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History Textbooks and the Idea of India


Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Krishna Kumar, Hari Vasudevan, Shireen Maswood and Manish Jain in conversation.

This discussion was held on August 15, 2017, as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India,Calcutta.

Manish Jain: Dear friends, today is the seventieth anniversary of India’s Independence. I remember as a child I would enthusiastically repeat ‘Jai Hind’ when the principal of my government school ended his speech or after I’d listened to the prime minister’s speech. Recalling those memories is important, even as you read the news of 70 children dying in Gorakhpur, of the continuing impasse at Doklam, of Medha Patkar being arrested, of contestations about food and marriage, of Jignesh Mevani, of the High Court’s judgement to not permit the regularization of 1.73 lakh Shiksha Mitras as schoolteachers in UP. Each of these events signifies contestations of the idea and new reality of India, and of history. The history of India in Indian textbooks stops at 1947, and these daily events and experiences remind us that history is contemporary as well.

If engagement with a specific time, space and context to explain change and continuity marks the status of history as a modern discipline that attempts to access and reconstruct the past through the use of sources and evidences, then this exercise to discuss the idea of India and history textbooks has to begin with the acknowledgement that each of these categories—India, history and textbooks—and their meanings are historical constructs that are simultaneously invoked, constructed and challenged.

Yesterday, in the course of an engaging conversation between our two eminent public intellectuals, Professor Romila Thapar and Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, we heard about the different elements of the idea of India—the shifts in it—and the silences in those different ideas. It was not so much a discussion about history and its textbooks. Professor Thapar mentioned that the first debate on textbooks happened in the 1970s, when Jan Sangh, an earlier avatar of BJP, as part of Janata Party government, objected to the NCERT history textbooks written by Professor Thapar and Professor Satish Chandra.

May I mention in passing that this perception—that community sentiments about history became important with Hindutva politics in post-Independence India—is not historically correct. My historical research about textbooks shows that, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the emerging public sphere in India began to pay more and more attention to what was being published in the textbooks, and one can see this in the series of objections, submissions, memorandums and debates in newspapers and the archives. In these historical sources, we find sufficient evidence that communities were quite sensitive about how they were being portrayed in the textbooks. Muslims, Hindus and Jains were consciously looking at depictions of their communities. Colonial historians and administrators too were constantly debating about what should go in the textbooks, what should be their language, how they were to represent India and whether the depiction matched the imagery expected by the people. There were disjunctions and critiques of textbooks in the colonial period. For example, at the turn of the nineteenth century, schoolteachers, and students in the United Provinces were raising a variety of objections to the first textbook for civics by Lee-Warner, The Citizen of India, on account of how it represented India, how it talked about a subject, the questions of pedagogy and the difference between the language of the textbook and the level of students. Thus to argue that this concern regarding community sentiments emerged only from the 1970s onwards is misplaced. We need to be historically aware of the past.

At the same time, being historians, we should also be aware of the shifts, and emphases, which have come in the present times about history and history teaching. Here I would like to quote what Professor Thapar rued yesterday: ‘There was a period when we should have insisted on removing textbooks from the control of the government.’ But why was it not insisted on then? We can find the answer to this question in Professor Thapar’s own 2009 essay in the journal History Workshop. Reminiscing on her engagement with the writing of history textbooks in the 1960s and the 70s, she discusses how, in the wake of concerns about national integration and the existence of poor-quality history textbooks that used communal, religious and colonial stereotypes, the writing of a textbook that presented secular and national history was seen as a national duty.

It is worth pointing out how both children and teachers were oblivious to the developments in the field of history and this is a point which also emerged in discussions around history textbooks in the morning.

With this background, we can posit some questions. I am not suggesting that all the panellists respond to these questions—the discussion will take its own forms and directions. But I wish to draw your attention to some of these questions, before we move further.

We often talk about the idea of India in history, but do children and teachers figure in our imaginations about the idea of India? Who are the children and teachers in our imagination of the idea of India and the teaching of history? What are their temporal, social and spatial locations of power and marginality? Who is this ‘we’ who imagines the nation without bearing any marks of religious, caste, occupational, linguistic or gendered identities? Is that erasure of the needs of the community in deference to the needs of the nation not an imposition of the cultural arbitrary of the dominant group of society on the other groups—groups that also restrict the choices of children?

