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Learning to Live with the Past-Krishna Kumar


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This talk was delivered as part of Shared Histories, 2019, co-organized by and held at Saint Kabir Public School, Chandigarh.

The title I have chosen for this presentation is meant to arouse a sense of contrast with the possibility of living in the past. How do we arrive at this choice: to live with the past and recognize that the past is past? That not much can be done about it? This, as opposed to living in the past—thinking that the past was better, not just different—thinking that the past gives us a sense of a goal to achieve or feeling nostalgic about its passage and so on. This subject acquires a great deal of potency when the past is represented by the Partition. The idea of the Partition continues to be a matter of passion and nostalgia, depending on which side of the border you are on. One is thinking not just about the physical border—the Wagah border—but also the borders within. If you are a secular-minded, progressive person, who believes that India’s national destiny was and is different from that of Pakistan, then you feel the Partition was not just wrong, but in fact, a failure. The Partition means everything that we reject as progressive Indians, following those we regard as leaders: Gandhi, Nehru and various others. On the other side are people who think of the Partition border as a reminder of a betrayal, a conspiracy. They too would like to undo Partition, but for very different reasons. From a secular perspective, we call them communal people—people who would like to recreate an undivided India, but name it differently, call it Akhand Bharat.

Partition does evoke a significant sense of separations: ideological separations within our country, and a sense of separation from what society(and the country),was perceived to be before the Partition. From that point of view, the Partition is certainly a very challenging problem for the History teacher. But then, it’s not just the Partition that is challenging.

Think of the average History teacher. The History teacher has a job to do—a syllabus to complete,  a  prescribed textbook to follow, to prepare children for the examination based on this textbook. Her job clearly cut-out, in that sense. In this system, if she is imaginative and wants to make History come alive, it can be a major challenge and problem. If the History teacher doesn’t fall in this category, then she will not teach History in the sense of History-as-subject. This latter teaching method arouses our curiosity about the past, tells us something about it, hopes to make us interested in where we came from and how the world got to where it is today. If you are the kind of teacher who simply completes the syllabus and leaves the subject cold, we can’t critique that except to say she is a teacher doing a job.

But think about the teacher who is imaginative, who likes to make the past come alive. Quite often the teacher can be in a complicated, unchartered space. If the past becomes too alive, leaving little epistemic spaces between where the children are, where we are positioned today, and where the past was; then we might lose track of its ‘pastness’. One true thing about the past is that it was different. Not just because a few things were different; everything was different. History, well-taught, ought to make us aware of this complete difference. As philosophers say, the past is like  a foreign country. When you enter the past, you are looking at a different world, a different landscape. The teacher—who brings us close to this past by using pedagogically progressive or useful methods—can reduce the distance with the past. The past requires us to remain aware of this distance from ‘pastness’ or we risk analysing the past out of a sense of enquiry, out of a sense of curiosity.

Our empathy with those who lived in the past (especially prominent people or personalities), combined with the various pedagogic techniques that makes the past ‘come alive’, can make us do a bit of an injustice to what History can and should be able to achieve in the curriculum. It’s a dilemma or a paradox in that sense. Should we make it come alive? Then how do we avoid the desire that it might create to undo that past? That’s exactly the kind of question which arises when you think about the Partition.

Seven decades on, we haven’t reconciled with the Partition—neither we, as thoughtful critical Indians, nor the people across the border. They still think that Partition didn’t do enough justice to them. So we have an episode of history, which when brought alive (what an imaginative teacher can do with visuals, theatre, with biographies, live stories and other methods available in the pedagogic kitty), has a bit of a problem. This problem is not very easy to depict.

It was about 22 years ago that I decided to study how history is taught in India and Pakistan. My idea was to look at the textbooks used in different parts of India and the textbooks used in different parts of Pakistan. I also decided to meet teachers and children on both sides, spend some time with them, and ask them to write about the Partition. All of that became quite a difficult and complex journey for me in terms of understanding my own field—education—and I began to realize how important the subject of History is in the curriculum. At the same time, it showed how difficult the subject is if you attempt to use History for purposes for which one might think History can be used. No other subject can be used in the way in which History can be used.

