Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Anil Sethi, Devi Kar, Nilanjana Gupta and Joyeeta Dey.

Devi Kar. Before introducing our terrific line-up of panelists, I would like to address those in the audience who teach history. You are a very powerful section of society. Don’t underestimate your power, because you can capture the minds of the young far more effectively than others. While I was preparing for this discussion, I read that Hitler didn’t think much of his teachers, except one—his history teacher, in whose tales of heroism lay the origins of his German nationalism. Never mind the curriculum, never mind the syllabus—the power is in your hands.

Anil Sethi. Although the nation state and nationalism have earned enormous flak in recent decades—and though we may think that nationalism has lost its emancipatory potential—the term nationalism remains an instrument of tyranny and oppression. Sadanand Menon, in his keynote address, expressed this clearly and analytically. How the othering happens—how we create others only to ridicule them, how nationalism leads to intolerance and the state, of course, with its expectations of people needing to be disciplined in a certain nationalist way. If they disobey, they will be punished. For the state demands unqualified obedience and loyalty.


ccccAt the same time we must remember that sovereignty—the right to self-government, the right to non-interference from external agents in the running of the state—is still very much a part of the political architecture of our world. So who is sovereign? It is India, the US, the UK—these nation states are sovereign. Haryana or West Bengal is not sovereign. Asia is not sovereign. South Asia is not sovereign. So I think the first proposition, really, is that sovereignty, despite all the dark aspects of nationalism, continues to be pegged to the nation state.


ccccNow, the government of a sovereign state will be a key player—not just a significant actor—in decisions that affect our lives, in areas as diverse as military spending, trade, demonetization of currency, health, food security, education. Its interventions in education will keep scripting, disseminating and reproducing nationalism of one kind or another. And this is my second proposition: that curriculum materials in school education are almost always imagined and conceived of through national, even nationalist, frames. So the history, the social science, the language textbooks of the nation state—say, of the NCERT or the SCERTs—will obviously create and inculcate some kind of nationalism.


ccccThere are two concerns here. First: What will the precise content of this frame be? Who gets to decide that content? Whose knowledge and which knowledge will enter the curriculum? Second: Can the National Council for Educational Research and Training, then, really subvert nationalism? Can school-level social science, written within a nationalist frame, help to undermine or overthrow nationalism? Can it unseat the nation-state and nationalism from their position as the presiding deities of school textbooks? Will it ever be possible for the NCERT—the apex educational body of the nation-state, and bearing ‘national’ in its name—to discard nationalism as a barbaric force even as historians, political scientists and educationists pronounce it to be fascistic or exclusionary?


ccccAnd this brings me to my third idea—that there are many different types of nationalism. Something that has been made very clear from all the presentations so far. How do we understand this vexed concept? This vexed idea of nationalism? Given the recent summary dismissal of nationalism—we need to remind ourselves that, broadly speaking, its history has witnessed the development of two types of thought and movement—the ethnic or religious nationalist on the one side; and the civic nationalist on the other. The latter ideal, aspects of which first emerged in Great Britain, France, and America in the eighteenth century, is based on a civic definition of belonging—on a shared attachment to democracy, to consensual or publicly debated modes of governance, on the rule of law. While all nationalisms may adhere to doctrines of popular sovereignty, civic nationalism vests sovereignty in all the people, regardless of creed, race, colour, gender, language or ethnicity. It seeks to create a community of equal rights exercising criminals and defines nationhood in terms of citizenship.


ccccObviously, on the other hand, ethnic or religious nationalism privileges certain ethnic or religious groups in the nation’s self-definition. What Irfan Habib, in his paper called ‘not nationalism but hooliganism’. There are various ways of describing these things—the words used may be different but eventually it is the content of these concepts that is significant.


ccccNow, it was to this civic nationalism, inspired by the ideal of working for an unsegregated citizenry, that stalwarts such as Gandhi, Nehru, Namboodiripad, J. B. S. Haldane (the British biologist who became an Indian citizen in 1956 and worked in Calcutta), Jefferson, Ernst Renan, Benjamin Rush  subscribed to. And it is about such a nationalism that Prabhat Patnaik, Sugata Bose and Ramachandra Guha have recently written or spoken about, that Michael Ignatieff or Perry Anderson or Paul Virilio have written so much about. Virilio uses the category ‘republican patriotism’. So what Ignatieff would call civic nationalism, Virilio will call republican patriotism. And what Ignatieff would call ethnic nationalism, Virilio would call nationalism. As I said: the words may be different but they all agree that, broadly speaking, these thousands of nationalisms can be divided into two broad types: ethnic and religious, and civic. Virilio would say ethnic and religious nationalism is nationalism and civic nationalism is republican nationalism. These distinctions are important. And it is in this sense that I might remind you that Benedict Anderson said that he was an Indonesian nationalist. Remember also that Irfan said in his paper that Octavian Hume very nearly thought of himself as an Indian nationalist—and this is why I think the distinction is important.


