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What Can Take The Place Of A Single, Teachable, Usable Past? - Janaki Nair


Updated: Nov 28, 2020

This talk was presented in August 2018 as part of the fourth annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, Calcutta.

Let me begin by saying that I am really pleased to be back here—I was at one of these conferences a couple of years ago and it was a very gratifying experience. I have a particular affinity for the history teachers of Calcutta schools because when I was at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences here several years ago, we ran a weekend workshop for history teachers for two years. I begin by saying this because that was when I was a bit more optimistic. What I am going to present today is a much more pessimistic view with the intention of producing some discussion. And my work has been made very easy because my turn comes at the end of a day of very rich presentations—Professor Romila Thapar’s in particular, because she said that there are so many different perspectives on the past that need to be acknowledged. Though she did also admit that it was not going to be an easy thing to incorporate all those perspectives into a single textbook. However, I fear she may not approve of the conclusion I have drawn from that observation.

I am, therefore, going to be a little irreverent to begin with. I am taking a few quotations from a really lovely send-up of a school textbook written in 1930 and which continues to be a bestseller. Needless to say, it is mostly about British history, but I have chosen the one paragraph that talks about the British connection with India:

It was in the 18th century that the Indian history started. Indian history is a great number of wars in which the English fought victoriously against the Waratah Confederacy and various kinds of potentates called Sahibs,Wallahs, Jahs, Rajahs, Hurrahjahs, Mahurrajahs, Jhams and Jhelhies.

This would not pass in today’s India. In case you thought that they were being imperialist and racist, here’s the next part. Look what it says about the Industrial Revolution:

During the wars, many very remarkable discoveries and inventions were made. Most memorable among these was the discovery (made by all the rich men of England at once) that women and children could work for twenty-five hours a day in factories without many of them dying or becoming excessively deformed.This was known as the Industrial Revolution and completely changed the faces of the North of England.

And, if you’ll indulge me, one more little comment on Woodrow Wilson’s peace to end all wars, ‘the peace to end peace’:

And they say, though there were several battles in the war, none were so terrible or costly as the Peace which was signed afterwards in the ever-memorable Chamber of Horrors at Versailles. One of the points that President Wilson insisted on was—that the world should be made safe for democracy, that is, anyone except pillion riders, pedestrians, foreigners, natives, capitalists, communists, Jews, riffs, RAFs, gunmen, policemen, peasants, pheasants, Chinese, etc.

Why am I starting with this? I am starting with this because I am striking a very pessimistic note. There was a time—when I was in school—when you could follow D. N. Kundra’s history textbook in school and safely say that Ashoka or Pulakesi or Krishnadevaraya or Serfoji II or a myriad of other good kings planted trees, built roads and established chatrams, and you were assured of a few marks in the exam. I will, never in my lifetime, be able to even attempt to write a send-up of Indian history in this way. Apart from the fact that I don’t have these extremely well developed skills at raising a laugh, we will never have this version of 1066 and all that, even though we have enough in our past to sustain an all-night stand-up comedy. Imagine the fun we could have with Muhammad bin Tughlaq! But I can also imagine the mob gathering outside my department if I dare to raise a laugh or two about the Tamil Nadu government deciding in June 2018 that the state textbooks will stick to Before Christ (BC) and Anno Domini (AD) rather than Before the Christian Era in order to prevent the historical mistake of offending their minorities. This was a decision taken soon after the textbooks had been printed, in which CE and BCE had been used.

So, that was the fun part.

I am going to strike a very different note from the heavy, weighty kind of presentations we have had so far. What is in our textbooks, I am going to argue, is therefore not an agreed-upon account of the past. One is reminded here of a very evocative paragraph in Pierre Nora’s article ‘Between Memory and History’ in which he refers to the book Le Tour de la France par deux enfants, written in 1877 by G. Bruno (a pseudonym used by a woman named Augustine Fouillée) and instrumental in training the memories of millions of French boys and girls. Eventually in the article, Pierre Nora says, ‘Thanks to it, the Minister of Public Instruction could draw his pocket watch at 8:05 A.M. and declare, “All of our children are crossing the Alps.”’—because you knew they were studying history in school, they were reading the same book, and you could predict that they were taking this tour at exactly 8:05 that morning. So a single language and a unified territory made the French history textbook a sovereign text all the way up to the eve of the First World War—almost five decades. It is still in publication, and still a bestseller. But in a place like India, a veritable Republic of Babel, has it not always been an account of the past according to one or another type of government in power?

