue of whether the textbooks meet the state standards have been resolved by a court of law. "We're dealing with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars here," said Shukla, HAF Legal Counsel. "We need to ensure that the suggested edits by the Hindu American community are given due consideration and that ultimately the text is fair and accurate before it goes to the print."

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York