But let’s briefly take stock of what History is doing in the curriculum, and this goes beyond India and Pakistan. What History does in most countries is participate in the project called nation-building. History is part of what we used to call Social Studies (nowadays, what we like to call Social Sciences), but History is actually only one of those three or four subjects. Generally it starts in Grade 6, moves on to Grade 8, by which time you get one exposure to India’s history as a continuous story from the ancient to the modern times. Those modern times end in Partition or Independence. After that there is no history. Then History starts again in Grade 9. In 9 and 10, you get another chance to place the Indian history that you have learnt in 6 to 8 in a slightly wider global context. Then of course there is History in 11 and 12 for those who want to pursue History as an optional subject—they get the chance to get into some depth in making sense of things. But History at the earlier stages is a part of what you would call citizenship education. It is in the curricular policies of various nation-states because History seems to satisfy the need for creating a national identity. It answers those questions which every child is expected to have at some point or another: ‘Who am I?’; ‘Where do I belong?’; ‘Where did I come from?’; ‘Where did the people that I consider my people come from?’

Those questions are assumed to be part of one’s package of curiosity. It is also assumed that it’s the responsibility of the school system to respond to those questions; to create answers which appear to be valid, answers which have been state-certified. The modern school, thus, is an institution of the state, and draws its legitimacy from the state. Modern school as a system that aspires to reach out to every child, is a unique institutional creation of our times (what we call modern history). There was no such institution any time in the past: in our case before the present few decades, and in most countries of the world, before the late nineteenth century. In all earlier periods of human history, knowledge was available in small amounts to vast numbers of people, and only a select few had the opportunity to study it in-depth. The modern school replaces this older system of distribution of knowledge, it compels you to attend school for ‘X’ number of years, during which the school works under the auspices of a state-organized system. Whether it’s a state school or not, the state has a say in what the school will do. This is where the curriculum comes in.

The curriculum sets our goals and objectives, which is generally the policy of the state about what education is for. What different subjects are for and how much space they will have in the curriculum are all aspects of this broader policy framework. Then of course, there is the syllabus. Most teachers think the syllabus is really the curriculum, because it’s the syllabus that they have to complete(otherwise everybody seems to be angry with them).Then there is the most important of these three objects, namely, the textbook. In fact, you meet a lot of teachers who have never seen either the curriculum document or the syllabus but have seen the textbook. They know that it’s the textbook that matters, which absorbs most of the anger lots of people feel about education. It’s the textbook which is important for getting qualifications through an examination process—all questions are based on the textbook. Sometimes you don’t worry about the textbook if you have a guidebook, because the guidebook is a further distillation of the knowledge the textbook is supposed to provide. Guidebooks make it even more convenient for you to go straight to the relevant knowledge for passing examinations.

So the wise and practical teacher knows that his/her job is cutout: simply to get children through examinations by knowing the answers that are certified to be right. These ‘right’ answers fall in line with what the nation-state determines to be the line of thinking that citizens must possess in order to be loyal citizens. This brings us straight to the question: How are political rivalries to be understood in terms of the goals of education? This was the object of my curiosity. How does education shape the rivalry or the hostility? This neighbourly hatred that we have with our neighbour on the west side, Pakistan, earlier also existed on the east side. How does this neighbourly hostility shape the education systems of these two countries?

Education participates in this process in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One gets to feel this instantly when one sits down and listens to a teacher teaching anything to do with, say, from 1920s-1930s onwards, there is a sense of the Partition coming. My analysis of how textbooks do this is quite elaborate, and you can see it in my books, Prejudice and Pride and Battle for Peace—I don’t want to spend too much time on capturing that analysis. Basically and very briefly, both these countries have a sense of a narrative about presenting the freedom struggle, the struggle against colonial rulers, in a way that leads to an end. This end, namely the Partition and Independence, has two different meanings for these two different countries. For India, Partition was a tragic loss in the moment of a great achievement. Many poets, starting with Faiz have written about that moment as a moment of light which also carried some kind of grim darkness. Other poets have tried to show us that our freedom was achieved at great cost—the Partition—which brought with it, human tragedy and a sense of loss, a sense of bitterness. It brought out passions and feelings that nobody thought human beings could have. Although the word ‘Holocaust’ is now used almost entirely for what happened in Germany, many people recall Partition also as a Holocaust. In the Indian case, the narrative of history that comes first in Grade 8, then Grade 10, and finally in Grade 12, follows this notion that yes, Independence was a great achievement, yet had it been without the Partition it would have been a greater achievement—we cannot forget or move on from this tragic loss. If you are an Indian studying the history of the freedom struggle, then you cannot help but think of the Partition as something very sad.

