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Romila Thapar, Alok Mathur, Amita Prasad and Tina Servaia – In Conversation


Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Amita Prasad. We meet on the fifteenth of August, and the significance of this date is known to many of us here. Many of us have come here after a flag-hoisting ceremony in school, and I am no exception. When I was watching the children waving their flags and singing patriotic songs, I felt that I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate India’s Independence Day than indulge in this debate and discourse on ‘the Idea of India’. I was on a high after last evening’s conversation which, as Gayatri-di mentioned, we had the opportunity to ‘eavesdrop’ on.

When we think of the idea of India, one of the first things that come to mind are the challenges that India faces today, and, in the context of those challenges, I wish to open this discussion by asking Professor Thapar: Is it possible to teach history to promote peace?—because that is the fundamental guiding spirit behind our History for Peace initiative.

Romila Thapar. God knows if we have ever needed peace in the world, it is now, because everywhere you look the situation is very grim. One can console oneself by saying, ‘We’re not the only ones,’ but I’m afraid that’s no consolation. The point is: What will we do with the situation?

Can we teach history to bring about peace?

I think it really depends on what you mean by teaching history. Now that I’m coming to the end of my life, I must say I really don’t know what one means by it. Having taught history for many years, I’m still unaware as to exactly what it is that history means, except to say that, for me, it is really teaching about the world around us. You walk into a garden and you pick up a leaf and say, ‘Oh my, this also has a history. Is it a young leaf? Is it a leaf that’s beginning to dry? Is it a totally dried-up leaf? Where does it come from? What kind of leaf is it?’ And it goes on like that. It does seem to be important, therefore, that the fundamental activity in the teaching of history is to ask questions. This, of course, is an activity that concerns every bit of knowledge—not just history. But to ask questions with a time framework is what distinguishes history.

What do I mean by time framework?

Concede the fact that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the time to understand the linkage between these processes and these conditions. So, if you’re teaching history as I’ve been teaching it—my students, of course, much older, in college or in university—I always say that the first book my students should read is a detective novel. Read Agatha Christie as your basic reading.

Why do I say that?

I say that because the problem with teaching history is the past is over and done with—we dare not return to the past. Alas, however much we may think that we are reconstructing the past, that’s not what historians are doing. What historians are doing is trying to explain and understand the past. So there’s no question of a historian sitting in judgement and saying, ‘This is correct and that is incorrect.’ No, that’s out—that is a nineteenth-century idea that we gave up in the last century. The historian is not talking about the truth. We don’t know what the truth is, we never know. We cannot reconstruct the past.

So, what are we about?

We’re about explaining the past, trying to understand what happened. And then the question arises: Whose past are we explaining? One’s own past becomes a biography, becomes a bit of a dialogue and moves from autobiography to biography. I like to think we are explaining the past of a whole society. But that has multiple problems. How do you decide which part of a society constitutes a representation of that society? Do you pick and choose? Do you mix the cycles of society you are speaking about? This whole exercise is much more complicated than it sounds. How do you explain the complication to a younger age group, perhaps schoolgoing, some of them of course are very smart but you don’t start off by giving them Agatha Christie and saying, ‘What is happening here?’ You have one clue, and you reconstruct a whole series of actions from that one clue. This is particularly apposite for ancient history, because we historians only have that one clue, whatever it may be—an artefact from archaeology, a chapter from a book written two thousand years ago, a bit of an inscription. That’s all we have. And we start looking around and finding connections to things that will link it to a bigger picture.

ccccModern historians are much more lucky. They have an absolute expanse of information, and they only have to pick out what they think is important and significant. It’s a slightly different process, and I do make a very sharp distinction between ancient history and modern history. In ancient history, you have to use, with caution, a certain amount of imagination in reaching out. But not fantasy. And this is where one comes to the second feature: having decided to ask questions, you have to look for evidence, just like Hercule Poirot starts looking for clues. You look for evidence. And in this process you ask the question: What is the question you’re answering? Please remember that all old historical writing starts with asking a question. You don’t just say, ‘I’m going to write, I’m going to do research on Ashok Maurya.’ You begin by saying, ‘I have a question about this character from the past. What is my question, and how am I going to proceed to answer that question?’

ccccNow, this is where it becomes very important to understand the questions that you’re starting with. How are you going to explain to schoolchildren the significance of asking questions? This is absolutely fundamental. I think you cannot do any worthwhile teaching unless you can explain to them how important it is to start with asking a question. And this is where, in answer to the question that was posed to me, I think it is possible to change. You can’t change the direction of history but you can change the understanding of how particular events came about by asking a different set of questions. And so, if one is concerned with understanding what it means that there be peace—between societies, among people, among human beings—then you begin with the question: ‘What do I mean by peace? What do I mean by bringing in this idea of peace?’

ccccAnd, as we were saying last night, unfortunately ideas are not straightforward, solid, touchable, tangible. Ideas float, they swim around. You have to chase after them and catch them as best you can, which is not an easy exercise. So you begin by asking: What do you mean by peace? Do you simply mean that you and I are going to be friends? Even if it’s as limited as that. Your next question then is: What is this friendship based on? What are you and I doing which is going to lead to a friendly, peaceful situation or to an antagonistic situation? So you start analysing this concept that you’re going to convey to the children you’re teaching. By this I don’t mean that you may do a very sophisticated analysis. Nevertheless, this brings you to a third problem: How to convey that analysis to a mind that is not as sophisticated as your own? And this is where I think it’s very necessary, with historical concepts particularly, to be constantly reminding the person you are teaching of the world that they’re surrounded with.

ccccSo if you define peace in a particular way, you relate it to the world in which those students are living, you give them examples from the lives that they are leading, from their activities, and explain to them how this concept enters the discussion of what you’re dealing with, which is possible past situations. You’re reconstructing, you’re trying to explain the past, and you’re bringing in this concept as one concept which is important. So you do it in one stroke, quite literally, by saying: ‘All right, if I’m going to teach you Mauryan history, Gupta history, whatever it may be, we will not start with the names of the kings and what they’ve conquered. We will start with: Who were the people that lived in that time? What are the books they wrote? What are the subjects they wrote on? Why did they choose to write on these subjects?’

