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Nationalism and the School Curriculum


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.


ccccWhat was my research process? I spoke to two bureaucrats in the State Education department, I held long unstructured interviews with 10 Bengali teachers, I looked at the guidebooks and the questions in the textbooks and I of course looked at some answer sheets written by the students. I didn’t interview the students directly.


ccccBefore I discuss my research, I’d like to discuss what the scholarship from Nirantar’s studies say about West Bengal’s language textbooks. Two motifs (need to substitute this word with something else) come through very strongly: one, that the language textbooks in West Bengal have a preferred nationalism—a linguistic nationalism and the desh is ‘bangla-desh’ or undivided Bengal. The literature draws on the topography of the nation—the lush fields of Bengal, the rivers of Bengal. Apart from the Madrasa-education language textbooks which speak of a wider idea of the nation, the language textbooks of Bengal have an idea of the nation based on the nature and the topography of the region. And the imagery they draw and draw upon is very state-specific.


ccccThe other—which is a motif across all Indian nationalist, cultural imagery—is the idea of the nation as a mother.


ccccMahasweta Devi’s Harun Salemer Masi was part of the state-board curriculum until last year. This year it has been dropped for unknown reasons. This story—through the questions at the bottom of the text which eventually appear in the West Bengal board examinations—is pitched as the story of an expansive motherliness that transcends the religious boundaries of a woman. This is a story about Gaurabi who takes Harun as her child even though he is from a different religion. Groups across the state are reading the same text.

My first enquiry centres around its teaching. So I asked the teachers, ‘Do you introduce Mahasweta Devi to the students? Or do you jump straight into the story without going into the writer’s politics and other writing?’ All the teachers I interviewed said: ‘In our B. Ed. class, they’ve told us that lekhak parichiti is an important part of the lesson.’ So, then, how does a middle-class private school in Calcutta introduce Mahasweta Devi’s politics? She is a writer and a social worker. In the lekhak parichiti as it appears in the textbook, she is portrayed as an elite, awarded, highly decorated social worker. But then, I asked this teacher, have they never heard of her independently? A lot of teachers said yes they had. When she died, it was in the news. And there was a movie by Raja Sen, Hajar Chaurasir Ma, that some of them had watched.

Devi Kar. Did you find in a particular school that all the teachers were teaching exactly the same way?

Joyeeta Dey. I met teachers from similar kinds of schools and they had very different teaching styles.


ccccBut the interesting deviation is that, once the Trinamool came to power, the secondary board of education began to prescribe language textbooks, from Class 6 upto Class 12, for all the government schools. Only if you are a private school affiliated to the board do you retain the autonomy to choose your textbooks.


ccccA private-school teacher I spoke to said, ‘Yes, we included a lot of her other work before this, much more ‘radical’ work. So the students have some background.’


ccccAt the same time, within the autonomous space which allows schools to include her work, how it emerges is perhaps not living up to its radical potential. Another interesting thing the same teacher mentioned is how different the current West Bengal–board question papers are from the previous ones. The West Bengal board was well known for its demand for really long answers—the longer the answer, the better. While like the CBSC/ICSE board has the opposite ethic: short, objective points, and multiple-choice questions. The teacher said that while it is true that length should not be the standard for a ‘good’ answer, it is not perhaps such a good idea to entirely drop interpretive questions. Earlier you would have a question like ‘What do you feel about the expansive motherliness that can draw in somebody from a different community?’ Now you have: ‘When she met Harun, what did she feel?’ Which is, really, one internal monologue in the story. So, in a sense, since our teaching is catered to the examination pattern, the readings of texts grow narrower when those examination patterns demand less imagination and analysis.


ccccThe other teacher I spoke to teaches in a government school, which is till Class 10, in the Sunderbans. Adivasi children attend the school. And I thought there was great potential there, for them to be told about the writer and her work even beyond her writing. But the teacher said: ‘I don’t introduce her politics at all. Because the children are struggling with Bangla as a language. At best, we may have a discussion about aspects they feel they identify with. But when they have to write, their vocabulary is so limited, they don’t have a voice of their own. As a result, their experience and how it ties up with what they are reading and how they are understanding this text gets completely left out in the writing. What they manage to write sounds more or less like a cheap Chhaya Prakashani guidebook. Even though there is so much integration—cultural integration— between the text and them.’