On the other side of the border, the Partition has a very different meaning. Partition carries with it the idea that it was a moment of birth—a birth of a nation from which its history as a modern nation begins. Pakistani historiography often sees the seeds of Partition in the distant past. Based on how much influence the Islamization policies that gripped Pakistan from 1970s onward had on you, you will place the seeds of Partition far out in the distance. Some like to believe that these seeds were sown in the 1930s, many like to believe that these seeds existed from late nineteenth century onwards, and many more like to believe that those seeds existed in the tenth century, and that Pakistan is the ultimate fruition of a very long struggle. The Pakistani narrative posits the Partition as a bit of an escape: claiming that had we not been persistent, we might have missed the Partition and might still been under the Hindu Raj—what Pakistani textbooks like to call the dominant forces at the time of India’s independence.

The two narratives are different not just in the conception of the ending, but also in many other ways. They are different in what they mention where, how much space they give to these mentions, what they are silent about, which decades and periods they present, and also in the pacing of the narrative. It’s not as if they are completely contrary mirror images, they are contrary in a nuanced way. They locate the beginning of the freedom struggle in the same year (by Grade 8, you know that moment was 1857)—the one common thing about History learning in Pakistan and in India is that our children and their children both locate the beginnings of freedom in 1857. Right up to about the 1920s, the two narratives are not that different, but once great personalities enter the narratives, the narratives begin to differ. What is history without personalities? It’s the personalities which lend visuals to history—in the case of India, that personality is Gandhi. In the case of Pakistan, that personality is Jinnah and before him, Iqbal.

The histories of the two countries (as they are taught) also choose periods in the lives of people. For example, in the life of Iqbal, the Indian-school history-writers prefer the earlier Iqbal while the Pakistani-school historians prefer the later Iqbal—they divide Iqbal into two parts. Before he gave his speech in 1930, he was believed to be a different kind of person, even though he remained a poet to the end. It’s the later Iqbal that interests people across the border where he is regarded as a very important figure responsible for the birth of Pakistan and so on. One can go into numerous details into how these two versions of history differ—why the Pakistani version emphasizes the Nehru Report written under Motilal Nehru’s chairmanship, and why the Indian ones don’t treat the Nehru Report as being all that important. Similarly, the developments of the late 1930s are far more significant from a Pakistani point of view compared to the Indian point of view. The 1940s are covered in two distinctive and different paces in these two sets of textbooks, with the Indian textbooks moving fast in that period whereas the Pakistani textbooks move very slowly, dwelling on each thing that helped the Muslim League proceed towards the goal of Pakistan. Pakistani textbooks create a sense of a destiny of their nation.

This very brief summary of what I found should suffice to indicate how important the nation-building role of history teaching is in both countries. That role can actually be pinned down to the creation of a civic commitment to the nation-state. It’s not surprising that history is backed with larger training in Civics. Civics, in fact is still called ‘Civics’ in most schools, even though in India we have tried to rename it ‘Social and Political Life Learning’. But Civics continues to be used, and has a very close relationship with history in how it brings us to the moment when certain values of the nation arise. History bears witness to the rise of those values by showing that their seeds lie in the past. So if the values are the values of the Constitution of India, then the freedom struggle becomes the period in history during which those values came to the fore. The Indian historical narrative underplays the differences among different movements, leaders and factions within the freedom struggle. It also underpins the dissenting views about what the future nation will be.

The idea that History ought to play an inspirational role is fundamental to how History finds its status and place in the curriculum—this is quite true in all countries of the world. India and Pakistan are no exception. We would like our children to realize that the Constitution came out of a historical struggle, in which the qualities that the Constitution is supposed to represent arose through the debates and struggles of the various political leaders of the freedom struggle. In the case of Pakistan, where the Constitution remained and continues to be a matter of political struggle to this day, the idea of an Islamic identity stands where history is supposed to. This has contributed to creating the idea that Pakistan’s destiny as a Muslim Nation was written in its past, and has come true today. So the idea of citizenship-building as civic awareness is the awareness that Pakistan is an Islamic state, that the values of Islam are the values of Pakistan and that’s what history there is supposed to teach children. So in both cases the purpose of having history in the curriculum is essentially a kind of a moral purpose. To create a sense of pride in the nation and its past, and this purpose lends itself very easily to the creation of an identity, a collective identity which gives us a sense of a collective self, and this is where the most important mutation of emotions takes place.