ccccLet’s take two extreme examples. The Gupta period. Let’s not start with Samudragupta and his great prashasti of conquests—that’s not very much of a peaceful exercise. Let’s start by asking: Why in the Gupta period do we get two seemingly contradictory texts? Now, I’m entering a territory which some of you may feel is a little dicey. You have the Kalidas plays—superb examples of Sanskrit literature. You have the Natyashastra which tells you how to appreciate these texts from the perspective of that period. It would be quite interesting to explain to the children how they appreciated the drama, what they wanted from drama and what we want from drama today. Where it was presented, how it was presented, what the message was. Then you can take a very difficult, completely contrary text, something like the Kama Sutra, very difficult to explain to children but extremely important—children should know that there are certain attitudes to life that existed in those periods, in those times, which we are unhappy and uncomfortable with today. Why are we unhappy and uncomfortable with these attitudes today? Why were they perfectly relaxed with them? This is a very fundamental social difference, and I think it could be a matter of some interest to children to know that these social differences exist.

ccccNow, if you begin at that end, and start off by saying, that, really, what we admire the most of the Gupta period is not necessarily the conquests but, rather, the writings of dramatists, the writings of people on the Kama Sutra, the completion of the Arthashastra—what does that mean? (It’s rewritten in the Gupta period.) Then you go on to the philosophical schools, you go on to Aryabhatta and the sciences. What did Aryabhatta discover, how did that influence scientific knowledge in other parts of not just India but also the world? Was there a discourse going on between the scientists of India and the scientists of Alexandria? My favourite discussion is: Was Ujjain in contact with Alexandria? The two centres where astronomy, mathematics and medicine were being advanced, by knowledge being exchanged. Translations of Greek texts into Sanskrit and vice versa . . .

ccccNow if you approach history from that point of view, of who are the people that are making this history, and why do we give so much attention to this kind of history, then I think you’re part of the way there to downplay the glories of bloodshed and campaigning instead to inculcate in the child an interest in other things, other activities, other kinds of human beings rather than just world conquerors.

Tina Servaia. Professor Thapar, you’ve given us a wonderful view of how history can be approached. When we look at history as a discipline, one very striking thing is the way it’s taught at the school level, so divorced from the way history is actually practised by historians. Why do you think that is, and how can we bridge the gap in order to give the child more of a flavour of what history is about?

Thapar. How should we get good history across? Well, there is one easy answer which you’re going to be talking about later today—textbooks. But that’s a very simple first step. We are by and large completely uninterested in and unconcerned about the kinds of textbooks that we give to children, and this is not just recently. Many of us did try and improve the situation, although not with much effect as you all know. There is in fact a gap between those who are writing the more, shall we say, advanced form of historical knowledge, and what goes into textbooks. And I think the first thing is to make sure, in any subject, that the people writing the books that are going to be used in schools are professionally qualified. There’s a little too much of, ‘Oh I’ve read six books on ancient India, so I can write a textbook.’ Why? Because there’s money in it—royalties. Nothing wrong with royalties, some of us live off royalties. But it’s a question of who you get to do the writing. And that awareness is something that has to come from a social concern. You can’t just have a bunch of historians complaining about bad-quality textbooks if the parents of the children and the schoolteachers and if others in society don’t complain.

ccccWhat is happening today in Rajasthan? One is horrified to learn that not only is the Mughal period being slowly cleaned out of the textbooks, with the exception apparently of three lines about Akbar somewhere—but, wonder of wonders, Rana Pratap is said to have won the Battle of Haldighati. We all laugh at this—my first reaction also was to laugh. But when you consider the reality of that historical action, what happens? Rana Pratap was against the Mughals because the Mughals were not giving him patrimony, all right? It’s a political crisis. So, Rana Pratap gathers his forces, and the most important segment of Rana Pratap’s army consists of a descendant of Sher Shah Suri who is also trying to claim his patrimony from the Mughals. So he joins up with Rana Pratap and says, ‘I’ll fight with you.’ The Mughal army was not led by Akbar, because he sat, wherever it was, in Agra or Fatehpur Sikri. Instead, it was led by the two great Rajput generals, one of them the famous Raja Mansingh. And this battle was fought, and every account under the sun, all the evidence, as would have been gathered by Agatha Christie—all the evidence says that Rana Pratap was defeated. Now you’re going to get textbooks that say Rana Pratap won. You already had textbooks saying that this was a Hindu–Muslim confrontation which, of course, is absolute baloney. The issue was a straightforward political issue—two people fighting for their patrimony against a system which is denying it to them for whatever reason. It was not a Hindu– Muslim conflict. But now because the Hindus have to be glorious, Rana Pratap has to win this battle. Now, what are we going to do with this kind of situation.

ccccThe question you ask is a very complicated question, I’m taking it at its simplest level of simply questioning what we would call historical facts. Now, I suppose if I was a very strong postmodernist, I would say, ‘Well, there are two versions. You take either.’ But no, sorry I’m an old-fashioned positivist historian, and I insist that one version has a greater amount of factuality than the other. And so I would argue that that version is the version that should go into history books. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Let me be deeply pessimistic and foretell that in the next ten years we’re going to see much more of this kind of rewriting of history to please a political ideology. We have seen it happen in other countries, in other forms. It is by no means unrecognizable.

ccccBut the more complicated question is: How to get good history into schools? When I first wrote my NCERT textbooks, I wrote them rather reluctantly—because I had never written for children, I had never written textbooks, and it is the most difficult thing. I would much rather write a PhD thesis all over again than write another textbook for children. You have got to be on top of the subject and not talk down.That is very difficult to do if you have been researching, writing and so on.

ccccI think it is terribly essential that those who are researching and writing history, whose books history teachers are reading, should be in contact with history teachers. We need to have many more occasions like this where history teachers and history researchers and writers get together and thrash out the problems they jointly face. Or simply get together and have a discussion on what is being said. You might get together and have a discussion on the Gupta period, for example, on which a lot of new work has been done over the last 30 years. It would be great to have a meeting of schoolteachers and the people who’ve worked on this rewriting and say, ‘Please discuss this, explain, what the rewriting is, what it implies, and how we will teach it.’ I think that contact is extremely essential. We tried to do this when Prasar Bharati was first launched, and Krishna Kumar will remember the occasions when we had discussions about the possibility of an education channel. Now I think an education channel in the hands of any government is a disaster. But if you can get an autonomous education channel, that could be one way in which you could have discussions on the same platform between historians researching history and teachers teaching history. Have a conversation, and get it across. If you cannot have an education channel, can you do a series on YouTube? Every school has a computer. Have a series on YouTube, ask historians with new ideas to explain what their new ideas are, and get teachers to listen and discuss. You can then invite feedback. Using the new technologies of today is very important. Children will also be much more attentive if you say, ‘This is a computer program,’ rather than if you stand up and say, ‘I’m going to talk to you.’ I would suggest that this contact is something that is absolutely essential.