ccccAnother person that I spoke to runs a school in Sonagachi, a red-light area in Calcutta. He said: ‘I make a point of not giving notes to these children because I want them to write in their own words and I want them to develop language skills. So instead of dictating notes in class, I get them to write the answers and I correct them before they appear for the examinations. What happens all the time, and I feel bad about it—is that these children of sex-workers keep putting themselves into the story.’ The children would write things like ‘I understand what this woman went through. She is widowed, and her son is a migrant labourer who went away and she had to do certain things.’ ‘I really understand, because this is exactly my aunt’s story.’ He says he has to constantly remind them to not bring themselves into the answers.


ccccA lot of the children did not understand the communal aspect but they fully understood the deprivation because that was very much part of their lives. They did not understand the communalism because too many of their parents were Muslim mother–Hindu father. There are other issues that are huge social taboos in their lives but not religion. So he had to explain communalism to them. The other thing they didn’t know was the village. Because they live on the streets, and their imagination is very urban.


ccccThen there is the tuition teacher, an integral part of the teaching economy. The tuition teacher gives out ‘notes’ to the student. I ask the tuition teacher, ‘What do you do that the teacher in class does not?’ And the tuition teacher says, ‘They are bored in the classroom because the teacher only reads from the text. The teacher reads—the students stand up in turns to read. So there is intense familiarity with the text, but I’m the one who does the hard work and prepares them for the exams.’


ccccAn interesting contradiction in bringing Mahasweta Devi into the classrooms. The textbook committee has remade the textbooks. Last year ‘Haroun Salem’ was but she remains in the new textbook with a different story, ‘Jhoro Shadhu’. But, again, this is not in the syllabus. ‘Jhoro Sadhu’ is about an old man who gets onto a train, along with an upper-middle-class Bengali family. When the old man is stigmatized by the ticket collector, he says, ‘Everyone is afraid of me because I start storms.’ And the family says, ‘What do you mean, you start storms? We don’t believe a word of what you are saying.’ And he says, ‘Let me prove it to you.’ And he starts a storm. Then another family travelling alongside, a middle-class family, they say, ‘How did that happen?’ And he says, ‘A holy man taught me this. I could teach it to you.’ But the family rubbishes his claims and warns him not to do it again. This story addresses the middle-class person’s anxiety with stories that don’t fit his narrative. As you see, in this story, on the one hand he is disbelieving and dismissive, and on the other hand really afraid.


ccccMahasweta Devi writes people’s histories. And writing of people’s history brings with it narratives that our positivist frameworks can’t really reconcile. This story bears out that conflict. It’s unfortunate that this story is not in the syllabus.

Devi Kar. You’ve told us so many interesting stories. You’ve talked about pedagogy which is neglected. Everything is content-driven. So let’s be upfront and say that it’s all about political partisanship. You did wonder why Mahasweta Devi is not taught any more. But we do know why, we all have our suspicions. Do you remember that Shohoj Path was banned once upon a time? You remember that? This happens all the time, particularly with History. Because the curriculum makers are very selective about what should be taught. Again and again it is what should be taught, not how it should be taught, as you have demonstrated. This is something we need to address. Anil talked about multiple nationalisms and so on, but should nationalism be taught? Is it all right to teach students that your country is the best in the world and superior to others? Or should we teach about nationalism? Here our curriculum is largely about secularism and communalism.

Question and Answer Session

Jerry Pinto. Joyeeta, did the teachers ever talk about what the children see as the nation and whom their see as their ruler? For instance, while talking to students in the border areas, I was told repeatedly that Mahatma Gandhi was the prime minister of India. Very confidently and pleasantly—without any discussion. And without any embarrassment from the teachers who were also present. For me the Northeast is an area that often nobody thinks of as India. And often, therefore, the Northeast reflects this view. So for these marginalized children—of Sonagachi’s sex-workers, for instance, or the children in the Sundarbans who we have erased from our consciousness—does India figure in their consciousness?