Second: if education is not just knowledge and learning but also questioning, then, in tandem with the idea of India, what are the aims of teaching history to the young? And what kinds of textbooks and pedagogy are needed to work in that direction? If both life and educational practices are not based on a neat divide of the sacred and the secular, the feudal and the capitalist, the rational and the non-rational, but embedded in social relations of power and cultural beliefs and prejudices, then how do history textbooks engage with children and teachers and the repressed histories—a term used by Neeladri Bhattacharyya—that circulate around us?

Third: given the federal character of India, what have been the experiences, challenges and opportunities in the creation and use of such textbooks and pedagogies?

At this juncture, please allow me to historically contextualize the question of the federal character of India and the production of textbooks. It is important to remind ourselves that a significant shift has recently occurred in the understanding of curriculum, teaching history and history textbooks. Most of the schools and teachers present in the audience today are associated with ICSE boards. Thus, it is possible that most of you may not have taken note of the shift I am referring to, relating to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, and the creation of the new history textbooks guided by this framework under the aegis of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

The NCF 2005 conceptualized learning within a constructivist framework and made meaning central to learning. It did not see children as passive recipients and reproducers of textual knowledge but as active and creative and gave primacy to their experiences and voices. In the domain of history, the new textbooks moved from a linear narrative of the nation to multiplicities of histories and narratives of the past. These new textbooks brought the history of everyday life within their ambit to give students a sense that everything around them has a history, whether it is cricket or clothing.

In the context of the federal nature and structuring of education, curriculum and textbooks, it would be worth thinking about the different ways and experiences of engaging with history teaching at the centre and the constituent units of the Indian union of states. A study of various history textbooks, which include textbooks from Bengal, show that the imagination of India and the region are refracted through textbooks of history in different ways in the different Indian states. So there is not a singular imagination of India— there are also regional identities at work. When we are talking about history and history textbooks, and the idea of India, we need to also bring in the question of regions and the question of languages, which was raised yesterday in the context of the discussion between Professor Thapar and Professor Spivak.

The fourth set of issues—in the wake of the concerns about the power of the state in using textbooks as a medium of sectarian ideological propaganda—relates to suggestions about removing textbooks from the control of the government. But when you begin to think outside the state, and in terms of civil society, then you need to remember that these are forces which have a presence not only within the state but outside the state as well. For example, Vidya Bharati, which has more than 1 lakh schools under its control, is the largest network of education controlled by RSS. So the question of regulation needs to be imagined in relation to professionalism, which Professor Thapar was mentioning earlier. What are the possibilities and alternatives in such a case when you need to imagine this?

Another issue which was briefly picked up in the morning session is: Why has the Indian state and its historians been reluctant to include contemporary history in history of India? What does this tell us about the anxieties of the postcolonial state and its own pedagogic role vis-à-vis the young?

And last, I wish to draw your attention to the news of proposals by the present central government of one examination board and textbooks for all of India. Coming in the wake of one nation, one leader, one ideology, one uniform civil code, one tax—GST, what would such a proposal mean to the idea of India and the teaching of history? I do not suppose that we will be able to find answers to all these questions in this session, but conversations and questions are necessary and should continue. So let us listen to our eminent panel of speakers.

Hari Vasudevan. Manish has provided us with a number of interesting questions, and my greatest regret is that I was not present either yesterday evening or this morning, because I have a feeling that this kind of an event is really an engaged conversation which continues over a number of sessions, and somewhere or other each of the sessions are meant to feed off of one another.

I hope I will be able to link up some of the issues that have been raised both yesterday evening and this morning, and also take up some of the points that Manish has dealt with.

For the purposes of setting the ball rolling, I’d like to stress three points and add a fourth. When dealing with history textbooks or any textbooks and placing those textbooks within a framework of how India has evolved since 1947, one has to have a sense of the history of the textbook in India. This history is in many ways a partial key to much of the kind of disjuncture that some of the statements and questions raised by Manish have dealt with. And I would like to first address that smaller history of the textbook.