Alok Mathur. I would like to begin by sharing a personal anecdote. Amita, you mentioned that you’ve just come back from flag-hoisting at the school where you teach. I had an early-morning conversation with my daughter in Canada where she is about to begin her postgraduate education. And she said to me, ‘We are going to the Indian community where someone is going to do flag-hoisting.’ And I thought: Canada is celebrating 150 years of Canada, and they are having many celebrations there to create a certain idea of Canada. But also there, within the diaspora, there is this community which is retaining in some ways the idea of India with that particular flag-hoisting. So I asked her what emotions this evoked in her. She said she has been thinking about all the various flag-hoistings which we did in school. In our school—Rishi Valley—there are only two holidays: one is Independence Day, and the other is Republic Day, when we observe the ceremony of flag-hoisting, followed by some kind of a programme that deals with an assembly on some aspects of India. ‘What I really remember about that is singing the national anthem together, the aesthetics of it, the music of it,’ she said. ‘Everyone dressed in white, and all the thoughts of the different things we’ve studied in history coming back to you, the various films you’ve seen. And the emotions all that aroused in you regarding India.’

ccccI am neither a historian nor a history teacher. I have taught different subjects but I now work with teachers who teach various subjects. I am really concerned with the school curriculum, how teachers teach and how students learn, and I think that history in some ways is one of the most important subjects in our curriculum. It has a way of shaping you as a person, shaping your attitudes and values, and that’s the question I am most concerned about. Romila-ji, early on in her talk about the teaching of history said, ‘I still don’t know what history is.’ Although then she did mention that history is a way of understanding the world around you. I would like to add that it could also be a way of understanding the world in you, that is, understanding yourself and understanding how you’ve been shaped. That is very vital to me—that in any educational endeavour we include this aim too. What is it that students can take away from the teaching of history is a question I’m deeply interested in.

ccccGoing back to my conversation this morning, my daughter also said, ‘I’ve heard about the Rajasthan textbooks—they’re deleting the Mughals.’ She said it’s happening in Maharashtra too, and she’s absolutely horrified that a whole chunk of Indian history is being knocked out. She said, ‘I’ve also been hearing that there are directives from the MHRD as to how each school should celebrate Independence day, and I believe Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata has refused to follow them.’ She also mentioned a news item she’d read—that madrassas have been asked to videograph their celebrations—and there’s a lot of reaction to that too. So we are living in very complex and dangerous times, and I’m glad that my daughter is at least a little aware of it. That awareness I think comes from a certain understanding and knowledge of history that has been imparted to her at school, and the ability to raise questions and not just swallow what the authorities feed to you.

ccccI’ve heard in Romila-di’s response to questions several things that I would consider to be values gathered from teaching history. One: a feeling for the truth of what happened, not the ultimate truth which, as was mentioned, we will never know about the past. But a sense of some basic facts that you can get at about the past. There are some things which happened and some things which didn’t happen. The tendency to mythologize history, to overrule facts—that is something that needs to be challenged. Even to be aware that this is happening is very important, and historians will have to play a role in creating that awareness. Perhaps in some way publicize what the Rajasthan government is doing, mount the evidence in popular media—not just in academic journals—to awaken the schoolgoing public of teachers and parents as well as, of course, the children. To say, ‘No, you can’t take all this at face value.’ To insist that what is in the books be evidence-based, and something which considers various points of view so that we can arrive at a reasonable, rational interpretation of events.

ccccThe Agatha Christie example was wonderful, because yes, you have to piece things together, you have to use your mind, you have to think—the ability to think, to make connections, to arrive at what is plausible even though not necessarily true, these are important values indeed.

ccccWith regard to the question of peace, I think that’s a concept that needs to be pushed much further. At a very simple level, you are right, let’s start with the children’s own lives: How do they see themselves relating to each other? What does friendship mean to them? Further: What is the relationship between communities? To become aware of what comes in the way of relating to each other, and that’s where I think we begin to look at the human psyche, human tendencies, human psychology, the tendency to pitch one group against another, to have prejudices about the other. We need to be able to question that. To question those attitudes that are fed to us as we’re growing up—that would be another value that the teaching of history needs to impart. This is at a first, basic level.

ccccA very powerful means of influencing minds today are the television serials. We have a version of Rana Pratap and Akbar’s interaction, which is clearly coloured by the serial producers. This is also the case with the other popular serials shaping popular minds. So I would push the question further and ask Romila-ji: What else do you think are the values that could be derived from history? What else could young people take away from the teaching and learning of history? And how can teachers be equipped, first of all, not to transmit their own biases and prejudices nor to be the mere purveyors of the information in the textbook, but to be critical users of the resources? How can they help children develop a more sophisticated, nuanced, rational and inclusive approach to the understanding of the past, and the understanding of themselves?

Thapar. To pick up the thread about the world around us—obviously, the child should be asked: ‘What is it that you find most exciting or interesting in the world around you? So, let’s look at the history of that and see what happens.’ The world around us, as you rightly said, also includes the media, it includes social media, and both the media and social media are in some ways anti-question and anti-intellectual things. The whole idea is: This is what we have to say—this is it, it’s this. The logic of the computer age—this right, this is wrong. There’s nothing in-between. There’s nothing you can play around with, in explanation. So, yes, I think it could be very important in the circumstances to maybe spend ten minutes of the history lesson not talking about the Battle of Plassey or whatever you’re talking about, but saying: ‘This is being said of such and such a thing on television or on social media. Please remember that there are many ways of looking at this. You can analyse it, Please ask questions.’ If you keep rubbing that in, somewhere along the line I think the child will get into the habit of asking questions, and that is half the battle won. Because if someone looks at a television show on Rana Pratap and starts asking questions, then you know that your answers can be answers which are an intelligent analysis of the problem. That asking of questions is absolutely fundamental. You must tell me how you as teachers would begin to ask, to explain to children how to ask questions. I am lost there.

Servaia. When I teach European history, no matter what age group I am teaching, whether it is seven-year-olds or seventeen-year-olds, I have a plethora of sources to choose from, visual and written, and I can pick the right source, tailor it to the age group, present my class with a multiplicity of sources and then they very naturally ask questions. But when I’m teaching Indian history this is difficult to do—because I can’t find the sources. European history sources are everywhere, they have been catalogued, codified almost, and a teacher can just pick and choose. Why has this not been done for Indian history? Is there any attempt to do this, because if we make it easy for the teachers, then they will use sources. We have very little time left over after our lesson planning and logging and all the various administrative jobs. What we really need is an effort to make it easier for the teacher to find sources. Any tips or suggestions you could give us, to make this a little easier for us, would be so very helpful indeed.