Joyeeta Dey. These children are made to move through these texts, and the readings are more or less implanted in them. When you say that the Northeast does not feature in mainstream India’s idea of the nation—in West Bengal, nothing outside West Bengal features our idea of the nation. I am generalizing, of course. In fact, there is much more inclusion of caste, class, etc., with writers like Mahasweta Devi being read in the schools, but the pan-Indian angle is practically absent. It’s much more a regional-linguistic nationalism. Perhaps in their homes, this is not the reading one would find. But because these children are going through the school process, perhaps the first generation in their families to do so, they have learnt a certain rhetoric as it has been taught to them.

Devi Kar. You asked whether the nation knew what the nation-state was. Unfortunately, I read Hobsbawm, and after reading him I realized that I don’t know what it is either. And I am sure if one is asked to define it, it’ll be very difficult. Anil spoke about ethnicity, religion, geographical borders and so on—these are fuzzy notions, because they are shifting all the time. So, it’s very difficult to define the nation-state. Nationalism, too.

Anil Sethi. Jerry’s question was not how children define the nation-state. His question was: How children imagine the nation. Does it feature in their imagination at all? And if it so, how?

Devi Kar. When you think about a nation, what is it? Beyond its immediate territory?

Joyeeta Dey. To them, desh is the village. Even when they are away from it.

Rajni Bakshi. Is this pardes?

Joyeeta Dey. In a sense. I don’t know—it wasn’t said in so many words.

Nilanjana Gupta. But that’s the way it works in Bengali. I am asked where is my desh, and I say ‘Dhaka.’ My father never went to Dhaka, still my desh is Dhaka.

Joyeeta Dey. It’s the language. Language is also symbolic of a certain implicit understanding.

Nilanjana. It’s an imaginative belonging—not a real belonging. In Sonagachi you find that especially.

Joyeeta Dey. Among children of rural migrants, this concept of desh is very strong.

Nilanjana. Their imagined homeland.

Joyeeta Dey. It’s a very strong part of their homeland idea, so to speak. Another important factor deciding their notion of the country is, of course, which political party the teacher belongs to.

Anil Sethi. The distinction between desh and rashtra that Rajni made earlier this morning is very valid. Desh is like watan—desh and watan are ‘homeland’. For some people, the whole of India may be desh, but for a lot of others their own rural area or their homeland is the desh. When ice-cream vendors in Delhi go back to their homes in winter, they say ‘Hum desh ja rahe hain.’ So the distinction between desh and rashtra and the distinction between patriotism and nationalism are distinctions we should certainly keep in mind.

Jerry Pinto. I remember in school—in the second standard—studying the pledge: India is my country, all Indians are my brothers and sisters . . . I promise to love and serve my country and honour its vast and eternal heritage, etc. That is a pledge we got up to every morning, and we recited it as a kind of prayer. Does this pledge feature in West Bengal schools?

Joyeeta Dey. No, I don’t think it features generally.

Devi Kar. Is there any CBSE teacher here?

Audience member. All boards have a prayer the students recite.

Devi Kar. But do they recite the pledge every day?

Audience member. The pledge is there, whether it is taught or understood is doubtful, and I think it depends on the individual teachers in the school if they even think back to it.

Devi Kar. I think with the national anthem too, it’s the same story, isn’t it?

Sadanand Menon. I was quite fascinated by the idea of the narrative in the nation and the nature of the narrative, which came up quite brilliantly in Joyeeta’s talk, particularly pertaining to the subaltern. The narrative of the nation is multiple, and for each one of us it is different. Someone in the audience spoke about their own racism or their own religion, but when does the overlay of the narrative of the governing nation come in?—that is the question. When does that slippage happen, and when does the narrative get imprisoned without any breathing space, without any sort of what you call ‘sanchari bhava’ in it? When does it become one homogenous monolithic narrative—when does that happen? If you could shed some light on that? How do these narratives get completely closed?