Professor Krishna Kumar has pointed out on many occasions that the textbook has always been key to education in a country in which there has to be some particular point of reference, either in terms of the classroom or in terms of the examination thereafter that the teacher can use. But what does one do where such a fixed reference is not possible, given the variety of pedagogic systems, as well as the range of concerns that school education is meant to address, both in pre-Independence and post-Independence times? Significantly, though, this situation too has had different avatars over the course of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century, and there is a further complication in what transpired.

In these circumstances, the notion of a textbook with a specific set of references for an Indian nation, where the nation itself is writ large, is part of a discourse which emerged in the 60s and the 70s and I think, from what I’m hearing, Professor Thapar has already paid a good deal of attention to this. But I’d like to stress that that particular agenda, that particular notion of a textbook for India was relatively new.

If we are looking before the 1960s and 70s, the textbook was generated in a series of different contexts. There was an almost decentralized way of looking at what was to be used and how it was to be used. Certainly, when we are looking at the time when such a discourse at the national level was not enjoined at all, that is, in the pre-1947 period when—except in terms of the national movement which engendered such a discourse internal to itself—the examination system as well as the teaching system tended to respond to that nationalist input without having its job cut out for it in terms of what that particular input was to be. Most of our textbooks in that particular period and even after 1947, during the 1950s, were generated by the universities or by those associated with universities in different ways. So much of our examination system, so much of our curriculum, as well as our syllabi were generated by the Calcutta University, the Punjab University, the Madras University, etc. The variations depended on the focus of that particular university and the way in which it wished to conduct its affairs at that particular time—and I think this was very important in the case of a subject like history.

During the course of the 1950s and early 60s, since education was on the State List, and since the universities were still very much in charge, much of what they recommended tended to be a product which was locally generated rather than nationally generated. A series of government committees—the Committee on secondary education, the financial committee and others, all attempted to set a particular framework of reference for the way in which these ideas would be generated during the course of the late 1940s and the 50s. But little broke the mould of established practice.

It really comes to the setting up of the NCERT in 1961 and the Kothari Commission, when the real national discourse, the notion of a framework of reference on a much larger scale was seriously to evolve. And even as it evolved, attached to this particular agenda was a deep feeling of distrust, a deep sense of worry concerning the way in which the universities and the states had done their job until then. So the Saiyidain committee report during the late 1960s raised major questions concerning the communal nature, as well as the communitarian nature, of the large number of textbooks that had been generated in the states at this time.

History is one of the most sensitive of subjects when it comes to this particular variation. Not so much geography, although geography in terms of economic geography was certainly affected by this. To a certain degree not civics so much either, because civics evolved as a subject primarily associated with the development of a good citizen, what precisely the good citizen was all about and what the constitution of India was all about. It was fairly straightforward to understand, to have a sense of. So of all the subjects that made up the social sciences at the school and early university and intermediate level, history was probably the one most focused on the variations that we’re talking about, and some of the misuses as well as uses that we’re talking about.

It was against this background that the national discourse itself had a certain rubric within which it evolved. It tended, during the course of the 1960s and 70s, to follow a particular way of understanding history which I do not say was exclusive but which had a specificity about it in terms of approach and categorization.

What is important to remember, though, is that somewhere or other, if we are thinking of India at that time as a whole, the two levels of approach—decentralized and national—continued to exist almost simultaneously. This was the outcome of the entry of the national discourse in the 1960s and 70s, and the persistence of all the variations from the past, through a very simple strategy: the existence of state boards of education, which tended to set their examinations, and follow their own preferences in a particular way. So whether you are dealing with Punjab or with the SSLC in the South, etc., you have a series of variations in terms of objectives, aims, goals, as well as the sheer content of what was being generated. The importance, I think, of what we consider a particular paradigm of variation has always lived, during the latter part of the twentieth century, or at least in the mid-twentieth century, up to 1980s, with this duality. And it is important to remember that the duality is at the base of a large number of problems and issues that we’re dealing with. When, for instance, a particular state does not think or listen to what has been generated within the framework of the national discourse. There has been an alternative lineage which has continuously run and continuously existed, and history has been one of crucial subjects that have been affected by this.

