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Updated: Nov 23, 2020



Presented at the International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 30 July- 1 August 2015.


This is a significant conference precisely because it looks at contestations and it looks at the interplay between nationalism and the nation state and national histories and contestations. As I said, in the question that I asked in the earlier session, is it possible for the organ of a nation state, in this case, for instance, the National Council of Educational Research and Training, funded by the Indian tax payers money, and responsible to the Ministry of Human Resource and Development to actually come up with texts that subvert nationalism itself?


I place this question before you because I think that this is an important question. And I will deliberately not answer it in seven minutes, I cannot. I will use my so called ‘workshop time’ to focus on the answer in some detail. I’ll describe to you the kind of books we in the NCERT, and I say ‘we’ because I worked for the NCERT from 2005 to 2012—for seven years. So, I’ll describe to you the kind of books we did in history in that period. These books were done between 2005 and 2008. First the context of why new books got to be written after 2005. Somebody said, when governments change, people write new books. Now, that may be so at one level, but in fact the books after 2005 were written not only because the government changed. The government did change, but there were other reasons too.


So before this we had two kinds of history textbooks that the NCERT had done. One was way back in the 1970s and those are the books that have been mentioned in the previous discussion in several ways. Books done by what I will call ‘Nationalist Marxists’. I will not define the category right now nor defend it, I will place it before you as provocation. They were very good books. Our teachers and we owe a great deal to them. I think they were excellent books for their time, but they hadn’t been changed for a good thirty years, right? When the BJP came to power in 2002 for two years, they did their own books from 2002 to 2004. We needn’t spend too much time on those. They were communal, short-sighted, done very poorly, and badly executed.


So, the real contrast or the comparison, if you like, is between the books that were done by professors Arjun Dev, Bipin Chandra, Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra in the 1970s and the NCERT textbooks done after 2005.


Now, in 2005, why did we change those books? Number one, new research had happened that hadn’t found it’s way into the textbooks. because textbooks done in the 70’s were continuing upto about 2002. Number two, while the old textbooks were very comprehensive and very well done, in a scholastic sense, the very comprehensiveness of the books meant that they could have a lot of detail. And one questions, from a pedagogic point of view—as the chair said, ‘Pedagogy is very important’—what should be the extent of detail in a textbook? You might remember that a man called Yashpal in the early 90’s wrote a little tract called ‘Learning Without Burden’ in which he quoted from those history textbooks of the 70’s and said, ‘all of this detail is burden, isn’t it?’.


But the second reason, therefore really was—could we produce history textbooks that have less detail—that may not talk of all of Indian history, every little bit that happened, even though the Parliament says no, no, you must teach everybody all of Indian history. Can we have selected themes? Can we reduce the detail? Can we reduce the burden on the children? The older books gave you on a platter what Indian history is. They didn’t allow the child to construct Indian history. They didn’t tell the child from where it was constructed. How do I know that what was demanded in 1940 by the Muslim League was indeed Pakistan? Does the child have access to the so-called Pakistan Resolution of 1940?


The books didn’t have constructivist pedagogy. They didn’t allow the child to construct little nuggets of history. We all know children from class 6 to class 12 cannot write full-fledged histories, but surely you can give them the text of a resolution. You can give them some excerpt from a newspaper, you could give them the picture of an archeological find. You could try and get them to deconstruct these things and then construct a little nugget of history. That was the third reason why we changed these books.


And the fourth reason really was—which I mentioned in the beginning itself—is it really the aim of education, even history education, to sustain the political national community. Is that our purpose? What is the aim of history education? We wanted to explore that. We had to create a better sense of what our aim is.


We felt we would get the children to ‘do’ history. To understand how history is done. How problems in history are identified? What is a problem for analysis? How do historians explain the problem they identify? What is the link between argument and narrative? How does argument and narrative rest on facts? How do the facts rest on evidence and source materials? And if this is all there is to it, then what is the role of perspective? What is the role of the different vantage points from which people are looking at things? What is the role of the motive of the historian? And if the historian has motive and perspective, is perspective the same as prejudice? Or is it different? And finally, while writing our histories, what are the categories of analysis that a historian uses? When does a historian use the word ‘patriotism’, when does the historian use the word ‘nationalism’? When does the historian say about a shared religious culture, that it is syncretic? When does he/she say that it is not syncretic, although shared, not syncretic but eclectic?


