South Asian Studies at ASPAC

Guest Post by Jonathan Dresner

Sepoy has graciously agreed to let me guest-blog my conference experiences again, this time about South Asian studies at the Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast Conference (ASPAC).

I’m a complete conference geek: I hate missing panels, and I love talking about the panels afterwards. My biggest complaint about this conference, thinking about it now, is the same one people have had for years about traditional conferences: too little time for Q&A, discussion, and too little time to think about the presentations before the Q&A starts. They did try to fix that a little bit: in exchange for filling out a general meeting proxy, we got cute Oracle USB drives with the meeting abstracts and some of the papers on them, so in theory we could pre-view the materials.1

Before I get to the panels, though, the biggest news out of the meeting was the formation of a new annual conference on the west coast devoted to South Asian Studies: The South Asian Studies Alliance (which I think is going to become the South Asian Studies Association, but don’t quote me on that) had its first conference about six weeks before ASPAC and was reportedly a great success. The organizers are ASPAC leaders, including board members Bill Vanderbok, Deepak Shimkhada and Ram Roy, who see the AAS as failing to attract or represent South Asian scholarship in representative numbers, and who don’t think the conference in Wisconsin is accessible enough to the bulk of South Asianists to serve their needs. ASPAC provided the seed money, and both conferences will be sharing e-ASPAC as a peer-reviewed outlet. However, SASA will be fully independent once it gets organized, not a subgroup within ASPAC or AAS. Great opportunities for scholars young and old!

Now, to the panels!

The first and last panels I attended were South Asian focused.2 Both were moderately attended: audiences in the high single digits3 , but the discussions were good. As always, this is based on my notes and recollections: any errors are much more likely to be my fault than those of the presenters and panelists.


The first panel was “The California Textbook Controversy: Issues in the treatment of Ancient India and of Hinduism in the California World History School Textbook,” chaired by Shiva Bajpai, who played a leading role in the ongoing controversy.4 There was also a presentation by the editor of Hinduism Today5 which covered a lot of the same issues, including some detailed discussion of the problems found in present texts and an “ideal” version of a sixth-grade unit.6 My summary of the issues below will combine points from both presentations.

The key in this controversy, of course, is the California School Board’s centralized system for approving — and amending, if they don’t approve — textbooks, and the fact that there are only nine major textbook companies in the US. So the decisions made by these companies and this school board affect textbook materials all over the US; the decisions are made on six-year cycles, so failing to get something fixed in this cycle means a half-decade before you can try again. As you might imagine from the title of the panel, there has been some controversy recently over coverage of Hinduism and India in these materials According to Bajpai, there are five key areas.

  1. Aryan Invasion Theory: rather than being presented as one theory, it’s being presented as established fact, and it colors the rest of the history of India and Hinduism7
  2. Caste system: overemphasized in discussions of Hinduism, and presentations focus on “untouchable” castes, overstating their poverty and oppression.8
  3. Treatment of women: there wasn’t a lot of elaboration on what was objectionable, but I’m guessing it has something to do with sati or purdah.9
  4. Hinduism: There were three issues here, as I count it. First, the question of whether Hinduism is monotheistic or polytheistic (with the presumption on all sides, apparently, that monotheistic is better). Second, the inappropriate comparisons made between Hinduism and other traditions, especially the portrayal of Buddhism as an “improvement” or “replacement” for Hinduism.10 Third, drawing the portrayal of Hinduism from the writings of Western academics instead of actual practice by believers, and correction of outright errors.
  5. Finally was a point which Bajpai referred to as the “Personality of India,” the idea that there is a continuity of culture, and an essence of India which extends into the past, marked by certain key words and practices. The editor of HT highlighted the tradition of gurus and the scriptural tradition in a similar light.