Primarily because different regions have been very particular about their communities and the different history associations and such that have generated it, the range of complexity has been large. The Kerala History Association, for instance, during the course of the 1970s, had its own particular take on history which is very different from anything that the Indian History Congress had begun to evolve during the course of the 60s and the 70s. If you look carefully, Keralacharithram which was done during the course of the mid-70s to late 70s, you will see this major distinction between that and the textbooks that were produced by the NCERT during the mid- to late 70s, and which became so popular during the 1980s, and which today, of course, Orient Blackswan sells and we all recommend.

This duality in the world of the Indian history textbook is something that I would like to stress. That is the first point that I would like to have borne in mind in the course of our discussion.

The second point that I’d like to make is that, quite clearly, this duality existed within a series of larger educational concerns. These were educational concerns which were addressed in the Kothari Committee. These concerns failed, following the generation of the national and/or state discourses during the course of the 1960s and 70s, to find serious solution. During the 80s and 90s, there was this sense that, somewhere, the Indian education system has not performed as effectively as it should have.

As a third point: I think there were three basic issues that came to receive stress at the end of this timeline and all of them affected the world of textbook production. The first was that somewhere or other the quality of education had simply not been up to the mark. The second: that the numbers that were affected were not adequate to the numbers that needed to be affected. And third: that the peculiar combination of the Concurrent List’s interpretation during the course of the 60s and 70s, when education had moved on to the Concurrent List, had simply not generated what was needed.

Finally, a fourth point: that there were a series of other issues concerning the burden of education as well that required attention.

Shireen Maswood. Regrettably, the approach of the state government continues to remain flawed in the approach to writing/revising textbooks on Indian history. The basic principles of projecting a holistic approach to the evolution of society, economy and polity are not priorities. A secular, inclusive pluralism needs to be accepted and upheld. India has moved into the twenty-first century, but, as has been lamented, the textbooks of modern India, in some cases, bring the narrative down to the mid-1960s to cover the Nehruvian era. Most textbooks commissioned by state governments, including the series produced by the West Bengal government, also stop at 1947. And by way of lip service to the postcolonial period, a little section on civics takes us to the 1950s. But there is one problem, which I think needs to be shared: the moment the commissioning authority is the state, there is an unstated agenda. And this we realized too late. Not so much in the case of the first two textbooks written and produced for distribution in government and aided schools, i.e. for Classes 6 and 7, but with regard to the Class 8 textbook.

For the Class 8 textbook on the history of modern India, (and to keep the record straight, all was fine till last year—no questions asked, no pressures), we were suddenly called upon to introduce one particular event. And here we thought we had a trump card, because the book was till 1947. How could we include something that happened in the twenty-first century when the book’s narrative ends with Indian Independence? But you will find that when you work in tandem with the state government, there are some things that just happen.

Most of us here are teachers—some of my students are here. As a facilitator, the most important thing about the textbook is not to make your students read it but to encourage them to ruminate, to question. Question what is written, and to try and come up with answers to the questions, so that we get better students at the graduate and postgraduate levels.

Krishna Kumar. Batsmen who come on the eighth or ninth or tenth positions are not really batsmen—but bowlers. That is my identity in this whole business of textbooks—history textbooks in particular. In this brief intervention I have three things I’d like to touch upon. First, the question of peace in relation to the teaching of history. Then briefly the nation and the states, to question the national and provincial levels. And, finally, a plea for a dialogue that began in NCERT but that has to move forward—a dialogue between the historian and the child psychologist. It is a rare dialogue, and we need more of it.