Thapar. It’s been a long time since I have looked for sources for teaching but you’re right that there is much more intelligent imagination about European history than there is about Indian history. I think it’s partly because Indian pedagogy—and here I’m framing myself open to attack—is still rooted in the idea that you take what you are told. You don’t say: ‘What is your evidence? Where can I find evidence for this?’

ccccI have found, on the few occasions when I have tried to take a lesson for schoolchildren, that what works is, for example, if somebody asks you, ‘What are the sources of ancient Indian history?’ You say, ‘The most important sources are inscriptions.’ ‘What are inscriptions?’ Then you either take them to the museum where there is an inscription. Or you say, ‘These are generally records of the government or some official body.’ You ask for a copy of the school records, and you read them out and explain the history of the language, the history of the institution. What is it that is being recorded. Similarly, you say that an inscription from an ancient period is recording these same items but from earlier times.

ccccThe one thing that I found was the most successful was when I said that coins were a source of information. The students would look at me and say, ‘Coins?’, and I would say, ‘Yes, take up the coin. Now, what is the information that you can get from that coin?’ And then you start relating the theory of numismatics to that particular coin, and then the coin begins to make sense as not just something of monetary value but also as a historical document. Think of the modern, contemporary equivalent that they’re using and paying no attention to. You pick up a coin, you throw it, you pick up your item, whatever it is, you never look twice at it, and yet there’s a massive amount of information in that one little bit of metal. So that kind of imaginative leap, as it were, between the past and the present might trigger off a certain amount of thinking about the past.

Question and Answer Session

Audience Member 1. Taking up that point about the battles. One of the things that come to mind is to look at the difference between democracy and the age of kings where you don’t really need battles. This is something Kosambi makes really clear when he talks about the Mauryan empire—that battles are not needed. You have a different sort of connection with the people, you don’t conquer them but you have representatives from these different localities. This could possibly be used as a contrast between the democratic age and the age of kings. I did when I was a schoolteacher.

ccccProfessor Thapar, to what extent would you say that it’s really a failure of the left that the saffronites have been able to come in? The social sciences are very fluid—not like physics where you have certain laws which you cannot question. This space was left vacant because the left was coopted into the system. They are not with the people any more. I would say it is a failure of the left that this has happened. What would you say?

Thapar. That’s a very interesting question. First, on the question of teaching peace: yes, there is a need to go into a whole series of differences. Pre-modern times, modern times, the economy comes in as well. One would also have to consider things like caste exclusion, religious groups and their relationships. Was there relative tolerance or is that a myth that we have concocted in the modern period to somehow glorify the premodern period? All this also involves not only saying, ‘Peace is good, peace is good,’ but explaining why. What do we mean by the centrality of peace in a society? That’s crucial. None of these positive features you want to bring into the teaching of history should come in as slogans—slogans have no meaning. You have got to make the young think about those issues, you have to explain to them what you mean by looking at peaceful relationships in the past. Have they been overlooked, in the writing of history so far? Why? You don’t have any histories where people talk about peaceful relationships. So I think it is a bigger enterprise than we imagine, the definition of what is meant by emphasizing peaceful activities of the past.

ccccOn the question of the left—it is a very big question. I must confess that I am puzzled that you had the left in power in Bengal for one generation—the educational system could have been completely overturned in a positive direction. They had the ability to do that, and so one wonders why it wasn’t done. It is a puzzle. It’s not just that they lost touch with the people. I think it was also the pedagogy of: ‘We will tell you what the thing is, and that’s what is education.’ The idea that you teach children to ask questions, to question what you are telling them, that is a non-starter with many—not just the left. Therefore one can’t rely on any political ideology to push through a really good programme of education.

ccccThe essential thing is really that the people who are doing the education, the educating, and the people who are producing the knowledge that goes into the process of education have to be sure that what they are doing is autonomous, intelligent and accessible. It is that accessibility that we lack. We have very fine researchers and we have a public, but the European societies have a middleman who takes the research and reconstructs it, sometimes correctly, sometimes not so correctly, but not blatantly into the opposite of what the researchers are saying. And that middle communication is missing here.

ccccI don’t know whether, as I was arguing last night, it’s a question of language. Really good historical writing today—with some exceptions—is published in English. And if your English isn’t good enough, you’re not going to be able to make anything of the new publications. I have this problem when I go to Kerala or Tamil Nadu or even parts of Bengal, outside Calcutta, and I have to give a lecture. I can only speak in English to such audiences, and I find that the front row of ten people are following what I’m saying but the rest of the audience is just sitting there. I could be talking in Japanese! That’s a very important feature that we forget, that there is a language of communication and we’ve got to sort out what that language is to be if we’re going to talk about conveying the research to the public. That is extremely important.

Audience. Professor Thapar, you have spoken about the interaction we should have between researchers and schoolteachers, which would be absolutely wonderful. Many of us here are schoolteachers , and we’re going to spend the next three days interacting with scholars like you. I want to bring in another aspect which we as schoolteachers are battling all the time, and that happens to be the examination system—a terrifying reality we live with. I am sure I speak on behalf of many when I say that we would wish to teach history in a particular way, we would wish to make the children analyse, we would wish them to ask questions. Yet the end of the day we are forcing them to study history the way so that they can answer questions in an examination system and score marks. So, where do you find us in the middle of all this?

Thapar: You are absolutely right. I have no answer to that question except that I think there should be an agitation among school teachers to say that there should be a choice of more intelligent questions, that you find these questions impossible. I get endless emails, to the point where I’m holding my head and saying, ‘Oh! another one’: ‘Dear Ma’am, I’m in Class 12, and I’m facing the exam in six months. Could you please tell me how to score marks on the following questions?’ What do you do? I cannot sit and reply to each of those because there are six questions and I am not going to spend my time saying: You must mention this and this, but don’t mention that. Mention this in this way but don’t mention that.’ This is what the examination system is about. It’s how you put these bits and pieces together. And this silly nonsense of objective questions. I mean, in a subject like history, to give you a whole set of marks on objective questions—it’s a travesty. It’s total unintelligence. But what do you do? Nobody objects. You need to unionize!

Prasad: I think what many of us have been forced to do is to adopt a two-pronged approach. Up to, let’s say, Class 9, we are away from the purview of the spectre of public examinations. So we take the law into our own hands and teach history the way we believe it should be taught—as indeed you are suggesting. Teaching them to ask questions, arousing their interest in the subject. Then we move on to a situation where, in their last year, when they are facing the examinations, we tell them: ‘Now you need to be practical.’ It’s destination success not only for the students but also in many cases for the teachers. Their jobs are at stake if they cannot produce enough one- pointers. So, that practical consideration comes in in the last year, when we help to prepare them for the rigours of the final examination. We haven’t seriously considered unionizing or other such radical steps, but I think what we’ve been forced to do is to somehow have a foot in each boat. It’s not easy for the teachers, and I guess it’s not easy for the students either. But, somehow, we blunder along. And I think there are many teachers here who are very proud and satisfied that their students have gone on to study history at the university level, and today are producing original works of research. So, maybe the picture is not as gloomy as we sometimes believe.

