Sikh Religious Leader Removed From History Books

SACRAMENTO — The state Board of Education voted Thursday to ask a publisher to remove from a seventh-grade history textbook a picture of a Sikh religious leader that many followers said was offensive and inaccurate.

The board agreed to the recommendation from state Department of Education officials and the textbook’s publisher, Oxford University Press, to remove the historical portrait of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, from “An Age of Voyages: 1350-1600.”

The controversial image shows Guru Nanak wearing a crown and with a close-cropped beard. The depiction runs contrary to Sikh faith, which requires observant men to wear a turban and not to shave their facial hair.

Guru Nanak also was a man of the people and would not have worn an ornate crown, more than a dozen members of the Sikh faith testified Thursday.

The image is taken from a 19th century painting made after Muslims ruled India. The publisher used it because it complies with the company’s policy of using only historical images in historical texts, said Tom Adams, director of curriculum for the Department of Education.

After Sikhs complained that the picture more closely reflected a Muslim man than a Sikh, Oxford offered to substitute it with an 18th century portrait showing Guru Nanak with a red hat and trimmed beard. But Sikhs said that picture made their founder look like a Hindu.

The publisher now wants to scrap the picture entirely from the textbook, which was approved for use in California classrooms in 2005. There are about 250,000 Sikhs in California.

Sikh leaders say they want a new, more representative image of Guru Nanak, similar to the ones they place in Sikh temples and in their homes. The publisher has rejected those images as historically inaccurate. No images exist from the founder’s lifetime, 1469 to 1538.

Adams said he does not know how many copies of the book already have been printed but said California schools have bought 509 copies.

Oxford University Press publisher Casper Grathwohl did not immediately return a telephone message Thursday from The Associated Press.

The board went a step beyond the department’s recommendation. It voted to urge the publisher to cover the picture with stickers in books that already are printed. It also wanted the stickers to portray an alternate picture of Guru Nanak or give an explanation of the controversy.

The publisher, however, did not send a representative to the board meeting, frustrating some members who wanted to consult with Oxford about how to proceed.

Board member Donald Fisher noted that California, with 6.3 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students, holds enormous clout in the textbook industry. It could simply tell Oxford to put a new image in the text, even if the publisher would not be required to comply, because the book has already been adopted.

“I think they may agree to it – or we might not buy their next book,” he said.

Under California law, the state approves textbooks that meet California’s content standards, and individual school districts choose which ones to use. The board approved “An Age of Voyages” and is not scheduled to review its history and social science texts again until 2011.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who attended Thursday’s meeting, offered to call the publisher’s chief executive and suggest it replace the image with a more modern one.

Still, Sikh leaders at Thursday’s meeting felt the board did not go far enough to push the issue. They argued that deleting the image of their founder downplays the significance of Sikhism.

“They should have been more courageous and accepted our recommendation,” said Onkar Bindra, a retired teacher from the Sacramento suburb of Gold River. “It is really in their authority to ask all the school districts not to use it anymore.”

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Mar. 8, 2007
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This post was last updated: Friday, March 9, 2007 at 9:25 AM, Central European Time (CET)