So let me start with the peace question—history and peace. Nearly 20 years ago I had the opportunity to analyse history textbooks used in India and in Pakistan, for representing the freedom struggle to children at various stages. This journey—the research—took me to Pakistan for the first time and gave me the opportunity of meeting a good number of children and teachers in schools there, apart from looking at their textbooks alongside our own, the ones meant for use under ‘national’ kinds of affiliations and those meant for use under provincial affiliations.

ccccOn my return, and having published my first book on that subject, Prejudice and Pride, I decided to engage with teachers and children in India to provoke the ideas that the book stood for, one of them being this question of peace. So I did so, at a gathering of Kendriya Vidyalaya teachers— a huge gathering, some time in 2006, about 400 hundred teachers, mostly of history, some of political science and some others. After my presentation, one of the Kendriya Vidyalaya teachers asked me a question which has haunted me ever since: ‘Why should history be taught from the perspective of peace? Wouldn’t it be better to teach it from a perspective of reality?’ Now this was not the first time I had faced this question. Even when I was working on the study, this question had come up. Is there such a thing as history from the perspective of peace, when reality is full of hostility and potential violence, and the experience of more than one or two wars? There is no easy answer to that question, but if you use the question to ponder on the broader issue around which this conference is organized, about the idea of a nation, or ideas that underpin a nation, and what role does the historian, particularly the school historian play in the formation of such ideas, then I think the question becomes quite useful for taking us forward on debates that are stuck at various points, and some of these points have been very nicely delineated by Professor Vasudevan. Many of the debates I feel are stuck in the 70s, some in the 90s. Some of the discussions which we thought had taken these debates forward, at least at the national level, continue at the provincial and other levels present in our country. The silence between India and Pakistan on the matter of education, or on the matter of how history is to be represented, particularly this shared history of the freedom struggle against the British—this silence is a very potent silence, and has to do with the manner in which the debate on history has shaped in the country between the secular and the communal. This word communal is, of course, charged with South Asian meanings, very specific meanings to us, which means religious separatism and words like that.

Now in this division between the secular voice of history, particularly modern history, and the communal voice on history, it is very clear that Partition is interpreted as an expression of the force with which this communal voice got translated, for social and political formation, and to the advantage of the geopolitical situation, the larger world. So it adds up that Pakistan is the product of this communal voice. And if that is the case, then there is not much to call dialogue in this matter. Therefore the textbooks of Pakistan do surprise us, just as one teacher said this morning. They surprise anyone who looks at even the best textbooks in Pakistan. Some Indians who dare to look at them are, quite naturally, shocked. Now, from the Pakistani point of view, their way of explaining how they came about as a country is enveloped in a cultural wrapping, which makes their perspective sort of inevitable for their children to accept. A perspective that would, you can say, translate into an essentialisation of India into a country which is majoritarian and which pretends to be secular. Hence the stereotyping on both sides, and the essentialization on both sides, makes sure that history cannot be an instrument of peace.

Now, this is not an easy matter to resolve, because once we begin to look at history in this sense in which it has been evolving, for a long time, since late in the nineteenth century, then we will have to acknowledge these various voices which have at various points found their relevant social and political formations, and struggled for power. And we are passing through that particular phase right now in which a certain idea—the seeds of a certain idea—can be traced back to the later nineteenth century.

I think we have a lot to think about in terms of: What is the purpose of teaching history? Is it to build citizens who are loyal to an idea of what a nation-state stands for? This may be one idea, or another idea, and may be replaced by yet another. In this view, history is essentially concerned with the making of informed citizens. Educational theory has a lot to offer about the purpose of teaching history, but no offer is as charged with a highly inspiring light as a question which many scholars use to summarize the work of the great political theorist Rousseau, who also had a lot to do with what we today call child-centred education. Many scholars of Rousseau have summarized Rousseau’s primary problem that he left for the world to resolve, a world in which Rousseau was aware that education was going to spread, and spread as an instrument of the state. So, scholarship on Rousseau has crystallised the Rousseau problem, and this problem is at the heart of this question: Can history be used for peace? The formulation articulated by the Rousseau scholars is as follows: ‘Can you nurture enlightened citizens who are also good human beings?’ Translated slightly more elaborately, it means: Can you create people who are loyal to a particular nation- state, whose heart also beats for other nation-states, or who are also sufficiently good human beings to worry about citizens of other countries? It is definitely a very difficult question and you can say that people who make syllabi, textbooks, etc., have to resolve it in their own minds. This question has remained relevant ever since Rousseau formulated it in various ways, and we too stand before it.