Both men went into some detail about the challenge-edit process in California, and how it was handled unfairly and haphazardly in this case. Bajpai was given little notice when he was called to present his case, and he was put up against linguist Michael Witzel as an “opposition” expert, something rarely done in these discussions. In the end, about three quarters of the Hindu community edits were accepted, enough to be evidence of progress, but the key issues remained unsatisfactory, according to these panelists. There were several mentions of the success Jewish groups have had with the textbook process, including a 100% acceptance rate for edits in the last round and a “sensitive” handling of key issues.11

The other presenter, Nalini Rao, was tackling the question of monotheism v. polytheism, using the art and architecture of Hindu temples as her “text.” Her argument was that all the images and complexes which she studied had a clear theme of monism or monotheism (no, she didn’t distinguish between them), in which the anthropomorphic Deities12 serve as aspects of the whole, but never appear without other Deities representing other complementary aspects, so as to imply a greater oneness. Rao also cited mandalas and the architecture of a central space common to many Hindu temples as evidence for this thesis. She also was arguing for a fundamental continuity of Hindu belief from an unspecified past to the present, connections maintained by the guru tradition and monastic/ritual practice; as a result, fieldwork rather than textual exegisis must be the basis for understanding Hinduism.13 I have a kind of low tolerance for theoretical analysis of visual and architectural data in the absence of supporting texts showing intent or sociological data showing effect, so I didn’t find the presentation all that effective; on the other hand, I already understand and teach Hinduism as monistic, at least in its Upanishadic and later phases, and this presentation didn’t directly address the question of Vedic practice or belief.14

Ethnicity: Transnational and Very Local

The last panel I went to, chaired by outgoing ASPAC president and SASA co-founder Bill Vanderbok15 , had only two presenters, but raised some fantastic points.

The first presentation was by Dean McHenry titled “Is Economic Inequality a foundation of Separatist Identity? An examination of Successful and Unsuccessful Movements in India.” Despite that somewhat uninviting start, the paper itself introduced me to something with which I was entirely unfamiliar: the process by which regions of Indian states separate themselves into independent states. Imagine if the Silicon Valley region could secede from California! Apparently there’ve been a lot of these, with quite a few ongoing movements. There’s been considerable discussion, as well, about the relationship between separtist movements and uneven rapid growth. Standard socio-economic analysis of the states and regions has revealed that in many cases it’s wealthier regions of the states that are breaking off (I wasn’t kidding about the Silicon Valley example), but the rhetoric of the campaigns is almost always about relative poverty and neglect. McHenry argued, using cases from 2000, that disaggregating the income/wealth figures shows that the “average” wealth figures are very misleading (though they are often cited by opponents of separation), and the separtist regions very often have high levels of income inequality, with wealthy enclaves surrounded by significantly poorer regions. That’s why the rhetoric of impoverishment and inequity works: the bulk of the energy and votes for separation come from those poorer populations. On the other hand, it’s the wealthier groups within the new states — what McHenry called “ethnic entrepreneurs” — who end up controlling them and reaping a great deal of benefit from the new resources that come with statehood. I was reminded of two things during the talk: Theda Skocpol’s idea of revolutions coming from “rising expectations” and the Marxist idea of bourgeois democratic revolutions using class conflict as a lever. And it’s really quite mind-blowing for someone who grew up with the standard American view of states as historical entities which never, ever, change once they’re established, followed by an education focusing on Japan and China where state subdivisions are centrally determined and rarely negotiable.