Thapar. I must say, I’m very impressed with the brilliance of young historians despite the system. It’s almost as if they are working against the system, but they are, many of them, absolutely brilliant.

Audience. I have grown up believing a couple of things that have already been said, except those beliefs are fraying right now. It’s almost a cliché that you hear in these sort of spaces about how history needs to be taught so that what you read in the history books is connected to your contemporary experience, so that you learn to deal with the knotty problems by relating. And yet I learnt recently that most schools have a tacit understanding that teachers should not bring up anything political for fear of repercussion from the parents. This elephant in the room is never brought up. How then do you work in spite of this obstacle?

ccccThe other thing is, earlier I thought it was so cool and youthful to bring YouTube into the classroom and have eminent speakers directly address the students. At the same time, teachers are getting more and more marginalized as important voices to be listened to. Children are watching YouTube anyway, they are reading other things outside class. So when we say that maybe in India there isn’t a middleman between the intellectual researcher and the students and people, why is the teacher, the schoolteacher, not considered the person to fill that role? It seems to me the obvious answer. Why do we need these ‘content creators’? Why should that person fill this role when there are people who have been dedicating their lives to teaching this particular subject?

Thapar. You are quite right that the teacher should be fulfilling that role. Obviously, the teacher is not fulfilling that role sufficiently, otherwise the presence of the teacher would be very strong. On the other hand, you must also see that there are many other agencies explaining history to the public, like the media, the internet and so on. Those agencies will be used. In how many schools do you have a blanket ban on using Wikipedia as a source of information? Very few. The problem with that source is that anybody can write anything they like. I am just waiting for the time when the Wikipedia with Indian items is going to be absolutely flooded with a particular kind of entry. You have to consider that there are other agencies that are also influencing the student, and as a good teacher you have to have an attitude towards those agencies. That is, if television is showing a particular play that you disapprove of, you have to discuss it in class and explain why you think that historically that is incorrect, or if not incorrect then inappropriate. That is important. Sorry, I have forgotten your first question.

Joyeeta: That schools have a tacit agreement about teachers not bringing up anything political.

Thapar: That is a very tricky question. Both in terms of people wanting to impose it, and people wanting to oppose it. Can you actually impose a rule that says politics is taboo? Politics is in everything. Every aspect of our lives have a political edge today. So, how far will you go on saying, ‘No, I won’t talk about this, that’s politics.’ You can’t do it. So you work around it by adopting the usual tactics. If there is one elephant in the room, please bring in six more. If you allow alternatives and say, ‘This is one alternative, there are these others.’ You can emphasize your alternative to a greater degree than the others, but, as long as you mention the others, no one can object.

Mathur. Picking up on Romila-ji’s response: I think teachers do need to in some way interpret the exam, the textbook, what is available in the media, what is available on YouTube, out of their own interest in history. A teacher cannot be seen as only someone transmitting something to the student, a something that has been created by someone else. If you make a choice of something on YouTube, you have to present it.

ccccRegarding the second part of her response: one way of managing the situation is by complexifying it. The tendency today is to simplify everything—a single narrative, a single story. There is great danger in that. As we, I am sure, are all somewhat aware of. So to bring in multiple points of view, even a point of view that you may favour but without thrusting it down their throats. So students see that there are multiple points of view of a situation and that some carry greater weight than others. That is one of the values one takes away from the learning and teaching of history, and teachers need to play that role. Out of our own interest in understanding what is history. It should be a lifelong question for us.

ccccAbout the examination system: I completely agree with Amita that whichever subject you teach, there is a dumbing down for the examinations thanks to the marks culture, to over-emphasis on cut-offs for universities and so on. We need to deal with this as intelligently as we can, and show the students that it is a game they have to master in some way, and that they must take it in that spirit rather than thinking that, ‘How many marks I get is all that I am.’

ccccSomewhere there is another level that pushes me to work with students, because the system is going to change at its own momentum. Two thousand and five onwards, when Krishna Kumar was the director of NCERT, papers were written on examination reforms, attempts made, but these historical processes take their own course.We have to, as intelligently as possible, negotiate them.

Servaia. The classroom is the teacher’s space, and the exam does not always impinge on the classroom. What we need to do as teachers, first, is own our space. Second, we need to be aware that each of us also has our own bias. We need to examine that bias, claim it and impart it along with all the other biases. As Romila-di said: Bring all six elephants into the room. Once we bring in those multiple perspectives, our students will automatically question which is the correct one. There are still things we can do to negotiate the very narrow space that we have been given by way of our freedom.

ccccThere is a question I have here Romila-di: If, let’s say, in an ideal situation, we can choose what we want to teach . . . when it comes to Indian history, the challenge is that there is so much to teach. So—and this is a 20-year long conversation that Amita and I have been having—what do we choose to teach? And what do we choose to omit?—because we simply cannot teach it all. How do we choose, and on what basis do we choose?

Prasad. Choice reflects a bias.

Thapar. Oh yes, every choice reflects a bias. So let’s start with that and say that even the existing syllabus reflects a bias. We faced this when we started JNU—working out the process from scratch. I remember the then vice chancellor saying to us, ‘I do not want a repetition of any syllabus that’s taught in any Indian university.’ And we thought, ‘Maare gaye, now what are we going to do? Where are we going to find these new courses?’ We started thinking, and in the end we did manage to come up with totally new courses. So much so that our friends in Delhi University said, ‘You people are mad, you’ll never get any student to come and learn and graduate.’ Of course, we happened to get some of the best students in our times. But the point is, you have to decide, judiciously, as to what you think are the turning points. What are the issues that really made an impact? So instead of going on right through the Mauryan dynasty, and the whole of the Shakas and the Kushans, and the whole of the Guptas and so on, pick out what you think is important and why you think it is important. Try and get that across to the students.

ccccNow, the problem is that we will run into examinations, and there they expect all the unnecessary information to be piled on as well. But at least what will happen is that, in the course of having to pick up that unnecessary information, the student will have some idea of what is important, and the differentiation between ‘this is important’ and ‘that is less important’ will become a bit clearer. But you have to be a bit choosy in picking—not just in picking what is significant but also in justifying that selection.