The textbook has become—I was going to say an ‘embattled object’, but I will change that and say—an ‘endangered object’. The love of the past in India today is the stuff of battles in courtrooms, streets and movie theatres rather than seminars, classrooms and journals. Historical knowledge is something that everybody passionately and deeply engages with, especially in India—I would say that this is a particularly sub-continental affliction. So the professional historian is himself/herself something of a bit of an endangered species too because the historical method seems to have no place in this ‘love of the past’. So I can end my talk right here by saying that maybe we should all only teach English history, Russian history or Chinese history because it is no longer safe to try and attempt to teach Indian history—but I won’t say that!

Instead, I would like to say something on which I do not expect agreement—a single, teachable past in India is no longer possible. I will differ, therefore, from our former president Pranab Mukherjee who recently, in little over twenty-seven minutes, wove the myth of a single, teachable, usable past in his address to the Sangh Shiksha Varg of the RSS on 7 June 2018.You have all watched that speech, I don’t need to remind you of its content. It’s 5000 years of unity, universities of Nalanda and Takshashila were shining for 800 years starting from 6th century BC despite all the conquests we have had and so on. He did end on the note of our constitutional patriotism, but by that time the damage had been done—because he was basically glorifying sameness when he waxed eloquent about ancient India before dismissing the entire medieval period by saying, ‘Muslim invaders then came and ruled India for 600 years’.

First, let me make my argument about why I believe that the Indian history textbook is no longer a possibility. I am basing it on a number of challenges we are facing today, challenges from within the discipline as many people are coming to an understanding that they need to know their own past. Different regions, different histories, different castes, the South, the North-East, the tribals, the Dalits, the women are asking questions like ‘Why not?’, ‘Where were we?’, ‘What if?’ I am going to give you a few examples from the Kannada University at Hampi: a member of the group infamously labelled the ‘criminal tribes’ wishes to study the origins of this appellation—where that term came from, how they got classified as a ‘criminal tribe’ etc. Or an Iruliga student (Iruligas are snake-catchers) writing a history of his community in and around Ramanagara. These are very local histories, these are very local questions emerging from what they are asking themselves but they are questions that our history books do not appear to be adequately answering. A student from an agricultural background researching the history of early modern agrarian relations in Chitradurga, a person studying the roots of under-development in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, and another studying the history of the Bal Basappa performing cult and its message of equality are some more examples. So, you can see that there is a wide range of things, local histories being examined, investigated and written about because the his- tories of India are found wanting.The conventional histories do not explain to many of these people who she was and why she got where she was. So that was a task for which she had to develop or fashion new methodologies. I am not going into the methodology question right now but, rather, will identify the challenges from outside the profession.

I would like to point to the wide range of communities that wish to claim individual historical figures as figures belonging to their community and, therefore, above the critical historical method. In short, nothing critical can be said about the lives of these figures. So the historical figure—these are actual historical figures in many cases—have become one whom conventional historians’ histories have misrepresented, and therefore cannot be spoken of except by a devoted member of the community concerned. Sangolli Rayanna, for instance, can only be depicted by the Kurubas; Kittur Chennamma can only be depicted by the Lingayats and so on. I don’t know if this is a particular predicament in Karnataka alone, but perhaps you will recognize some common features for other regions of India as well.

I had contributed to the NCERT books of 2006. In particular, I had contributed a chapter on clothing which had a five-paragraph reference to the famous history of the Breast Cloth disturbances in Travancore, southern Tamil Nadu, in the nineteenth century. This section came in for a huge amount of political flak in 2012, six years after the book was published. I have written about that experience because it taught me what professional historians can no longer do. It taught me the limits of our capacity to intervene in questions that are so highly and deeply politicized. So, that is the second kind of challenge that I see to the historical profession and, therefore, to the history books.

