Why American Children Need to Know Caste

source: wikimedia.org
source: wikimedia.org

This week, the California Board of Education will sign off on the final updates for textbooks used in the state’s middle schools, including how those books depict India’s caste system.

Even though I live in Seattle, I plan attend the meeting in Sacramento and have been asked to say a few words.

In speaking out about caste — that complex structure of hereditary and occupation-based segregation sold to us Indians as part of our Hindu religion — I’m taking a position seemingly in direct conflict with my status as a “high”caste man.

A coalition of wealthy Hindu organizations, whose members are likewise “high” caste, has been pressing for textbook language that essentially dilutes what American children are taught about India’s history of dealing with sections of its society. Led by the Hindu American Foundation, their apparent goal is to sterilize caste, distort its origin by disconnecting links to the Hindu religion and advance discredited theories about India’s history. The truth, they content, leads to bullying of Hindu children in school.

This has led to a showdown between HAF and an interfaith, inter-caste organization called the South Asian Histories for All, that believes the story of caste apartheid and the resistance to it is one of the “most powerful historical lessons in world history.”

What gets included and left out of California textbooks is significant because the state sets textbook market standards for the rest of the US, including Washington State where I live.

Those pressing for change believe that as India has modernized and taken its rightful spot on the world economic stage, it is important to highlight the positive contributions it has made to the world, rather than what they see as negative relics from the country’s past.

As a Hindu myself, I believe this position is morally dishonest.

While I don’t dismiss the importance of showing all that the country has accomplished in the 70 years since Independence, I also believe the world needs to see and understand our country’s legacy, the hundreds of millions of people we have not only left behind but who are still subject to grinding oppression and mistreatment.

India’s “low”-caste population, known as Dalits, number more than 200 million, about 16.6 percent of the Indian population. They are relegated to the filthiest, most menial jobs as manual scavengers, janitors, animal-rearers and corpse handlers.

I’ve not always held this conscious view of the caste system of which I am a privileged beneficiary. My childhood and adolescence were easy and filled with the joys of privilege. My bookish and idealistic view of caste belied the painful reality on the ground, a blindness that lasted almost all 20 years of my adult life.

In recent years, however, the debate around white privilege in America has forced me to recognize my own caste privilege. Indian casteism and US racism are twin vessels of oppression in different lands. It had never occurred to me to look inward at my own privilege and measure it against the experiences of millions of my fellow countrymen.

Now, as a father, I want my 1st grade son to have the full and complete understanding of this form of oppression that I didn’t have at his age.

American children deserve to know the truth about thousands of years of Indian history, because without it they cannot know the truth about India today. They need to understand why millions of Indian children drop out before graduating from high school. They need to understand why this country that produces some of the world’s greatest scholars and engineers has one of the world’s highest rates of illiteracy, hunger and poverty.

They need to understand that when oppressive systems become part of religion, which is hard to question, they can wreak havoc in people’s lives for centuries. They need to understand why those on the receiving end of this oppression describe the religion as a “veritable chamber of horrors.”
They need to know why 200 million people continue to fight for dignity even today. And they need to learn the name, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar — this student of American philosopher John Dewey who would go on to lead the struggle for civil rights for millions in modern India. They need to know this because it’s only through such knowledge, that they will they come to know the challenges that Indian society has to overcome.

I believe American students need to recognize the universality of oppression, to understand that every society in the world has a shameful past and that it’s only through working to overcome that past, rather than sweeping it under that carpet, that we can emerge as more enlightened people.



Prashant Nema  a software engineer. He can be reached at [email protected].


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