Any collective identity gets facilitated in its growth when it has the other to seek inspiration from. Who we are becomes easier to define if we can say we are different, different from the ‘other’, and this ‘other’ happens to be close by and therefore the task becomes even more convenient. We are what they are not, and this notion of a collective identity as a curricular responsibility falls most heavily on the shoulders of the History teacher. It’s the History teacher whose responsibility it is to create pride in ourselves and prejudice towards the ‘other’. Prejudice perhaps is the wrong word—rather, help us recognize what the other is or is not. Even though it’s not done consciously, it happens. Partition is the kind of subject which cannot be ‘properly’ learnt, in the sense that any history syllabus or textbook would like to teach you on either side of the border unless that learning resonates with the purpose of History as defined by the state.

In the Indian case, Partition is regarded as the product of a kind of failure—in the worst possible words, you could call it a conspiracy in which Muslims and the British came together and were able to practise what the British were practising according to so many other textbooks, the policy of divide and rule. Many textbooks in India would like to show that Partition sowed the seeds of a continuation of colonial dominance. If these two countries remained warring, then it was easier for Britain, the rest of Europe and the West to dominate the world order—that’s how many Indian textbooks continue to treat this notion of Partition, as the product of a kind of a collaboration between political representatives of the Muslims and the British colonial rulers.

In the Pakistani case, of course, as I mentioned earlier, Partition has a very different connotation. It has the connotation of a destiny which finally came true despite every attempt made to resist it by people who didn’t want Pakistan to be born. Now the sense of ‘otherness’ which this portrayal creates is quite exclusive to that other, and does not allow any room for what the past can otherwise be—a matter of a resource for so many goals of education, one goal being simply curiosity. Not only the past but even the present loses the possibility of that goal. In India, the curiosity about how that country out or how it shape the lives of its people, what kind of society it is—such thoughts are fully muzzled. The last news we have of Pakistan is the news of Partition, after which there is nothing—no textbook which will tell us about what happened thereon. Then the mike is handed over to the cinema, to the media, to gossip and lore of various kinds.

On the Pakistani side, the situation is quite similar. Curiosity about India is aroused mainly by its films which continue to be very popular in Pakistan, but as far as school-level learning is concerned, it stops with Partition. After that it’s not worth learning about India, and so there is a sense of a stoppage of curiosity. But then curiosity as a goal is not something that sits easy with education systems in either India or Pakistan. Curiosity as we know it is a natural instinct in the child, and doesn’t serve much purpose in learning unless it turns into enquiry. To make the natural curiosity of a child sustainable over along childhood and adulthood requires that tools of enquiry are imparted, and this is where the role of the modern school actually lies. The school can turn a child’s natural curiosity into this spirit of enquiry, if these various subjects that the school curriculum offers are used for arousing curiosity further and equipping it with tools of enquiry. History of course is eminently suitable for this task because it is about a past about which the child can only learn by either knowing how to find out what the past was like or by reading history with one’s own awareness of how history is written. But if history is presented as ready-made, as history that answers all the questions that are relevant, it ceases to be a source of inculcation of tools of curiosity. History is not even defined in the curriculum as a subject which is meant to arouse curiosity and a sense of enquiry about the past in most states in India, and certainly not in Pakistan. In fact, history is usually considered a subject which is supposed to give us the answers to: how did we get here? As a nation, how did we become a modern nation? And what is it that distinguishes us as a modern nation in the community of nations in the world?