Audience. Professor, it’s a huge honour to be in your presence. I teach in a 160-year-old boys’ school in Bangalore, and all the boys want to do is play football! As the other teacher mentioned, we are heavily straitjacketed in the examination system. We teach Class 10 and we follow the ICSE syllabus. It is very hard for us to do anything other than just finish our syllabus and get them ready for the exam. We talked a lot about the peace problem and about asking questions and I was very inspired by what you said. I would, very briefly, like to share what I do despite the straitjacket. When I teach the Partition of India—I have a tenth-standard history textbook from Pakistan too—I read about the same events from both books, and there is a huge storm of questions. I find that a great way of provoking questions. I am running through my syllabus to finish, but they cannot believe their ears when they hear the completely different version from that side .The explanation for, say, the Dandi March or the Quit India Movement is completely different. Right from the book covers—there is no Gandhi on their cover, there is no Jinnah on ours, so it begins there. So, there are a lot of perspectives available that we can use.

ccccIn the context of asking questions, this is something I have used very effectively all the 32 years I have been teaching: I begin every class with a reading of the newspaper. I choose The Hindu because it is politically stable as far as my views go. One student reads the political headlines, local or international, for about one and a half minutes. Then I might ask questions. This whole exercise takes about four to five minutes. Let’s say the topic is about the beef ban, and I am teaching Vedic history at that point. I mention how, during the Ashvamedha Yagna, the Brahman would partake of horseflesh. That brings up a lot of questions. Every one of my boys are really up to date with world news, and these few moments every day spent linking and connecting what is happening in the world around them leads them to think and ask questions. Over the last few years, I have seen a huge difference in the mindset of my students because of social media—the way religions are being labelled and so on.

ccccWe talked about peace. This week we had a new initiative called ‘Religious Harmony Week’ in my school. We had a little competition where we asked boys to choose a verse from a scripture which is not their own. It was a fun competition—we had the Jain boys singing the Azan, we had the Muslim and Christian ones reciting the Gayatri Mantra. It was wonderful—and I think it broke many barriers. The biggest hit was the Quranic verses. All the Jain, Hindu boys wanted to sing the Bismillah. We are so constricted by the syllabus, but every one of us has to make these small efforts that will somehow take us where we wish to.

Audience. In our constitution, there are two principles of state policy: that one of the purposes is to promote scientific temperament in society. As a history teacher, I think history is one of the most suitable subjects to promote that scientific temperament, if one can use it properly.

ccccYour suggestions for tackling issues like what is happening in Rajasthan is the best way of promoting scientific temperament. We are not historians, but as history teachers who are also political thinkers, should we do our work of promoting scientific temperament by being apolitical or by standing on a political platform?

Thapar. The big change that took place about 1960s and 70s, in history, in India, was that it moved from being Indology to a social science. The basis of social science was critical thinking—some people might say it is scientific history, but there is a debate about whether history can be called a science, for obvious reasons. You cannot experiment with the past, you cannot demonstrate the past, you cannot prove it right or wrong absolutely. So some of us prefer to say that it is a study based on rational analysis, and logical generalization. In other words, it is a study for which you have to be certain that the evidence that you are using is reliable. You cannot just say: ‘I have some evidence, but I am not going to tell you what it is, and that’s the way it is.’ You have to show your evidence and you have to show that it is reliable. You have to analyse your evidence and you have to analyse it in a rational manner. And your analysis then, when you put it together as a statement, a generalization as we call it in history, has to be logical. B comes out of A and B leads to C, and the explanation is all based on reasoning and logic. That is the definition of good historical writing, whether it is from a left ideology or a right. Generally of course the right ideology fails on this. Nevertheless, the main issue is your process of analysis—that is the crucial thing—and it has to be based on reasoning, on logic, on causal relationships which can be supported by reliable evidence.

ccccAnd that is why some of us oppose the kinds of stories that come out, say, about the head of Ganesh being plastic surgery—we oppose them because they are not based on reasoning and logic and evidence. They are based on a fantasy. If your historical analysis is rational and logical, you may not have to make the choice of going either leftwards or rightwards. You may have the choice of saying, ‘This is how I see it, and on this issue this is how I analyse it. That issue I may analyse somewhat differently, given the kind of evidence I have.’

ccccNow here I am talking about somebody who is not totally ideologically committed to either a particular pattern of analysis, or a particular end result which has to be obtained from history. Given these two extremes, I would say that the person who is trying to take not a neutral position but a position uncommitted to an ideological bias—that is the person who can claim that the historical analysis is rational and logical and plausible. Now, coming from Kerala, I can understand your problem. I sympathize with you. I don’t know what advice to give you, except to say: Just try and be firm.

Audience. Before I ask my question, I’m going to quote George Orwell. In 1984, he says, ‘He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.’ Now, keeping this, or Althusser’s ideological state apparatus, in mind, I want to ask all of you here: Why would the state allow the true professional historians and history schoolteachers to interact? Taking that forward: even if we take certain measures in the best schools around us, we have to remember that, in a country like India, most of the schools are government schools, and we don’t know what goes on there. Not just what the state and the central government is doing through education, but how would we as students of history or historians challenge the mindset of those people for whom it is not books of history but sources like TV serials—like the Sunday-morning Mahabharat—that are more accessible? How do we counter or go around these problems? Teaching history as it should be, and access to proper historical education—are these even possible without political power or control?

Thapar. Well, it is difficult to answer a question like that because, in a sense, everything is dependent on political power in the country today—the good, the bad and the indifferent. So, do we just say: We have no access to this power and therefore we give up? Or do we say: We cannot change the political power but, within our little circle of activity, we can do what is possible? And I would say that is the way in which many of us have functioned all our lives.We have not attempted to change the political power. Not because we think it is incorrect. If you think you can change it, good luck to you. Whichever direction you want to change it, as today it is changing very strongly in a particular direction. But if you are not in a position to fight the political power, then please use your little energy and activity to make half a dozen young people think. That’s as far as one’s going. Think intelligently about the subject they’re reading—bas, that’s enough.

Prasad. You mentioned Mahabharat. I’d like to give you an example from another popular film released some years ago. It was a blockbuster and it had Shahrukh Khan’s dialogue on Ashoka. When I went into the classroom, I had hundreds of students who challenged what I had taught them on Ashoka because they believed there was really someone like Kareena Kapoor in his life. They felt very cheated that I had not taught them anything about that. They said, ‘Miss, in the history that you teach us, you leave out all the fun parts.’ I went into my classroom with my Bible—Professor Thapar’s Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, and I told them, ‘You may not read this book right now, but, believe me, in a few years, you will read it and you will understand that what I have told you is possibly closer to the truth than what is being depicted on screen.’ It took me a great deal of energy to convince them that Ashoka did not take mud baths! At least nowhere in Professor Thapar’s book did I find any evidence that Ashoka did so!

ccccOn a serious note: it is difficult to contradict such images, such popular ideas from film and television. So difficult to convince students that Akbar did not look like Hrithik Roshan.

ccccComing back to the point Joyeeta raised: yes, as teachers in classrooms, we do occasionally use YouTube, film clips, music—a whole range of inputs. But at no point does the teacher take on a passive role. These are just tools to enhance our teaching because it is something that the present generation does appreciate. One of my favourites that I use frequently from YouTube is the one on the rise of Hitler—it just brings that topic alive. However, we pick and choose what we want to show. It is notas if I switch on a film and recede into the background. The onus is on us as teachers to use it to enhance our classroom teaching rather than to become slaves of technology.