The second presenter was Movindri Reddy, who I’d actually met during the coffee break right before, and we were having a lovely discussion of diasporas (including Jane H. Yamashiro, about whose paper, and the whole debate on diasporas, I’ll have to write later) as we walked over to the panel. Her topic was “Ethnic tensions in Fiji and Trinidad: Indentured Indians and the legacy of British Colonialism.”16 Reddy’s paper focused on the parallels between Fiji and Trinidad: both British colonial territories to which large numbers of indentured Indian workers were brought, where large numbers of them settled and which had “Westminster-system” parliamentary governments created by the British for their post-colonial benefit. Both have experienced significant political and economic turmoil, but it seems that it’s been worse in Fiji. Perhaps the most obvious difference between them is the status of land ownership: In Fiji land is largely controlled by chiefs of clans, and non-indigenous Fijians have no right to own land (they can lease it, though), whereas Trinidadian Indians were given land at the end of their term of indenture. In both cases Indian ethnic parties have achieved strong showings in their respective parliaments, but attempts to actually exercise power have been met with resistance up to and including coups and riots. Land leased by ethnic Indians in Fiji which had become productive (sugar, mostly) was being reclaimed out of leases but the expertise necessary to make the land economically viable still resided with the Indian farmers. In both cases ethnic Indians dominate educational institutions but were largely kept out of bureaucratic and military ones; a “brain drain” exodus of educated and middle-class ethnic Indians under this economic pressure and discrimination is ongoing. I’m not sure that Reddy ever came to a strong conclusion about differences, but the similarities sure were interesting. The question which I didn’t get to ask this time was whether the Indian government — or the former colonial power, Great Britain — was taking an interest in the fate of its diaspora communities. I don’t see any evidence of it, yet, but the rising international status of India could become an issue at some point.17

In Lieu of Conclusions

I do hope that the creation of SASA doesn’t drain even more South Asianists away from ASPAC and the AAS: we need to keep cross-fertilizing our studies and our teaching. And I hope that we can get more experimental with panel structures so that the discussions can reverberate beyond the small but attentive audiences of our travel-funded peers.

  1. Unfortunately, many presentations didn’t go much beyond the abstracts, so after reading the abstract I was kind of bored by some of the actual presentations. Something to think about as we prepare for our January roundtable. []
  2. Oddly, they were the only panels I attended this conference with missing panelists. For the record, I was supposed to give two papers last year, got sick at the last minute, and didn’t show up. This year the cold hit after the conference. []
  3. the panels I went to and participated in averaged about eight audience members, not counting panelists/discussants. With 113 registered attendees, and three panels per session, that’s pretty much par. []
  4. That was useful, because the person who was supposed to present an overview didn’t show up. []
  5. It was supposed to be Managing Editor Sannyasin Arumugaswami, but he was elsewhere, and I never caught the name of his stand-in. I have a picture, though, if anyone’s interested. []
  6. this issue of Hinduism Today contains a three-part sixth-grade lesson as they’d like to see it done: Part One, Part Two, Part Three. They also have a few thousand printed copies which they’re distributing, as well as a critical analysis of Hindu Studies which echoes a lot of what I heard at the panel. []
  7. I know that’s true of my own teaching, though I thought it was a migration, not invasion, and the literary evidence, at least, pretty strong. Unfortunately, that presenter was one of the no-shows. []
  8. This was the point on which I had the most unanswered questions. The editor of HT referred to “remnants of caste,” but everything I’ve heard suggests that he’s downplaying it considerably. For example, there was a report in today’s Washington Post showing that Dalits (“Broken People”) are still discriminated against, living in poverty; that the caste system is alive and well, and that its primary social support comes from Hinduism. Orientalist sensationalism or essentialist propaganda? []
  9. Do I have to say it? The presenter didn’t show. I know I’m harping on this, but this panel would have been exceptional had all the topics been covered properly. []
  10. Interestingly, this is a clear violation of California educational guidelines, which forbid “adverse reflection.” This also comes up with regard to Judaism and Christianity a lot. Someone made an interesting comment in discussion that the World History/Culture model invites this kind of comparison, and that’s part of what gets them in trouble. []
  11. That 100% statistic elicited a response from an audience member which I wrote down as “the problem with Jews is that they probably published the book.” I nearly fell off my chair; I never had the chance to point out that they wouldn’t need the edits if they really controlled the publishing houses…. It’s an interesting window into the nature of the debate, though. []
  12. there was considerable discussion about the textbook publishers’ failure to capitalize that term for Hinduism []
  13. yes, another attack on Western academics []
  14. though here, of course, I’m betraying my Western fixation with texts…. but at least I’m treating them like real scriptures, something apparently lacking from some of the textbooks under discussion []
  15. the man responsible for talking me into taking a board position, and then taking an officer’s position to boot []
  16. I’m actually reasonably familiar with the Fijian case, because my colleague for the last five years at UH-Hilo has been Howard van Trease, an expert in South Pacific post-colonial land, ethnicity and politics. []
  17. Whether it would work in the favor of the ethnic Indian communities is a toss-up: it certainly didn’t help Japanese Americans when Japan became a world power, but Japan was able to give some political support to overseas communities in small countries. []