The third challenge we are witnessing at this moment is from above—the state and its obligations. Of course we are very familiar with the central government and its pre- occupations, especially in the past four years. But each state government has its own preoccupations. The preoccupations of the recently ended Congress government, for example. Surprisingly, it included a chapter in the Karnataka school-level textbook on the value of folklore as a historical source. Now, the inclusion of an entire chapter on the value of folklore as a historical source is not a bad thing, but it just stuck out there like a sore thumb! It hadn’t been thought through in terms of its connection with the other kinds of discussions of sources. There was no such discussion—it was just the ambition of that particular textbook committee. I am giving you a completely different kind of example from the ones we are more familiar with, to point out how whimsical the addition of chapters and themes and so on in history books has been, often driven by certain kinds of compulsions of the state. There is a pathological obsession today with history, from which we discern the characteristic of the Hindu Right. But it draws upon a very long preoccupation with history over the last 150 years or so. Let us not by any means be deluded into thinking that this invocation of hurt sentiments (of which I gave an example a moment ago—the instance in Tamil Nadu) is not something new—it has been happening at least since the beginning of the emergence of the textbook in the nineteenth century in India, with the British particularly warm towards entertaining various kinds of claims of hurt sentiments in the course of textbook production. It has more or less become the norm, as it were.

Finally, we have a new kind of challenge—the technological challenge to the history textbook. The textbook is no longer the only source for understanding history. Rather, that most people are consulting ‘WhatsApp university’ for answers to many of their questions. There is a multitude of Internet sources flooded with dubious assertions, alarming claims, calls to battle on real and imagined historical heroes and heroines and wrongs and rights. So WhatsApp university is, of course, the most important place of information gathering.

Now, if the textbook is not doing that task of conveying one ‘agreed-on’ account of the past, then what else can the textbook do? We are living through what I think is perhaps the most dangerous time which is insisting on the single, usable, teachable past. So we are perhaps also at the best point to intervene and say that there is a power to telling multiple stories.

Regarding the list of examples that I promised you— these are historical heroes who are very seriously claimed by specific communities. You cannot speak about Kanakadasa without being approved by the Kuruba Sangha; whether Sangolli Rayanna is a Bedara Nayaka or a Kuruba is still being debated. So there is a virtual monopoly on the historical knowledge related to these figures. Kempegowda and even Kuvempu—noted Kannada writer of the twentieth century, winner of the Jnanpith Award—are claimed by the Vokkaligas. Koti and Chennaya, the Tuluva twin heroes from the sixteenth century, are claimed by the Billavas. I could give you innumerable examples of such ‘owning’, but I am just trying to demonstrate to you that there is this kind of claim which is being made to certain historical figures. They are acting as gatekeepers of knowledge about these historical figures which makes it virtually impossible to say anything about them, particularly in the textbooks. Should they be added? Should they be left out? Should only that be said which has been approved by the community?

I want to cite here an author you are all probably familiar with—Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie who has talked about ‘the danger of a single story’. I am only quoting one little excerpt from her talk: ‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ This morning we had a discussion, and I think it was a very important one, about the necessity for narrative. It is perhaps how we are losing our battle as professional historians—because of our insistence on the protocols of evidence rather than focusing on as compelling a narrative as other kinds of groups lay claim to. Stories are necessary and multiple stories are extremely necessary particularly in a country like India.

So, I am going to invite you to share with me a reverie about method. To say that perhaps what we can do as teachers of history is to encourage certain kinds of historical thinking. It really does not matter what kinds of historical examples we take up in order to demonstrate the value of historical thinking. I have chosen one little clip. There are many associations in the United States which are engaged in historical thinking. I have argued elsewhere that perhaps we have spent too much time in the immediate post-Independence decades talking about the necessity of scientific temper, and it is perhaps necessary, and important, for us as historians to insist on the necessity over historical temper. If we insisted on historical temper, what would those elements of historical temper be? I am going to share with you a video that has been prepared to think about the elements of critical thinking and thinking historically.