Nilanjana Gupta. That is the issue really, why and when they get fractured. Which is what I was trying to talk about, and not about just looking at the frame through which we perceive the narrative or create the narrative. Of course, there are always multiple narratives of the nation. Some are given official backing from agencies such as the NCERT. When it decides something, that becomes the model which even the state boards then have to follow. Apart from school curricula, there are these wonderful narratives in Bollywood, for example. So when we are teaching History, we are teaching it as only one narrative amid all these available narratives. Of these many narratives, to believe that any one can assume a dominant position in a country like India is perhaps not the right way of looking at it. We have to keep creating alternative narratives, and we have to make sure that our alternative narratives are out there as well.


ccccNowadays, there are a lot of issues. This morning people were talking about social networks, and somebody spoke about the violence on those social networks—violence against women, specially. As you know, our university—Jadavpur University—has also been fighting all kinds of things. And many of the students, in fact, the one student who heads the student union and is very vocal, had to face horrific things and hear statements like ‘You should be tied to a tree and raped,’ etc.


ccccSo these are the kinds of narratives that are gaining ground and the alternative narratives are not loud enough any more.

Devi Kar. Going back to the school curriculum: the dangerous thing is that people are always looking for the right answer. You are talking about different narratives, but that is impossible in the examination situation.

Nilanjana Gupta. I don’t think it is impossible in the examinations at all. I think that in today’s world of media super-saturation, the role of the teacher has to change. When I started teaching, what we would do is go into class and say, ‘Today I am going to teach Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf was born here, she did this, she did that, this is the meaning . . .’ We would concentrate on giving information to the students. Now it’s no longer about information. Most teachers here are from schools where students have access to a lot of information. We get very good students—if I tell them that next week I will be doing Virginia Woolf, they’ll have read the text, they’ll have read the biography, they’ll have seen the film, they’ll know more than I know about Virginia Woolf! I have to constantly think about what my role is as the teacher. And the only way I can justify my role is to say that I am trying to teach them to think, to teach them to make logical interpretations, to analyse.


ccccIn examinations, questions are usually only testing the student’s retention of factual information. So questions have to become more critical. They have to be interpretive. That’s why I gave the example of the Krishna serial which is saying that what it is depicting is as historical as a textbook. Students have to be taught to distinguish between different kinds of narratives. That is the only way that History should be taught. As far as I know, that is what happens in International boards—IB and A Levels, etc.

Anil Sethi. That is changing. I don’t think any one narrative remains fixed. Narratives are always contested. The fact that we are organizing this conference is a contestation for me. As far as pedagogy is concerned, things are gradually changing. If you look at the books we produced after 2005, they are precisely what you want the books to do. They are not books that test facts. Even the quality of questions is gradually changing. In the social and political life textbooks, we have emphasized very strongly that there is no one right answer, that there is a range of right answers, although it does not follow that every answer is right. And validity is a point of discussion in the books that we produced.


ccccAs far as Dina Nath Batra goes, between 2004 and 2008, he filed 5 cases against the NCERT, and cases in different parts of the country. We fought those cases and you’ll be happy to learn that we won all 5. So it’s not as if Dina Nath Batra can’t be defeated. The point is: the larger acceptance of a narrative is contingent on who holds power. So if today the BJP in the Hindu right hold more power, then it may seem that their version can never be contested. But, surely, there are all kinds of contestations taking place even today in a subtle way.


Devi Kar is the Director of Modern High School for Girls and the Modern Academy of Continuing Education. Besides being a member of multiple Education Boards and Scholarship panels, she is a writer of history books and driver of vintage cars. 

Anil Sethi is Professor of History and History Education at the Azim Premji University, Bangalore where one of the courses that he teaches is Discourses of Nationalism. He was earlier Professor of History at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), New Delhi. He has taught at various universities including Delhi University and the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. He has helped develop various history textbooks published by NCERT.

Nilanjana Gupta has been teaching in the Department of English, Jadavpur University since 1991 and served as Director, School of Media Communication & Culture till 2010 when Professor Gupta was elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts, a position she held till 2012. Gupta’s publications include Switching Channels:  Ideologies of Television in India (OUP: 1998) the first academic study of television in the country.  Her  book Reading with Allah: Madrasas in West Bengal (Routledge: 2009) was based on extensive field studies and surveys and raised questions about the role of education in a fast –changing society.

Joyeeta Dey is a researcher at Pratichi Institute focusing on the public education system in West Bengal. She has a Bachelors degree in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College and a Masters in Sociology of Education from University College London. She has also contributed as a content writer for The History Project: a school textbook for Indian and Pakistani students on partitioned histories and as a researcher for the History for Peace project.


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