ccccNow, imagine that the content of the curriculum is based on a considered and just understanding of the welfare of a nation’s people. This is an argument that Prabhat Patnaik came up with last year when so much was being written about nationalism. Then, Prabhat would ask, would we not distinguish between democratic nationalism on the one side which is relatively far more preferable, to, say, ethnic nationalism on the other?


ccccIf you look at the History and Political Science books that the NCERT produced after 2005, you will notice that they speak of diversity and discrimination. And that in illustrating discrimination (I will just give you one example), one book speaks of how cart drivers in B. R. Ambedkar’s village refusing rides to Ambedkar and members of the Mahar caste, and then connects it to the Constitution of India banning untouchability and the kind of nation that the Constitution of India wishes to create. Now: Is this not an attempt to help create a modern, civic nation state? Isn’t this constitutional nationalism?


ccccAnd if the ‘Partition’ chapter that I did for the Class XII History textbook questions hyper- nationalist accounts, refuses to drill an ‘India line’ into the students’ heads, presents multiple perspectives and voices, foregrounds Pakistani experiences of the Partition—then am I being anti-national? Or am I trying to replace the shrill othering nationalism with the idea of a cosmopolitan citizenship, with a humane, just and democratic nationalism as well as internationalism? Isn’t the inculcation of internationalism in our children very much a part of nation-building? Isn’t it building a better Indian society? As Benedict Anderson put it in his last book A Life Beyond Boundaries, serious nationalism is tied to internationalism.

Devi Kar. Do you think history and the study of history is meant for the welfare of a nation’s people, that it is so to have a better people in the country? Or do you feel there are other aims?

Anil Sethi. The study of history could have a thousand and one aims. And, still, on top of the list of would be: to help develop a perspective about the past and the present and to create arguments about continuity and change over time based on evidence, on a good factual analysis of issues, on attempts to understand the different perspectives from which history can be written, on attempts to include heteroglossia and multivocality into our narratives. This to my mind would be the first aim.


ccccBut if we were to bring in many voices, and if we were to bring in the voices of sub-alternate people, then history would also help empower us and, in the long run, empower all kinds of sub-alternate groups. Of course, it cannot do so on its own because, ultimately, empowerment is a matter of contemporary politics. It is a political issue—not a historical issue. But if histories speak about those who are marginalized—those who are excluded—then it would, to my mind, certainly help empower certain groups.

Devi Kar. You mentioned Renan, and he says that nations are based as much on what the people jointly forget. Sometimes if textbooks are written with that aim and purpose, then we are encouraged to forget certain things we are ashamed of. Dr Gupta, I would request you to comment on this.

Nilanjana Gupta. I am not a teacher of History—I teach Literature. But of course we cannot teach Literature without talking about History. Many of the participants here teach both History and English Literature. And this is not a coincidence. There are many connections between teaching Literature and teaching History. All histories are basically narratives—stories. Past events are presented in a particular sequence, just as ‘stories’ are. When we read a novel or watch a movie, we can tell that it’s a story—there are certain events that happen, and there is a certain logic which is given to us to explain why these events happen as they do. And that is precisely what history is. It is a sequence of events that we are told about and that as teachers we then pass on. Of course, there is one significant difference: in history, we like to think that the logic or the connection is based on a causality. This caused that. This led to that. Typically, History is taught in this way. Hence: the seven reasons for the downfall of the Roman Empire, the ten reasons for the rise of this or that. History is presented as a logic-based narrative.


ccccThen why is there so much controversy about the teaching of history—so much discussion? In the group discussions, we were given almost one hour to talk about teaching history. And the organizers had to come around three times to stop us, because everybody was talking so much. So there is a huge problem about teaching history and why we teach history and what we teach as history.


