Asian Age Review -V Balachandran


Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, London
Saturday, July 07, 2007


US textbooks stereotype India

By V. Balachandran

In 1976, Asia Society, New York, published the results of their survey on the treatment of Asia in American elementary and secondary school textbooks. A team of 103 experts reviewed 306 books used in 50 states. The portrayal of India was “the most negative among all Asian countries” according to Prof. Arthur Rubinoff of the Toronto University who felt that this was one of the reasons why Congressional perceptions on India had been negative. John W. Mellor, author of India, A Rising Middle Power said that US policy towards India was the product of similar stereotypes, in which India was portrayed “as poverty-stricken and helpless” since American legislators and decision makers were subject to the same impressions as the general public. A state department (Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs) study in 1982 found that “American attitudes about India, more than about any other place, focus on disease, death, and illiteracy.”

Since 1990 official and Congressional perceptions on India had undergone a substantial change. Part of the credit for this should go to the wealthy and proactive Indian American community who are the biggest fundraisers for the Congressional and presidential candidates. The same could be said about American business community as they are developing closer business connections.

However, this positive perception about India and its culture has not permeated into the US educational system. Yvette C. Rosser, well known educationist, author, founder of Badshah Khan Peace Initiative and co-founder of the G.M. Syed Memorial Committee, wrote in Teaching South Asia: An Internet Journal of Pedagogy (Winter, 2001): “Stereotypes about India and Hinduism when taught as fact in American classrooms may negatively impact students of South Asian origin who are struggling to work out their identity in a multicultural, predominantly Anglo-Christian environment.”

The same conclusions are arrived at in a new book, Invading the Sacred: Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America brought out by Infinity Foundation, a Princeton based non-profit organisation founded by Rajiv Malhotra, who defines himself as a “non-Hindutva Hindu.” This book contains 13 brilliant essays by different scholars, four of whom, including Yvette Rosser, are of non-Indian origin. Kalavai Venkat, a contributor, is “a practising agnostic Hindu.”

Several reasons are attributed for this state of affairs. Yvette Rosser while analysing the Asia Society survey had said in her 2001 paper that the authors of textbooks on India had the choice of three approaches: Asia centred approach, progress centred approach and western centred approach. Seventy-six per cent of the textbooks followed the last approach and came to wrong conclusions. She comments, “Textbook writers often discuss only the western contributions to Asian life and fail to mention any Asian initiative and strengths at all.”

Dr S.N. Balagangadhara of the Ghent University, Belgium, who wrote the foreword of the present book also felt that the study of India occurred during the last 300 years within the “cultural framework of America and Europe” which gave more prominence to the caste system, worshipping “strange and grotesque deities,” discrimination against women, widow burning and corruption. The book says, “Selective, questionable academic research and its conclusions filter into American classrooms, textbooks and media.” The book gives many examples how these scholars distort India and Hinduism. The core of the influential American Academy of Religion (AAR) has been following a traditionally negative approach towards India as chaotic and backward, compared to the US business schools who view India as a creative, problem solving land of opportunity. “The producers and distributors of this specialised knowledge comprise a sort of closed, culturally insular cartel, which has disastrous consequences for original thinking about India and Hinduism.” This attitude will adversely affect the ordinary American’s perceptions on Indians ethnics: “Native Americans, Blacks, Jews, Gypsies, Cubans, Mexicans, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese and now Iraqis have suffered brutalities that were legitimised by depictions of them as primitive/exotic, irrational, heathen, savage and dangerous and as lacking in human values.”

The book does not blame the AAR alone for this state of affairs. “Indians themselves have contributed to the problem in significant ways.” While American universities have major programmes for studying world religions, their Indian counterparts do not offer any comparable courses resulting in scholarship being confined to “Ashrams, Mattas, Jain Apasaras and Gurudwaras.” Those who want to seriously study Indian religions have to go to American, British or Australian universities. “Even China has recently established numerous well funded Confucius Institutes around the world that teach Chinese civilisational approaches to human issues on par with western models.” The book blames rich Indian Americans who are merely content with building temples “while their cultural portrayal in the educational system and in the media has been abandoned to the tender mercies of the dominant western traditions.”

Is there a way to tackle this imbroglio? A recent California experience has shown that it is possible to reverse the trend with hard work. In 2005, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim groups complained to the California State Board of Education (SBE) that their religions were negatively portrayed in some textbooks. The board was in the mood to make the changes proposed by the Hindu groups, but reversed the stand on the motivated intervention of Prof. Witzel, a Harvard Sanskrit professor. As a result, the changes made by the SBE did not satisfy the Hindu groups who chose court action. Their suit that the textbooks tended to demean and stereotype Hindu beliefs and practices, opening itself to ridicule was decided partly in their favour in 2006. The court held that fair and open process was not followed in adopting textbooks to Standard VI students and ordered SBE to pay part of the costs to the litigants. However, their demand to scrap the textbooks was not allowed, although during this year advance consultations on the textbooks had begun from March onwards.

Financially strong Indian associations should emulate this example. It will not be irrelevant to mention here that the American Jewish groups have been able to wrest fair treatment for their community only by aggressive ground action through their Anti-Defamation League.

V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat