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Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

Teaching History like a Historian


Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Date: Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Time: 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.

The early start did not deter our attendees. By ten past 9, the classroom at the Goethe Institut was brimming with close to forty teachers. With a brief welcome from Megha, Director, History for Peace, and Friso Maecker, Director, Goethe Institut, Kolkata, we plunged headlong into the workshop.

Tina Servaia, teacher of History and Theory of Knowledge at CIS and advisory board member at History for Peace, set the tone for the workshop, laying out the framework of the methodology/pedagogy that this workshop aimed to use. Looking at the investigative nature of the historian’s methodology, Ms Servaia focused on the importance of analyzing sources, particularly in times of information inundation from across digital media. A participant-teacher questioned the claim that sources themselves can be biased, which led to some debate on the interpretation of sources and the power structures that determine them, that saw contemporary contextual issues raised.

History : Whose Story?

Exploring the Glocal in Social Science Classrooms

Dr. Chatterjee began with an exercise she uses to talk to her students about multiple perspectives, featuring Red Riding Hood (yes).

Sharing with us three excerpts from Roald Dahl’s poem ‘Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf’, Dr Chatterjee took off from where Ms Servaia ended, highlighting how narratives can help shape understandings of an event. She emphasized the importance of looking at— positionality (the socio-political contexts that help construct one’s identity in terms of race, class, caste, gender, etc. that in turn shapes one’s perspectives), contextualization— the interrelationship of various domains of culture, and how language can be studied to understand underlying aspects of culture—for instance, who is doing the talking, what kinds of words and gestures are being used, to move beyond the ‘us’ and ‘them’ binaries that knowledge systems help perpetuate.

Encouraging teachers to use (instead of shy away from) the kinds of ‘glocal’ (global with local) intersections that the internet and social media have made possible, Dr Chatterjee moved to the syllabi topic she would be addressing: The Aryan ‘Invasion’.

Applying the pedagogical tool of presenting multiple perspectives/narratives previously introduced through the Roald Dahl poems, Dr Chatterjee shared with us a list of questions that could guide a critical discussion around the given mainstream narrative of the Aryan invasion theory, as well as present multiple angles of questioning that provoke thought on the biases of history writing.

  • Many invasions took place, then why is the Aryan invasion given so much importance?

  • When did the Aryan invasion start getting importance?

  • Why did other stories of migration not interest us?

  • Why do we always attempt to establish a link between Sanskrit and European languages?

  • Why don’t we ever ask how Dravidian or Khasi languages came to be?

From here, various scholars’ ideas on the subject were broadly looked at under the headings of ‘proponents’ and ‘opponents’ of the Aryan invasion theory—the politics determining the theory’s gaining popularity in British India were explored—why did upper caste Hindus support this theory, when was the link between european languages and sanskrit established for instance. The focus shifted to ‘content analysis’, looking to Tony Joseph’s Early Indians that uses genetic, archaeological and linguistic analysis to critically study the Aryan invasion theory. Here too, Joseph’s analyses were not taken as gospel truth, but looked at critically, the limitations in its research scope pointed out from the narratives it excludes; The importance of archaeological and genetic findings in the updation of historical research and understanding was highlighted. Next, the four below innovative classroom exercises on using primary sources to understand meta-narrative were shared.

The Global History Teacher: if you travel, bring back artefacts for critical discussion in class

Bring In The World: Try connecting students ( virtually) with peers from other countries and encourage them to form a forum where they can critically discuss hegemonic narratives ( can use Belouga )

Rewriting Exhibit Labels: choose an artefact from this era, let the students write a label for that artefact, without giving them any information beforehand

Through Literature: expose students to diverse forms of history writing, let them identify authorship, positionality and contextualization. (Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat - viewing war from a child’s perspective).


Dara Shukoh

Avik Chanda, author of Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King, is not a historian, he begins by clarifying. Talking of the reductive stereotypical depictions of figures from Mughal history as taught in schools in present times, Chanda defined the need to revisit this period in history to bring out the multiple shades that make up a personality, in these figures—a need whose importance is reflected in the evolving trajectory of the narrative around Aurangzeb, by voices from Jadunath Sarkar to Muzafar Alam, Irfan Habib, and finally down to the most recent Audrey Truschke.

The other major issue arising from that stereotypical narrative, Chanda highlighted, is that of the huge gap between Akbar and Aurangzeb, which has lately become a subject of historical enquiry, particularly encouraged with the coming to light of a critically important text of the time, Majlis i Jahangiri that has helped to move the narrative away from conventional depictions of Jahangir. From here Chanda moved to the subject of his latest book, Dara Shukoh, who is most often portrayed as the king who could not be, on losing it to his ‘evil brother’ Aurangzeb.

Expanding on his research methodology, as someone who is not a historian, Chanda shared that he heavily relied (with minor exception) on what he called semi-primary data, meaning English translations of primary data that were written in languages unfamiliar to him (French, Farsi). He shared that the three major kinds of sources that he explored in the process of his study can be broadly classified as—the official accounts which were commissioned by the emperors themselves; the accounts of travelers visiting the Mughal court at the time; and autobiographical accounts written by the emperors themselves. The session concluded with the author telling us about the source that particularly informed his study—the diary of a soldier who recorded in it his experience under the Mughal state, the tone and content of which was set apart by his unawareness that it could be under the public eye at some point.

Amita Prasad, experienced practitioner and currently Director, Indus Valley World School led Avik’s talk straight into an informal session discussing the rationale [developing critical thinking skills and encouraging questioning in the classroom] behind such a workshop and its deliberate choice of syllabi topics—topical, controversial and a common thread across all education boards.


Gandhi and Non-violence

Amita was to work with the topic of Gandhi and non-violence. Just the mention of her topic led to an explosion of responses from the participants. Primary among that being how students respond to Gandhi. Some talked about the strong shift in perspective that has happened over the past few decades—in the public domain and in the classroom.

Participants reminisced about the image of Gandhi when they were school students and the shift that they witness in their classrooms currently with some even encountering statements such as ‘Gandhi was a hypocrite’.

So what has happened over the years?

Where does this shift in perspective come from?

Why has Gandhi moved from genuinely being the Father of the Nation to becoming just a superficial icon of the Swacchh Bharat campaign of the current regime in India?

These were some of the issues deliberated upon before Amita screened a brief but very powerful clip from the film Gandhi depicting the event of Dharasana in 1930 where thousands of peaceful protestors walked up silently to the authorities to be mercilessly beaten up.

Now this brief clip has the potential of turning the current discourse on Gandhi on its head. The question Amita wanted to explore was: Was Gandhi’s philosophy of Non-violence a personal whim of an eccentric man? Was it spiritual? Was it a fluke that earned India its freedom? Or was it a clever planned strategy?

Having put these questions at the centre of the deliberations she went through a selection of quotes by Gandhi on Ahimsa. These carefully selected quotes demonstrated the evolution of Gandhi’s thoughts and established the fact that he had a strong belief but he was experimenting. And his beliefs were taking shape and growing over a course of time.

She then quoted world opinion on the events at Dharasana and how various stakeholders were deeply affected by it:

‘Gandhi believed nonviolence worked by converting opponents, but actually at Dharasana the police, who so ruthlessly beat the protestors, were not won over at all. Instead, the most powerful impact was on third parties, namely those not directly involved in the confrontation: Indians in the rest of the country and members of the public in Britain, the United States, and other foreign countries.’—Brian Martin

The impact was at the personal level too:

A British police officer, John Court Curry, who encountered Gandhi:

From the beginning I had strongly disliked the necessity of dispersing these non-violent crowds and although the injuries inflicted on the law-breakers were almost invariably very slight, the idea of using force against such men was very different from the more cogent need for using it against violent rioters who were endangering other men’s lives.

The discussion moved to questions of mobilization in an age when communication was not as easy as it is now. Participants discussed the claim of some historians who believe Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence succeeded only because the British were fair; if he were to try the same in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, he would certainly have been killed.

Various other theories were explored through a set of quotes that were circulated amongst the participants. And within the plethora of opinions and new discoveries, one remarkable issue that was visible was the transition from ‘hypocrite to a clever and effective strategy’ — much like the evolution of Gandhi’s own thoughts and philosophy.


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