History is essentially a subject about civic learning, and therefore, the teacher who uses history to arouse some sense of enquiry about the past is a rare teacher. And if she is serious about her business, she most probably won’t be able to complete her syllabus. Because any study of history requires engagement with a few topics, and once you engage with the topic and arouse a sense of learning with the help of resources, distinguish evidence from fake evidence, if you begin to see the teaching of History in terms of those kinds of epistemological or intellectual goals, the pace at which we organize history teaching cannot be sustained. And so a majority of teachers won’t even think about it. In any case, History as a subject figures as a marginal subject in the Social Studies, and with the advent of the more practical subjects, amid the Sciences, Mathematics and Commerce, it has been further marginalized. History is also problematic because it is not only taught by the teacher or by the curriculum designers, it is also taught freely by the entertainment industry which finds in history enormous fodder for its use. On every possible subject you can find any number of appealing cinematic versions and narratives. History is also something that various other kinds of media would like to teach, therefore making the task of the good history teacher even more difficult. For the world of media portrays so many versions and so much information about the past which is conveyed to children in ways that are far more attractive than what a blackboard or a smart board can make it.

So the question I try to raise in the title of this talk becomes a complex and problematic question: How do we create a sense of the past where the possibility of learning about its wider landscape of life remains insatiable and uncertain, yet also full of possibilities? If you look at the title of this conference ‘Shared Histories’, my conclusion is that there are no ‘Shared Histories’. There are shared pasts and conflicting histories, and the task for the judicious and capable and interested history teacher is to make history a means of creating interest in the past, learning about the past, and learning about the ways in which the past presents itself for learning as a challenge to our intellect, of our abilities to enquire about the past. Then alone can history serve the purposes which we would consider synonymous with peace. History otherwise is a subject that lends itself very easily to political hostility, simply because of the conditions in which it is taught and because of the manner in which it is structured for inclusion in the education system, in the curriculum and syllabus and so on. History lends itself most easily into that structure as a means of creating a sense of a continued battle with the past. Instead of learning that the past is actually past and the best it can do is to help us to become curious about it, to respect it and to create in us the capacities to live with what has already happened, it often ends up creating a sense of nostalgia. The idea that something that happened 400 years ago can now be undone or that it ought to be undone so that justice is done is precisely that kind of product—or the feeling that Partition was a mistake and should be undone or that it was a conspiracy and therefore it should be undone is a similar case, even though its contours are a bit different from the case of the 400-year-old event which modern Indian politics is trying to undo.

Any number of such instances can be considered to see how difficult this exercise of being a good history teacher is. And in that context, when we think of the area which we have been learning about since this morning, the broader contours of this area, we realize how much potential there is in history as a subject for peace, and how little that potential is utilized. Under the systemic conditions in which we function in education, that potential is not only not realized even to a marginal degree but is, in fact, subverted so that history becomes a means by which the children’s regimentation can proceed further. The school is a regimental institution, in the sense that it controls bodies from the time they are in kindergarten. They learn to live in an environment in which freedom is frowned upon—any sense of freedom has to be bottled up for life outside the school. If you are a student of educational anthropology, you can stand outside any school and see how much difference it makes when children emerge from the school gate or enter into the bus. Many good schools now of course like to put a teacher in every bus, so that the children remain in a bit of a school environment even when they are in the bus . . . because the heavens will fall if the children are left to themselves and so on. The idea that the history teacher works in an environment in which most of the subjects are also participating in the regimentation of the child’s body and mind make the task of the history teacher, even the imaginative history teacher, so much more difficult. If we are therefore talking about our region as a region which calls for a contribution to peace through education, then we’ve got to recognize a number of limitations that this system imposes on us and work our ways out of those limitations to the extent possible.

The broader region is South Asia, which is cut up with these borders of nation states, each one of which has its own history which privileges its own collective identity. So there is a history of Pakistan, there is a history of Bangladesh—Pakistan’s history as a modern nation begins in ’47, and we have Bangladesh’s history beginning in 1971. Then, of course, there are these other two participants, Sri Lanka and Nepal, who have their own collective self-identity to which school history has now been fully tailored.

School history ultimately creates a sense of hard borders, and it seems that if education were a humanist enterprise, then it should dilute those borders and that’s what it would mean if we paid better attention to what we call, might call, shared histories or better histories to create a sense of a shared past. What would that mean? To begin with it would mean, at least in Pakistan, that India still has not accepted Pakistan. The one thing that their history and other texts both try to emphasize: that Pakistan is a very insecure society because it is next to India which still doesn’t accept it. From their perspective, India is not happy about the existence of Pakistan.