It was convenient for me to use that because it is so beautifully put in just the space of seven and a half minutes. I want to suggest that the 2006 NCERT textbook in fact achieved what is being proposed—it allowed students an opportunity to compare contradictory sources. (I am talking about the CBSE syllabus. I know most of you here probably teach ICSE board, so you may not be familiar with NCERT books. If you aren’t, then please quickly try to find and look at them because they are in grave danger of being removed.) Those textbooks helped actually develop historical thinking using, of course, critical moments in the Indian and international—global—historical past.

Having said that, I feel it is increasingly difficult now to achieve any kind of an agreement about what goes into those textbooks because NCERT textbooks, as many of my colleagues will testify, have been subject to innumerable queries, demands, changes that were requested, demanded and so on. And they have been at the forefront just like I was in the case of the ‘clothing’ chapter. Therefore, I think what we can do is to present historical thinking and its value as much more important in the classrooms, regardless of the examples we have taken.

Let me end hoping to provoke some discussions about a series of remarkable videos made by Deepa Dhanraj, an Indian filmmaker in Karnataka for the Karnataka government. It is a marvellous series of nine videos called Young Historians. I am going to show you only six minutes of one of the videos to demonstrate what is possible in a classroom in terms of developing critical thinking as well as historical thinking. Here it has been done with very young underprivileged children, all nine years old, from scheduled castes in the district of Gadag in northern Karnataka. [Links to videos at the end of transcript.]

This is, of course, not possible in all classrooms, we know that very well and we have compulsions of taking exams and so on. But I think the time has come for us to dream differently about what we can do in our classrooms. One of the experiences I have had when I was taking these workshops in Calcutta in the early 2000s with teachers from different types of schools—not just the more well-known schools like Modern High School and so on but also Chetla Boys’ School and many other government schools—was that they all felt they could experiment with the textbooks and with the syllabus up to eighth grade. But after the eighth grade, they had to focus on the board exams. So the exam drove the pedagogical purpose of the classes from the ninth grade onwards. Now, that is something we cannot do anything about, but there are certain spaces and ways in which perhaps we can raise this question of whether we can create a historical temper which involves thinking historically, thinking critically, using perhaps examples from everyday life and those things around us and not necessarily the big national questions that are engrossing people in the government and outside it.


Kanupriya Jhunjhunwala. I am currently a doctoral student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, but I also do research and education. We’ve spoken a lot about the connection between history and culture, and now we have come into the classroom. But we rarely discuss the culture of schools and how children get socialized into culture within schools. And that a lot of that cultural socialization happens outside the school also. Most of it, in fact. The schools seem almost to sanitize culture in a way, as if they want to keep it out, for the very reason you have been talking about—that there cannot be ‘a’ particular culture. Culture in most schools is limited to a sort of celebration of festivals of all faiths, very superficial experiences like that. I have two related questions. One, that history is intricately related with culture but when we teach history in schools, that connection is rarely made besides ‘this was the architecture in the period and these dance forms emerged in this period and these musicians were popular in this period’ and things like that. Why is that and what can be done? The other question: the socialization into culture that happens at home, and the dichotomy between the school and the home in this regard. It is almost this sense of permanence when families socialize children into culture. So whatever is culturally relevant has always existed, it has always been like this. There is this sense of forever-ness and no room for questioning: ‘This is our culture today. But, when did it start being this way?’

Nair. I am going to respond by saying something which I should have said but I think I only hinted at: that there is a difference between the role played, say, by the textbook and the classroom in the urban setting, and perhaps I can even qualify that further by saying urban- middle-class setting, as opposed to a setting like perhaps the one we saw—the rural school where the textbook is the only resource. There is a big difference. At least as far as the urban elite or even non-elite schools are concerned, a lot of learning about history is happening outside. I was being facetious when I said WhatsApp university—that is a recent challenge—social media, so on and so forth, but the fact is that historical opinions are formed outside of learning within schools. In fact, I think, judging from the feedback that we got on the NCERT books from not just teachers but also parents who had had conversations with their children who were taking exams, myself included, there was real fear among the students about the opinions that were already formed—for example, about 1857 and the causes of the 1857 rising compared to what the new textbooks were trying to do, which was making them think about sources, different kinds of participants in 1857, and so on.