Let me now move to my second problem. In our country, the nation and the province are very submerged categories. In education, we think about the nation in terms of CBSE, and we think about the province in terms of provincial boards. And so we worry about, for example, Rajasthan’s textbooks today. But we don’t ask, how come in Rajasthan there are about 400 schools which are not going to teach the syllabus of the Rajasthan board? Who attends these schools? They are also in Rajasthan. The only difference is that they are affiliated to the CBSE, and you can guess who attends those schools. These are children of the better-off sections of Rajasthani society. The CBSE, with more than 18,000 schools in the country, constitutes today perhaps some 6 to 7 per cent of the total number of secondary schools, and this is the top tier of India’s system of education which likes to give its children the best products in terms of curriculums and textbooks.

Then for the masses, there are provincial-board schools, and there, the provincial system of textbook production prevails. Provincial governments have their say there, and generally provincial elites don’t worry too much about those schools and those textbooks. Not just because in most states they are in the provincial language, but because their children don’t study those textbooks.

Then there is yet another tier: the ‘national’ India of CBSE. There is the provincial India of the provincial boards, but there’s also a private board, namely, the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination (CISCE). Like some other states, West Bengal was able to ignore the NCF 2005 because CISCE is more popular among the private schools of West Bengal than the CBSE.

And now there is a fourth tier added to India’s diverse and unequal systems: the IB, International Baccalaureate, and of course, there have been since colonial times schools affiliated to Cambridge board. So, in a way you can say the examination system is kind of a great leveller—it hides our inequalities which are expressed not only as systems of managing a modicum of equal opportunity but also as systems of managing diverse levels of awareness and very different kinds of knowledge. The knowledge that today the Rajasthan Board of Education is creating, much to our annoyance, will never reach the children of the upper sections of Rajasthani society. It is meant for the masses. And if you look at textbooks in Punjab, Gujarat, Haryana and many other states, you will be worried. Normally we worry about NCERT textbooks. It’s a matter of great interest that NCERT textbooks produced in 2005 and 2006 are still going on, and many of the states which are governed by the BJP today adopted that, like Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and so on.

Within the big umbrella of federalism, it all seems to work out, that we will not worry too much about what becomes mass knowledge. Many among national elites feel that if there is some scope for hysteria among the masses, it is all right. That is exactly how the English looked at the masses. In that sense, the legacy of colonial rule continues to prevail.

My third point is about psychology. History as a subject presents a serious problem to the cognitive psychologist. Children end Class 5 without much history, but with the awareness of territories of India. They have seen the map of India not only on stamps but also in textbooks and various other places under geography, which does creep in by Class 4/5. There’s no basis to suggest that suddenly you’ll go into Class 6 and you now start with Ancient India. This structuring of history as linear knowledge, which takes its starting point in the earliest possible period of known history or documentation, is based on an academic sort of rationalism which is rooted in history as a discipline. But what exactly it has to do with childhood, with the way children learn, with the way children engage with knowledge, is difficult to explain. This question of Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth being Ancient, Medieval and Modern. In Class 8 you come to the freedom struggle, and it ends in 1947 and you don’t go any further. This is the way historians have constructed their knowledge, and the cognitive psychologist who knows a little bit about children is kind of puzzled. How come the historians don’t want to understand childhood, and the way children think? Don’t they treat children as learners? They treat children as an audience. They assume that children that have to be brought up to a certain idea of the past.

Why is this great race to finish history up to 1947 till Class 8? Well, the answer usually is that Class 8 is the closing point for compulsory education now. So by then the history of India as a nation should be completed, and every child must know who we are, where we came from, what all we have gone through, and so on. This is essentially as history recalling our collective memory as a nation, and this has been therefore a site of great contestation.