Author: sepoy

what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

8 thoughts on “South Asian Studies at ASPAC”

  1. Qalandar: I’m afraid my notes aren’t too specific on which movements, except that he was focusing on the year 2000. But I went back to the abstract and pulled out this description of the data set: “three successful movements in India, those which gave rise in 2000 to the new states of Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, and three yet-to-be-successful movements in India, those of Telangana, Gorkhaland and Vidarbha.”

    On the last point, whether rich and poor share an ethnic/tribal identity, I don’t think Dean McHenry was assuming that at all. There are cases where it’s true that the elites share an identity with the poor, and there are cases where the elites are ethnic minorities in those regions.

    One of the main points of McHenry’s talk (and huge part of the paper, he said) is that the socioeconomic analysis doesn’t show any consistent pattern, whereas the rhetoric does.

  2. Re: “…the separatist regions very often have high levels of income inequality, with wealthy enclaves surrounded by significantly poorer regions.”

    I think this also ties into what I was saying earlier about “natives” and “settlers”; in a state like Chattisgarh, the “wealthy enclaves” are almost certainly “settlers” (or descendants of the same) — whereas the separate state movements would typically have been spearheaded by those articulating “tribal”/”native” concerns. Thus to the extent that the discussion assumed that the “rich” and “poor” shared the same cultural/communal group identity, I guess I would disagree. [That does not mean I necessarily disagree with the notion that the process of new-state formation is itself open to capture by the elites. And I do not also mean to suggest that “elite” will invariably map neatly onto the “native/aboriginal” and “settler” dichotomy: for instance, affirmative action and quotas means that in all these states the government is a hugely important source of employment for “tribals” and other marginalized groups].

  3. Jonathan: This is a very useful write-up, and many thanks for it.

    On states & “secession”: I am not sure I would agree that the wealthier portions of states tend to be in favor of secession: I do not believe that Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Uttaranchal (to name the three prominent examples from this decade) were the most prosperous parts of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. I would say the same about the ongoing Vidarbha movement in Maharashtra.

    The wider point you make might nevertheless stand: i.e. each of the three I have mentioned are natural resource-rich, but the “natives” (for want of a better word Jharkhand and Chattisgarh feature very high %ages of “aboriginal” groups, loosely referred to as “tribals” or “adivasis” in the popular media, though “settlers” are likely a majority in Jharkand and certainly parts of Chattisgarh too) are dirt poor, and it cannot be doubted that “outsiders” — in the form of corporations, government and private mining operations — have been cornering the benefits of these natural resources for decades now, and the “new state” movements have grown out of that.

    That’s not to suggest that I can’t think of instances where the more prosperous parts have sought to secede (think Tulunadu’s sporadic attempts to secede from Karnataka), just that I was under the impression the general rule was the opposite: the would be Telengana or Vidarbha states (currently part of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, respectively), and Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, seem to me to be poorer than the larger units they are/were part of. Do you recall what examples were specifically used to illustrate this point?

  4. It would have been interesting to have a panel actually debating the historical issues, or looking at the active groups in some detail, but in the absence of that it was interesting to see a thorough presentation of at least one side of the debate. Being a Harvard-trained historian (they noted Witzel’s Harvard connection several times), I was clearly not the sort of critical voice they were looking for that day.

  5. Jonathan, thank you for this excellent write up. Some friends in CA were heavily involved in protesting the “corrections” introduced by the Hindutva groups into the textbooks. Shiva Bajpai being the chief aggressor for the saffron-crowd. I think it is interesting that this presentation went by without a flare up. The effort of the Hindu extremists to contort history in India has been on-going [and thankfully, well resisted by historians] but the newest front lies in influencing the minds of the Indian diasporas. I think it will be up to our generation of historians to provide the bulwark.

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