Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Exchange between educators

“Exchange between educators, on how to teach India in USA schools.”

The special Issue of the journal, “Education About Asia,” that was sponsored by The Infinity Foundation in 2002, had an essay by Yvette Rosser (titled, “Temple of Doom in the Classroom”) criticizing the portrayal of India in the schools. Her article was criticized in a letter to the editor by Prof. David Stone. Yvette Rosser was asked by the editors of EAA to give her response.

Both the letter by David Stone, and Rosser’s response are posted below. This shows how well-entrenched the bias is – so much so that when someone calls for a change there is criticism of such attempts.

Letter by Professor David Stone, in “Education About Asia,” Fall 2002

Kansas State University
Department of History
208 Eisenhower Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506-1002
Fax: 785-532-7004

March 7, 2002

Dear Editor:

Yvette Rosser’s article “Temple of Doom in the Classroom” is admirable in its intent: to dispell negative stereotypes about South Asia. Her proposed solution, however, leads to the opposite extreme by minimizing South Asia’s very real social problems.

For example, Rosser dismisses sati as “never . . . widely practiced” and today “very, very rare.” As dowry deaths are likewise “few and far between,” there is no basis for an accusation of an “inherent anti-female bias in Hindu society.” As a result, she argues, it would be as unfair to judge India by sati and dowry deaths as it would be to judge the United States by domestic violence.

This misses the point. Rosser is certainly correct that sati is extraordinarily rare, but after the 1987 death of Roop Kanwar on her husband’s funeral pyre, hundreds of thousands came to worship at the site. While many condemned Kanwar’s death, too many others publically celebrated it, something that could not be said of her proposed parallel, American domestic violence. This attitude needs to be explored, not minimized.

True multicultural education should be based on an honest and analytical appraisal of other cultures, both their positives and negatives. We do our students no favors if we teach them that all aspects of all cultures are equally praiseworthy. Better to expose them to the writings of Ram Mohun Roy and contemporary Zadian feminists than to pretend that sati and dowry deaths are not worthy of attention.

David Stone
History Department
Kansas State University

Response by Yvette C . Rosser, in Education About Asia,” Fall 2002

Re: To a Letter to the Editor written by Professor David Stone, Kansas State University

Temple of Doom in the Classroom proposed strategies for high school teachers to make India relevant to their students, suggesting ways to resist essentializing cultural differences or reifying the exotic as the norm. By contextualizing social oppression and sexism within the discourse of human rights, relating inequities in India to similar problems in Western society, educators can avoid stereotyping class-based discrimination and gender violence as uniquely Hindu. Using sati to narrate Hinduism is tantamount to viewing Christianity through the lens of witch burning.

David Stone contends this approach leads “to the opposite extreme by minimizing South Asia’s very real social problems”. Conceding that “sati is extraordinarily rare”, Stone mentions Roop Kanwar, who died “on her husband’s funeral pyre” where “hundreds of thousands” have since worshiped. Clearly, when a teacher only has a week devoted to India’s millennia – from Mohenjo-Daro to Mahatma Gandhi – Roop Kanwar’s murder sensationalizes the rarified event, creating the impression that dowry deaths and sati are innately linked.

According to Stone, parallel popularization “could not be said of American domestic violence”. Unfortunately, a profitable XXX-rated industry graphically objectifies women, glorifying rape, while Charlton Heston, et al. celebrate America’s gun culture, blurring Hollywood and history, as Moses hands the commandments down from the NRA. Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction, orgies of violence, were blockbusters Domestic violence is celebrated by millions of misguided Americans, re: snuff films and kiddy porn. But, should secondary level students in India with only a few days to cover the USA, explore “wider dimensions” of exploitive porn? Classes about the USA in India should not delve on the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas as relevant to beliefs and practices of most Americans. Roop Kanwar is similarly unrepresentative.

Why should students learn that such anomalies are particular to Hinduism, while practicing Hindus are shocked and repulsed? Does it benefit students to learn that “thousands went to her shrine” while millions were appalled, catalyzing a “nation-wide cathartic reappraisal of women’s status”? (Kanwar was drugged, pushed onto the pyre, her family members arrested for murder. See: Radha Kumar, “Chipko to Sati: Contemporary Indian Women’s Movement”, Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective, ed., Amrita Basu, Westview, Boulder: 1995; also Oldenburg, “Roop Kanwar Case: Feminist Responses”, Sati, The Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India, ed., John Hawley, OUP, NY: 1994.) After the Kanwar case, federal legislation was enacted providing the death penalty for anyone abetting Sati.

A World History class is often American students’ only exposure to India unless they specialize, at which time seminars might include “Zadian feminists”. Introductory lessons about India should eschew the obscure, the long outlawed, unsavory details of the past, otherwise we disseminate Eurocentristic constructs of a progressive West, where positive changes happen in history, whereas traditional countries like India are frozen in time by moribund customs.

To base this rejoinder in both practice and theory, I forwarded my article and Prof.. Stone’s letter to an experienced high school teacher and a professor who has published extensively on women’s issues in India. David Freedholm, from Princeton Day School, NJ, co-author with Arvind Sharma of Hinduism: An Introduction for High School Students (forthcoming), commented, “When students receive comparatively little instruction about India, is it fair to choose sati or dowry deaths as one of the few topics covered?” He added, “Regarding public celebrations of violence – lyrics of popular rap songs violently demean women, but do not represent American attitudes, similarly, Indians oppose sati and dowry deaths.” Freedholm concluded, “The treatment of India in many American classrooms is full of stereotypes. This must be remedied.”

Prof. Veena Oldenburg, Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center of the City University of NY concurred, “Worshipping guns is as marked a practice as worshipping ‘holy cows'”. Her recent research unpacks “the ‘cultural fingerprints’ discovered at the scene of any crime because the British saw Hinduism as a cruel set of fixed beliefs”. Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime (OUP, 2002) points out, “U.S. murders of women are proportionate to those in India, done in ‘ordinary ways’ – shooting, strangling, bludgeoning, poisoning, using automobiles to create convenient accidents. In India, fire as a murder weapon creates false resonances with sati and makes the crime ‘cultural’, whereas kerosene stoves are common and forensically, burning is difficult to prove when repackaged as accidents or suicides.”

Oldenburg demystifies contemporary bride burning arguing such violence is traceable to British policies that drastically eroded “women’s entitlements” by “radically redefining property rights” thus negatively impacting precolonial marriage practices “managed by women, for women [Š] to establish their status”. British documents blamed crimes against women on the caste system, to “cover up the devastation wrought by colonial agrarian policies”. Classroom discussions of sati must carefully disentangle domestic violence from religion.

In an introduction to Western Civilization should school children in India learn that racism is imbedded in Christian culture, with slavery its corollary; that the Bible and the bullet went hand in hand with imperialism and genocide? Such approaches may deconstruct power relations, but if emphasized and sensationalized, they can promote negative stereotypes.

I agree with Dr. Stone that “multicultural education should be based on an honest and analytical appraisal of other cultures”, but as educators we must be clear that gender crime is a social pathology carried out by rogues and has no more to do with Hinduism than Christianity; if not, we do a disservice to inter-community dialogue by perpetuating old civilizational prejudices that have distorted the discourse about India for several Euro-centric centuries.

Yvette C. Rosser