Servaia. There is one more thing I want to add to that. You may use a YouTube clip but the clip then needs to be interpreted, analysed and thought about. I don’t think school kids are ready to do that without the teacher. So these are extra hands for us but they don’t replace us.

Mathur. There was another part of your question to which I wanted to respond: that all this is fine in schools which are well resourced, where the teachers are somewhat more enlightened and so on. But what about schools at large? I think there the state does play a very critical role, and the education secretary, the bureaucrats, the ones who commission things, they matter a great deal. I will give you one example that I know of, from the state of Karnataka. They commissioned a wonderful series of educational films on the teaching of history called Young Historians, in Kannada. It has as students a group of young village children who were willing to participate in the history lesson but who were not coached. The teacher led them through a series of lessons to understand the methods of history, starting from their own family histories. It is a wonderful tool for teacher-training, and was used in Karnataka for many years, I don’t know if it still is. The teacher who uses these films in the classroom has to be a facilitator who unpacks what is being done by the teacher in the film. So there is cooperation possible between the state and NGOs, and that could be very valuable because it does need to reach far more people than just a few select students.

Audience. People are consuming information visually more than ever, and the idea that children are not already reading heavily into the visual medium before they begin their first day of school is questionable. When we talk about presenting rational, scientific examples, we also, more than ever today, need to teach children how to interpret the visual—whether it is photographs they see in the newspaper, what they see on WhatsApp, on YouTube . . . different ways of interpreting the visual medium—as you would teach them how to interpret a sentence—a subject, object . . . That I think has become more and more important.

My question was about agency. This is my third year at this conference. I am not a history teacher nor am I a historian, but I am interested in how we can bring visuals into classrooms. We are talking about historical figures and events being presented, discussed. A lot of them are inspirational people, people who have committed themselves to long courses that have changed our entire lives. And then we come back and say, ‘You know, we need to unionize.’ But the thing is that nobody objects: the parents are not objecting to what the schools are doing; the students themselves are not taught that they have the right to object to the examination system they are being put through; the teachers also feel they need to learn how to negotiate rather than object, find a way to act within the system. Of course you are teaching the kids to think, but the history classroom is also the space where you are discussing how people have acted in the various situations that they were placed in, situations that were perhaps even more difficult to deal with than what we are handling today. So how do you deal with this question of agency when you are dealing with young students who are imagining what they can be, what they can do at that moment, in the next decade, for their entire lives, and they are encountering figures and moments in which they are seeing how people negotiated the challenges that were in front of them at that moment? How do you inspire that sense that we are at no moment having to just negotiate, that there is action—a thought and then action? How do you deal with that question of agency with your children?

Thapar. You know, the process of thinking also involves the process of agency. You can’t think without asking the question: Who is responsible for this and why? What was the purpose? I mean, that applies even to a source. You pick up a book and the first question you ask is: Who is the author? What is the background? The next question you ask: What is the book about? What was his purpose in writing the book? There is a whole range of things that comes up. And, finally: Who is the audience, who is it intended for? So when one says that you have to teach the child to think, it is not just, ‘Oh yes, now I have to ask a question about this.’ You have to pursue that question further, and make the child realize that the thinking process involves looking at the actions that were carried out and thinking about the actions in turn. You are not just thinking about the person who performed them—you are also thinking about agency. Agency is absolutely fundamental to the questions you are going to be asking. So there is no way in which you stop at simply saying: This happened. You have to go on and ask: Why did it happen? How did it happen? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Had it happened a hundred years later, would it have been different? There are a host of questions all geared to not separating thinking from agency. Agency is very important.

Mathur. Absolutely. The starting point of any agency is the capacity to think, the capacity to look, to listen. As teachers and educators, it is also our responsibility to make children aware—at different stages and in different ways—that a lot of their thinking is coming from elsewhere. That a lot of their thoughts are influenced thoughts. To become conscious about that is a very important thing. There are so many influences that are acting on you—what your grandparents told you, what your parents told you, what the community believes, what you see on the media, and so on. So, first, see what is shaping you. This leads to agency already getting crystallized in certain directions. That process of becoming conscious of influence requires a kind of inward inquiry, which I spoke about a little earlier. History teaches you to understand the world at the same time as it teaches you to understand yourself and where you are coming from. And many of the things which have been mentioned so far—all of these have an impact on the choices students make as they grow up. They face different situations, they make life choices, decide what they are going to do later. Are they all success-bound? That is also a huge influence in the modern capitalist world—the idea that individual success is what matters, that community obligations can be thrown aside, parents can be forgotten. At the same time, there is the influence of what my parents taught me. In some sense, therefore, agency is also negotiation. You are negotiating all the time, but you are negotiating because you have agency. If you did not have any, then you would just follow the track that you were put on. What teachers do every day in the classroom leaves an impact, even if right now the students cannot do much to change the examination system. As you said, some of them go on to become thinking historians and that is because of the seeds we might have planted. Small seeds that sprout in their own way, in their own time. I am reminded of the poem that was read out by Naveen-ji at the beginning: somewhere we have to keep planting seeds. They will sprout when the conditions are right. The tide will change again. That is also something that history teaches you, that things don’t go one way all the time, there are forces of another kind that may be cutting through what is growing and rising across the country at any one time.

Megha Malhotra. There is one issue we have been discussing internally, over the past two or three months, while we’ve been planning this conference, and I would like to hear Romila-di’s views on that. Seventy years since independence, yet our textbooks don’t go beyond 1947 . What are the implications of this? What is the basis of the decision on the time frame included in textbooks?

Servaia. I would like to add: When does the past become history?

Megha. When does the present become history too?