I can never forget my interaction with children of the Lahore Grammar School, Grade 9, in which there was a girl who insisted on asking, ‘Why are you, despite the fact that you are such a big country, afraid of us?’ Of course my colleague and I tried our best to explain to her that we weren’t afraid. Then she said, ‘Why did you then make that atom bomb?’ I didn’t cut much ice with her and the other children when I said that the atom bomb is not necessarily for them, that in fact we have other hostile neighbours. She said, ‘Well, those are there, but are you telling me that it is not for us? Are you really telling me the truth?’ Now that was a very difficult question when it comes from a Grade 9 girl who is quite sure that she knows the answer. This question, that they feel insecure, is reciprocated in better or worse ways by us. We too are insecure and, as you know from our current climate, we can exercise all our political options around the issue of security and forget about joblessness and famine and everything else.

Both nations are permanently insecure because of the sense of ‘the other not accepting us’. Pakistan thinks we don’t accept it, India thinks that Pakistan doesn’t accept what happened in Kashmir, which is also a political reality and truth. So if we were to deny the possibility of their version of history being taught there at all, and say, ‘Look, your history is false and our history is true,’ then we will only exacerbate that sense of denial which already exists in their minds, that India denies us. And perhaps something very similar will happen to many people on this side of the border. In relation to Bangladesh too, if we denied our nation-state-centric narratives to these countries of our region, then perhaps even at the take-off point we won’t get very far.

It seems to me that the possibility of exploring shared pasts has to be realized within the context of how history is taught in a nationalist framework. We can certainly soften that framework. If we were looking for a way to move forward, we would say ‘Yes, there is a difference between a hard nationalist framework and a reasonable nationalist framework.’ Nationalism in itself has so many nuances and categories, therefore we need not, cannot, dismiss the idea of the ‘national’ as an inspiring idea, as an idea that brings people together across castes and religions and communities. We don’t need to sacrifice that idea just because nationalism sometimes begins to become such a threat to humanism, as Tagore has famously pointed out in his text about the dangers of political nationalism gone wild.

Without denying a national narrative which history attempts to create in a system of education which is meant for all children to participate in, we can still probably create spaces for exploring the past which is a longer past. A past which takes us into distances that we otherwise regard as either too old or irrelevant, because that longer past doesn’t go away. All of that longer past drips into and links to later pasts and the present past that we hold so dearly, which has brought us here. The whole idea of learning how pasts come together—the metaphor that Professor Thapar used is a very tempting metaphor, a chain stitch—how pasts stitch together. It is the whole exercise of inquiry into how those stitches work, through what channels they worked in the pasts—not just in political channels but in various other ways in which life itself unfolds. It would be a very interesting exercise if we were to infuse the curriculum with those possibilities. That of course is not an easy exercise given how rigid the system is, how limited the space available for any kind of social enquiry. To imagine a South Asia where hostilities gradually calm down and the region becomes an ethical, a psychological reality and not merely a geographical entity for the atlas-maker—that is itself a fantasy, an imaginative exercise. But one that might infuse some spirit into a system of education which is otherwise a very stifling one, which leaves very little room for resistance to regimentation.

Given that it’s a universalistic system through which every child has to go, it becomes even more necessary than it would be otherwise, in a kind of logical or fundamental sense, to infuse within the system the possibilities of learning about the past in ways that are not constrained by modern nation borders, but without challenging those borders. Some experiments of this kind you hear about all the time in some limited, sometimes elite circles. But such experiments don’t have to be confined to those where children themselves or a few teachers are encouraging their children to learn about how things happened differently in different parts of the past. Past is a region,  a very vast region in which we can find room for our curiosity and enquiry if we are not driven by an inspirational agenda of history, a kind of a moral agenda of history, which is essentially a civic moral agenda of the teaching of modern history in our times.


Krishna Kumar taught at the University of Delhi and served as Director of NCERT. He is currently an Honorary Professor at Punjab University, Chandigarh. A bilingual author, a columnist and a writer for children, his major books include Politics of Education in Colonial IndiaWhat is Worth TeachingThe Child’s Language and the TeacherPrejudice and PrideBattle for PeaceA Pedagogue’s Romance and Education, Conflict and Peace. The Routledge Handbook of Education in India edited by Professor Kumar has been released recently.

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