What I want to emphasize is that we introduce the kids right from class 6 onwards to class 12, in a graded way, increasing the extent gradually to passages from primary sources and to visuals as primary sources. The visuals in our history books are not salad dressings. They are not meant to simply entertain or beautify. They’re meant to be de-constructed so that a history out of them can be constructed. In class 12, the 1857 rebellion is dealt within one chapter. We show them paintings of the rebellion. We argue—what is it that these paintings can reveal, what is it that these paintings will not reveal about the rebellion? Similarly, in the same book, the chapter on the partition—we analyse the limitations and strengths of oral history as a form of history, as a source of history. There was a lot of emphasis on sharing with the children passages from primary sources and getting them to create little nuggets of history from there. This was twinned, if you like, in political science and in social and political life. ‘Social and Political Life’ is the title of a book used in classes 6, 7 and 8 that uses comic strips about real life situations from which children are encouraged to create their own understanding of, say, what is the distinction between political equality and economic equality?


The old books in political science said equality can be of various types. By political equality we mean such and such. And the child mugged it up and regurgitated the information in an exam. We don’t want that to happen. We don’t give them definitions in the beginning, at all. We give them a comic strip that tells them a story. From the story, they have to understand whether this strip is talking about equality or inequality. And if equality, political equality or economic equality and so on and so forth. Another thing that we did—and this is in response to some of the discussion that happened in the morning—in the curriculum, we said, when we teach Indian history, we must talk not of our past, but of our pasts—p-a-s-t-s, in the plural. Because, we recognize as Shreya and others said, that India has been a nation state in actual terms only from 1947 and in ideational terms from the 1870s or 1880s. And therefore, it is very, very important to understand that all of us were not even united by a common sovereignty in the pre 1870 period.


Given the various diversities that we have—the numerous socio-economic-political categories that we all slot ourselves into, it would be impossible for all of us from Tripura to Sindh to experience the same past. So our pasts were different. And not just Tripura to Sindh, but from say a hawker to a king, from a Dalit to a Brahmin and I can multiply the social axes along which these things happen. So, we said that we’ll have ‘Our Pasts’ as the title in class 6, 7 and 8, and introduce Indian history at that level. In class 9 and 10 we will do India and the contemporary world, which will be focused on modern history and how modern history led to the contemporary moment. India in relation to the world, at large. In these class 9 and 10 books, we do a history which looks at the state and also looks at many other things—including economy, technology, technological change.


In the first part of these books we looked at political events and processes. In the second part, we looked at economic history and livelihoods and ecology. In the third part, we looked at everyday life and the history of culture. So, a lot more in terms of the range of human behaviour and actions comes into these histories than had happened before. And you recognize that among the humanities and the social sciences, it is two subjects that look at the whole range of human affairs: sociology and history—but do so in slightly different ways. What are those different ways? In the curriculum we also said that when we do a world history, it should be a genuine world history—not just European or western history.


When you and I studied world history, we did only Europe and the west. By which I mean, America and Europe. In this history, we have a lot of Australia, we have Africa, we have other parts of the world—we do not have euro-centrism. It is not a euro-centric history. It does not say, ‘After the 17th century, European civilization represents the highest form of life reached by human kind so far and provides standards by which we all should judge ourselves.’ Nor does it say, ‘Europe attained this glory unaided.’ It shows what we gave to Europe and by we I don’t mean, chauvinistic Indians—I mean the rest. What the rest gave to the west and the west gave to the rest . . . it looks both ways.


Finally, we said, what is very, very significant—something that the keynote speaker Professor Christophe alluded to—we must have multi-vocality or heteroglossia in our texts. The two words mean the same. They mean that there must be varied voices. There must be voices that are in conflict with each other in the same text. The literature wallas have done it for centuries. When Premchand talks of a Namak ka Daroga, he gives you the point of view of the Namak ka Daroga but he also gives you the point of view of the colonial state of the peasants, without saying—now, let us look at the perspective of the peasants. It just comes in naturally. That is how we wanted our history textbooks to be. So, in the chapter on the partition—I’m just giving you one example—in a book funded by the Indian government, by the Indian tax payers money and the government which says, we must teach nationalism—in such a book, we begin the partition chapter by talking about how Pakistanis suffered. We begin with three Pakistani testimonies.


The point is, we said, we must have all kinds of varied and imposed voices so that we tell children that conflict can be interpreted through an interpretation of conflict. We don’t believe any longer in what Lord Acton said in 1902, in the Cambridge Modern History—he was the editor. He said, our story of Waterloo should be one where the reader cannot realise where the French historian has put her pen down—he said ‘his’ of course—and where the British historian has lifted it, finished writing and the Dutchman has begun to write. We should have as our ideal, he said a history where, the identity of the writers cannot be known to the reader. That there is so called ‘objectivity’.


We feel this is, foolish. It cannot happen at all. That we must actually have lots of voices in our texts. And because we have lots of voices in the text, we felt that this will in fact simultaneously recast the nationalist agenda of the book writers themselves. Because they will then, at least begin to focus on what I call civic nationalism as opposed to a religious or ethnic nationalism. Thank you.

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Prof. Anil Sethi is Professor of History and History Education at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. 

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