Thapar. Technically, history begins with written sources, that is, everything prior to the point when written sources come in is pre-history, and is largely based on archaeological data. You may, for example, have an in-between period when there are sources that are technically written sources but they are not read, they have not been deciphered yet. That is proto-history, and that, of course, in our case is the Harappan period. That is proto-history. The moment you get the Ashokan inscriptions, technically, that is the point at which history begins. But of course, given the kind of inclinations that existed 100, 150 years ago, and when history first began to be written . . . It was argued that the Vedic texts were the starting point of history. Technically, the Vedic texts were not written down at that period—they were written down much later. Nevertheless, what was composed in a kind of textual form is what qualifies as the beginning of history. So most people say the Vedic period was the beginning of history because you have the composition of texts. Others say: No, if you’re going to be technically right, you have to have evidence of written texts, and that would be the Ashokan inscriptions. So you have a choice as to where you begin.

ccccThe interesting thing, of course, is that the beginnings are very important for nationalism. Where do you begin? British colonial writing said that history began with the Vedic period, and people like Mill talked about the two nations—the Hindu and the Muslim, Max Mueller came up with the notion that the origin of the Hindu nation is in the Vedic period. So we are stuck with the Vedic period. However, had we argued that history began with the Ashokan inscriptions, we would have had a different kind of origins of Indian history. It is something one can only speculate about.

ccccThe end. Partition. I think at that point—soon after Independence—it was too recent to go beyond. History was always treated as a narrative about the past. Sufficiently the remote past, coming up to the recent past. You never treated it as a narrative of contemporary events.

ccccWhen we introduced a course on contemporary history in JNU, we faced a lot of flak from many historians who said, ‘ It is a contradiction in terms—history cannot be contemporary history, it has to be the past.’ But we persisted.

ccccThe Partition was very recent, so people said, ‘No, no, that is not history.’ But I think the more important, if slightly subterranean, argument was that 1947 and what followed—the Partition— would have brought to the surface the whole contradictions between the Islamic nationalist interpretation and the Hindu nationalist interpretation. And although, politically, the Indian National Congress was taking a secular position, it is a debatable point as to how many people in the Indian National Congress were not veering towards Hindu nationalism. It is a debatable issue and I would not like to pass any generalisation on that. But I do think that if we had gotten to the discussion of Partition and what happened after Partition, it would raise emotional problems of all kinds, both in Pakistan and in India. We were not terribly worried about the emotional problems of Pakistan, but we were worried about the emotional problems in India. And somehow, therefore, we got into the habit of stopping at 1947. Now, clearly, one should go on, because it is 70 years down and it is no longer contemporary history—it is very much a history of recent times. Maybe one of the interesting points to take up to would be 1991, when the economy changed completely and we became part of the whole market system. And the consequences that have followed. The obsession with destination success really stems from that kind of change, and I think it would be perfectly legitimate now to take it up to 1991. Though, as I said, we in JNU do teach contemporary history which comes right up to virtually the present.

ccccI think if one is going to take it beyond 1947, it would be very interesting to compare the Pakistani textbooks with the Indian. A very useful exercise which will never be done, and those of us who suggest it will be damned as unpatriotic. We have already been called traitors to the Indian nation, so, in that tradition . . .

ccccWhen I was at the Library of Congress we had a conference on post-Independence history textbooks in ex-colonies. And, certainly, the couple of people who came and spoke on the Pakistani textbooks were extremely interesting—on why they project it in a certain way, justifying of course the creation of Pakistan, the Islamic nationalism. But I think it would be quite salutary for us if we take our history beyond 1947. I would argue that it would be extremely important to take into consideration not only Pakistani textbooks but also textbooks from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. So that this South Asian nexus that has been created through these actions can be seen in juxtaposition and seen more analytically. Otherwise what you will get is a sort of frogs-in-the- well situation—this is Indian history, this is Indian history, this is Indian history. But what are the others? What are our neighbours saying about this history that we are unaware of? I think it is about time we paid some attention to what our neighbours are saying about their history, and our history, and the connection between the two.

Audience: I have two or three points I’d like to mention here. One: that whatever I’ve heard, I’m getting the idea that through the school system we are trying to get answers to all our questions. I feel that should not perhaps be so, because some questions should be left unanswered. For example, the basic difference between science and the humanities is that the full package of science will end with an answer, whether it’s reasonable or not. But in the humanities, in history or political science, the end result will be whether the students are able to ask better questions than the ones they were asking before. That is the end result I am looking forward to. That is how I see history.

My larger questions to the educators is: Who is teaching history in the classroom? Is it a teacher, a mentor, an educator, an administrator, or a sum total of all of these? Certainly not an historian. So, if the teacher is not an historian, then in what capacity, and with what autonomy, are they to deliver history? And there lies some confusion about how to deliver history.

ccccMy second question is: How reasonable is it to use the terminology that Romilaji used, ‘good history’? What may be considered ‘good history’ in a school is debatable. Seventy years after Independence, I feel that maybe secularism—the word that we have coined—is not a very deep-rooted idea. I may not agree to the idea of secularism, and I will give the antithesis idea—an idea which has been floating around for the last three years and is an anti-thesis to secularism. There was a non-violent approach of India, this is a slightly violent approach of India. Now the onus lies on society to decide how they should go forward. Rather than an outright rejection of a good history or a bad history.

Thapar. I have a short answer: Good history is good history, whether you are teaching it in schools or whether the general public is reading it, or whether the research body of a university is reading it. I don’t make a distinction between good and bad history for a school and good and bad history for a university. My argument is that if good history exists, every school child has a right to be told about it, to be taught it, to have it explained, and that’s as far as I would go.

ccccOn the question of the history teacher not being a historian, that is raising the whole issue of who are the people who are educating us. It is not an issue of the historian, nor does it concern at every level a history teacher. Rather, it concerns the educational administration that is appointing non-historians in schools—very often administrators or people who do not know too much about anything. If you do not have a strongly disciplined educational service or system, and if you cannot produce at least graduates of history to teach history in schools, that is not the problem of the historian—that is the problem of educational administration and governance. I think the two should not be confused.

Servaia. I want to add just one thing here: Do you think that it is also a problem that history as a discipline is not given the respect it deserves?

Thapar: No, of course it is not given the respect it deserves because politicians are frightened of history. History is crucial to politics, and if your politics are what they are today, which is a mix of an integration, we hope, of nationalism, secularism and democracy, then history holds a certain fear for those who like to fiddle the story and tell fantasies instead of history. And that is a problem.


Romila Thapar is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. Author of several books, including Early India, History and Beyond and The Past as Present, she is currently Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Alok Mathur has been a teacher for over 35 years in the Krishnamurti Foundation schools and served as an administrator at the Rishi Valley School. He is currently Head, Teacher Education, Rishi Valley School, Andhra Pradesh.

Amita Prasad has over 30 years of experience in teaching and administration at various schools in Kolkata. She is the co-author of history and civics textbooks for Classes 3 to 8 published by Oxford University Press, and is Dean, Research and Development, Heritage School, Kolkata.

Tina Servaia is Head, Humanities and Arts, Calcutta International School

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