Don’t let texbooks demonize India

Indian American advocates are objecting to how India and Hindus are portrayed in textbooks.
Indian American advocates are objecting to how India and Hindus are portrayed in textbooks. TNS

Would any sensible teacher or school official in America today use a textbook that mockingly asked African American students, “How’s your voodoo doing?”

Of course not; it is intellectually and morally unacceptable. Moreover, California law clearly forbids any “descriptions, depictions, labels or rejoinders that tend to demean, stereotype, or patronize minority groups.”


Take away the word “voodoo” and try it with “karma,” directed at Indian American children. Is that acceptable? Believe it or not, a history textbook from a major publisher like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt begins its lesson on India with the ludicrous and offensive phrase, “How’s your Karma doing?”

The book is set to go Thursday before the state Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission.

Despite past and current lawsuits, petitions signed by thousands of people, and, most importantly, personal testimonies by hundreds of middle and high school students about the inaccurate and offensive nature of the lessons on Indian history, we see little reflection of reality or change in several textbooks being considered.

Ethnic and racial jokes by random bigots and school bullies are one thing. Having them in your textbook is quite another. The argument in these books is a systematic and persistent portrayal of Indians as ignorant, barbaric and violent. The ancestors of Indian American sixth-graders in California, we are told, “enjoyed making war.”

Their most significant and well-known sacred deities that we can even find in California’s many Hindu temples are brushed aside, and a full-page image is devoted instead to an obscure figure called Indra, who is mistakenly described as the “god of war.” The lesson also devotes considerable attention to an utterly inane question: “Are unicorns real?”

The pattern and intent are unmistakably derogatory and supremacist. Indian culture is portrayed as essentially one of fanciful false beliefs and deep moral turpitude.

This is the Indian American community’s civil rights moment. We call on the education department to reject textbooks that refuse to enter along with the civilized world into a decisively post-racist era.

Vamsee Juluri is professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. He can be contacted at