NCERT’s new history series is very appropriately called ‘Our Pasts’ rather than ‘The Past’, and the explanation is that we have many pasts, therefore there cannot be a single past that we represent. As Professor Vasudevan has explained, there are pasts of regions, pasts of communities, past in terms of gender and classes, and so on. And I think that’s certainly moving a bit towards the ground where history as a subject would become psychologically defensible. But we have a long way to go, because the way history is organized for those who are going to pursue history as a discipline doesn’t provide enough of a rationale for organizing it in a similar way for children who are not yet at what cognitively is called the formal stage of their intellectual development.

Philosopher John Dewey was very sceptical about history in elementary classes by which he meant age 14 and 15. He thought perhaps the best we can do is to introduce history as sociology. Dewey was writing long before Jean Piaget’s work was known, but through his own work as a teacher he had understood that history is not history. It’s like teaching something else, teaching something that children will learn, and yes will say, ‘We know it,’ but they won’t know what they know, or why it’s knowledge. And I think that problem remains, particularly because of the very tight compartmentalisation that remains in our education system. Children learn about this map of India, they can see the map from age four, five onwards, and by the time they’re seven or eight, they’ve completely absorbed that map. This is India, this is territorial India, and it’s within it that we live. The construction of identity as Indians takes place in geography long before the historian comes to do the job, and tries to expand that geography. Because ancient Indian history cannot be taught within the boundaries of India that have been conveyed already, under this very rudimentary geography. There is so little flow of ideas between geography, history and what we now call in NCERT Social and Political Life. We don’t call it civics any more though the word has persisted. So well was it used in colonial times to make us civic citizens, we refuse to believe that today citizens need to be political people.

And then there is the question of economy and economics. There is so little flow of ideas across these classes in seventh and eighth that it’s not surprising that history comes across as a bizarre subject. Even though it has been greatly humanized now with many curriculum improvements and changes, the fundamental problem remains.

And then, from ninth onwards, we are looking at a completely different scenario, there’s so much more room for experimentation, and I’m very glad it has been done, although many in West Bengal are not aware of what has been done and how it has worked. Why does it work at all as history? But yes the question remains: Is the textbook a central tool? Is the textbook a basis of examination? Is that a good idea? Should our system move beyond that idea and treat many resources as worthwhile resources? What is the territory of the teacher in relation to the territory of the textbook maker? My answer generally would be, and I will end with that: perhaps we haven’t looked at another creature in this exercise, and that person is the syllabus designer.

The syllabus designer of history has a problem because history is a whole. What you leave in also conveys something about who you are. So the desire is to teach everything, a problem that Professor Yashpal who has passed away a couple of weeks ago, posed extremely sharply in his 1993 report ‘Learning without Burden’: that if we teach everything that we know—if we present our disciplines, or our subjects as whole packages that have to be passed on to the next generation as whole packages—then we are showing great distrust in our children’s curiosity and in their ability to gradually translate their curiosity to a spirit of enquiry. That’s where every discipline meets, to make sure that the child’s natural curiosity is drawn towards our discipline. In this case we are talking about history, and that once it’s drawn, we have the means to engage with the child’s curiosity and train this curiosity to become the capacity to systematically enquire into every matter.

And that’s where the joy of history lies, and perhaps it is not totally reconcilable with the use of history as a means of nation-building. It is perhaps not totally reconcilable with the use of history as training of the citizen. There are overlaps, and these overlaps are very important when we work within systems of governance and so on. The debate within history has to be: Why should it be taught to children? It’s typical to accept that, yes, it should be taught to all children so that some at least become good students at the postgraduate level. This is just not defensible. If you want to choose potential good students of history you can have a pre-history test, like a pre-medical test. You don’t need to pass on history to every child. There has to be a deeper, more sophisticated defence of history. History as the means that makes us respect the past, that makes us sufficiently mature to stop quarrelling with the past, which is exactly what is happening in the context of Partition which we remember today on its seventieth anniversary. Thank you.


This discussion between Krishna Kumar, Hari Vasudevan, Shireen Maswood and Manish Jain was was held on August 15, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India, Calcutta.


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