ccccI would like to suggest a few things that might make us more conscious about what happens when we try to talk about history or teach history, and I would like to begin by suggesting that all stories have meaning because we as readers use a particular social framework to understand them. The social frameworks are many. When I read a story which begins with ‘Once upon a time,’ I know that it is not just a narrative indicator but also a socially determined indicator about the fact that this is a fantasy—there is a particular way in which the story is going to be told and there is a particular way in which the story is meant to be received. So there are particular social frameworks within which the narratives work. If we look at History, the same thing works there as well—there are social frameworks within which the narratives of history function in particular ways.


ccccWhen there is a publicly shared articulation of what some critics have called collective memory, it is a publicly shared social framework. Then there are no debates, we all share the same social framework, so we all understand the narratives. We all understand the stories being told, we all understand the history being taught. The problems begin when these social frameworks are no longer consensual but contested. When different groups need different social frameworks to tell their stories. Often, groups that are marginalized want a new, a different, social framework within which their narratives may be included. Gender, caste, different issues, different people, different voices want to come in and the social frameworks become not so publicly shared any more. They become fragmented, and history itself begins to take on different meanings. People look at its stories differently, understand them differently. And so histories are written differently because we no longer share this public collective memory, this public collective experience.


ccccCollective public memories are constructed in certain ways and can be divided into two categories. One is what some critics have called products—mnemonic products, products that are connected with memory. These would include, for example, statues, buildings, monuments—tangible objects that are present and visible in the public sphere. In Calcutta when we drive past Victoria Memorial, it’s part of our history, part of our collective memory. But a mnemonic product can also be other things. There were many references to Nehru’s speech, for example. It’s not a physical product but it is something that exists and helps create this collective memory for us. So it can be something which is physically present or that is intangible but present through being preserved.


ccccThe other thing is practice—the practice of commemorating. For example, 15th August—a day when we celebrate freedom and thus construct a public memory. Or 26th January, we celebrate the republic and thus we construct a memory of why it is important to us.


ccccAnother way in which collective memory is constructed is through representation.

ccccOne of the television serials most watched by children today is Little Krishna. There are around 20 Krishna serials being aired at the moment. The one on Nickelodeon is a particularly well-made one. And it begins with a text which says: 5,000 years ago, in the village of Vrindavan, a boy was born. And we have a shot of a beautiful village. Then more text, stating that this serial is based on readings of historical texts, that it is factually correct and that ISCKON helped verify the facts. So when the students come to class, this is what their idea of history is. When you say something happened 5,000 years ago, they already know what happened 5,000 years ago. They already know that this history is based on texts—on manuscripts. All the proper tools of history are being referenced in this serial. And there are many more such examples.


ccccSo, as history teachers, how do you distinguish between this representation and history which is also a representation? The social frames through which we look at our past are changing, and we should be aware of that. And the best perhaps that we can do as teachers at any level—schools and colleges and universities—is to make our students aware of these social frames, of how they are constructed and enable them to be critically aware of the ways in which they function.

Devi Kar. Is there something called cultural nationalism? Would you comment on that?

Nilanjana Gupta. Nationalism has many different aspects to it, and cultural nationalism is one which many of us are perhaps over-conscious of, because it is a nationalism which tries to take over or define the culture of the nation. And in a country like India which is so pluralistic—so diverse—to have one idea of cultural nationalism is very difficult.

Joyeeta Dey. I’m addressing the concept of ‘nation’ through Mahasweta Devi’s writing in the West Bengal Board’s secondary-education language textbooks.

ccccI must also mention the brilliant work that has come out of Jadavpur University—the West Bengal version of Textbook Regimes put out by Nirantar, looking at the previous set of language textbooks in Bengali. A lot of that analysis holds very true for the new set of textbooks that are now being taught. If any of you are interested in looking up the question of language textbooks of the state boards in West Bengal, I would suggest you take a look at that.


ccccOne might ask why I am looking at state textbooks when one of the most virulent debates that happened was around the writing of textbooks and, inevitably, about the writing of NCERT textbooks. We need to be cognizant of the fact that approximately only 10 per cent of our students go to CBSE and ICSE-board schools. The rest go to state-board schools, and it’s equally important that we look at what’s happening in those spaces.


ccccThere is something we must keep in mind with language textbooks: the state board creates the textbook which is then picked up as the language textbook both by CBSE and NCERT. They take stories out of that. So there is a larger group outside the state that these textbooks are speaking to.


ccccI am going to look at Mahasweta Devi’s stories—which ones are taught, which ones are not taught, how they are taught, how the guidebooks tailor the content and guide the reading of the text and how the students receive the stories.