California School Text Book Controversy
Witzel’s debacle in California
by N.S. Rajaram, April 30, 2006
A few months ago, California education authorities accepted recommendations to make changes to the depiction of Hinduism and India in textbooks to be used in the state. Uninvited, Harvard Sanskrit Professor Michael Witzel went on a lobbying spree to stop the proposed changes. But here is a curious fact: while he seemed to be campaigning against what he called 'Hindutva-inspired changes' his real agenda was to save his pet Aryan invasion theory from being axed.
Michael Witzel and a small group of his followers, mainly Europeans and the usual Indian hangers-on like Romila Thapar, are almost the last holdouts for the foreign origin theory of the Vedas and Sanskrit as products of the Aryan invasion. Their academic reputation, what is left of it, rests on the survival of their Aryan theories. Though largely ignored by the Indian media, two major developments have sounded the death knell of the Aryan invasion theory. These are: (1) genetic evidence showing that the Indian population is almost entirely indigenous with negligible input from outsiders going back to the last Ice Age (more than 10,000 years); and (2) British admission that the Aryan invasion theory was concocted to serve imperial interests, because, "it gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier."
In 1929, the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin stated in the House of Commons: "Now, after ages, …the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry have again been brought together by Providence… By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation, …it is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible …brothers as you are…" Need we say more?
Disgraced at Harvard
It is obvious that these revelations are devastating to Witzel's academic reputation. This goes to explain his desperate lobbying in California schools, begging education authorities to keep his Aryan theories in the books.
He made several trips, spending hours waiting in the outer offices of California bureaucrats and arguing with his opponents. This is not the kind of undignified behavior that one expects from an elderly professor at a prestigious university like Harvard. Even before the California scandal, Witzel's reputation had taken a severe beating at Harvard. Recently, he had started an Internet e-group called Indo-Eurasian Research that was little more than a hate group that repeatedly attacked those who disagreed with him in violent and abusive language. This was brought to the notice of Harvard authorities. Ten years ago, Witzel had to step down as chairman of the Sanskrit Department because of professional irregularities and personal misconduct. He was charged with misusing his position to bring unqualified people to Harvard and also threatening one of his students (possibly more) with a lawsuit for disagreeing with him. One of his favorites, Enrica Garzelli, was expelled by Harvard and sued the university. His latest favorite is one Steve Farmer who claims that DNA research discrediting Witzel's theories is an international conspiracy! So far Witzel's troubles had been confined to Harvard. Thanks to his political meddling, what was Harvard's embarrassment is now an international scandal.
Looking for money in Pakistan
There also seems to be a mercenary angle to his campaign. Even before the California controversy could be resolved, Witzel, along with Romila Thapar, Emeritus Professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, announced the formation of The Academic Indology Advisory Council, and Indian American Public Education Council. According to Witzel and Thapar, their goal in forming these is "to counteract this threat to the integrity of the material taught to our children," to which end their group "will offer its expertise to any school boards and publishers who may call on it, as a service to the field of Indian Studies." ("Our children" sounds a bit strained since neither Thapar nor Witzel is an American, much less parents of school-going children in California.) In other words, it is a consulting outfit that hopes to benefit from the unprecedented media coverage that the controversy received. Given his record, it is not surprising that Witzel's newfound business venture has failed to takeoff. Publishers are avoiding him like the plague, having incurred delay and losses due to his meddling in California school curriculum. Some are facing lawsuits, as is the California State Board of Education, for violating the civil rights of Hindu children. His failure to attract money in America is what seems to have sent Witzel to Pakistan looking for business as an anti-Hindu lobbyist. In the March 12 issue of the Karachi newspaper Dawn (Internet edition), Witzel proudly proclaimed Defeat for Hindutva revisionists, thanks to his lobbying efforts in California. The interesting thing about this advertisement masquerading as an article on education is Witzel's identification of himself as "Professor of South Asia Studies at Harvard." This conceals his real position as Professor of Sanskrit. He no doubt sensed that Sanskrit is closely associated with Hindu religion and culture. "South Asia Studies" may sell better than Sanskrit in Pakistan. While it is too early to say what all drove Witzel's plunge into California school politics and form his business venture, it is hard to take at face value his claim that it was to help school boards and publishers maintain integrity in the field of Indian studies. Saving his reputation and making some money to cover his growing legal and other costs seems a more likely explanation. All this places Witzel and his colleagues in their true place—not as heroic fighters or larger than life demons, but pathetic figures trying desperately to save themselves and their discredited discipline from collapse.
(The writer is a former U.S. academic and historian of science. His book Sarasvati River and the Vedic Civilization: History, Science and Politics will be released this year.)
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