The fear came from the fact that they felt they would be penalized because the teacher herself was very frequently saying that this was not exactly the case There were two kinds of responses—one, where the teacher would say ‘We know better and we are going to tell you what the answer to this question should be!’ The other was, of course, the ever-present threat of the board exam and how you had to answer it. So, very frequently things were edited out of those books, anything thought of as intended to produce doubt and querying and criticality, in order to prepare the students for the exam. In another setting, that is perhaps the only source of some understanding of the history of India and that is why I gave the examples of the students who are the first-generation higher-education entrants and coming to Hampi University with the intention to research their histories. They are coming to higher education and genuinely want to produce an account of the history of their circumstances and their lives and their cultures in ways that make the learning of Indian history meaningful. So, that is going on too. It is not just a uni-directional process. I suppose I can’t answer it in terms of resolving that dilemma, but there is a very productive tension that remains between the received knowledge of the textbook and the already-existing knowledges that are brought into the classroom by either teachers or the influence of parents on their children and the kind of dilemmas and questions they produce. It is particularly acute in India because of the unevenness of this whole process as well.

Srilika Chatterjee. I’d like to not ask a question but share an experience. It is not that the schools cannot take any initiative in adopting an alternative perspective of teaching history, because, last year, my school— Vidyashilp Academy—had collaborated with Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore and included the ninth-grade students in an oral-history project about Bangalore. The main objective from the school’s perspective—from the school management and the teachers—was not just to show that an alternative way of teaching history can be sought but also to create a social and personal connect within the school community. This was done through an oral-history project about the local people, about their own people, in such a way as to engage the ninth-grade students but with- out compromising on their academic calendar or routine. What I mean to say is that it is a doable thing if we plan a little bit. Of course, if you ask me, by the end of the project, if my students gained anything academically related to the board exams, I would have to say that they did not. But I can definitely assure you they did gain something more personal and social; they were more confident; they learnt what they did not know about the maintenance staff and their teachers, the people’s stories; and the patience that each one of us should have to hear out others’ stories and thereby create a different kind of a history. Because, to us, history is a history of war, leaders, achievements and failures, but there is another history—that is the simple/common man’s history. So, that is what I wanted to share, this experience: that if the schools want, it is a doable thing. Right now, once again the current batch of ninth graders is into one more project with ReReeti, the Bangalore-based museum advisory organization. They are looking into finding out the Bangalore connection with the First World War—how far Bangaloreans have contributed, etc.

Nair. That is what I would like to pick up on, that it is doable in schools. Certain kinds of experiments are possible and perhaps necessary in the current times. For students to be equipped to deal with the kinds of dilemmas we are facing in the debates regarding history in our public life. Otherwise, they are bewildered and don’t know how to handle those conversations nor how to evaluate the evidence that is produced on opposing sides of any such debate.

Sanjay Daniel. I am from north-east Karnataka, so I felt well connected with the session and the videos. I am working for Azim Premji Foundation as a teacher/educator, and we are using the same videos in a module called ‘Perspectives in History’—there is a module of that sort in the Guru Chetana programme. One thing that saddens us today is that, as you were mentioning, our NCERT textbooks are undergoing a lot of amendments which is our cue to interact with teachers—to talk to government teachers and the NCERT teachers especially. All day today we have heard a lot of things, that, for example, more interpretive knowledge is required in order to understand historical aspects. In our DSCERT textbooks, especially from Karnataka state board, we tend to rely more on facts and dates. So we do sessions with the teachers, for they are also basing their knowledge and epistemology on the textbooks they have, and try to tell them that interpretation and narrative is more important. Immediately, they respond by claiming that these elements are not in the text- books. So we try to provide them an alternative, that is, the NCERT, saying that these elements can be found, it is possible for us to do this using NCERT textbooks. So, I am slightly contradicting the statement that is usually made, that DSCERT teachers or the government teachers, the government faculty, are not accepting the new approach of NCERT, because I have spoken to many teachers who agree that this is important and necessary. So what do we do about that? Soon after that question, we are mostly silent because we tell them that our organization called Azim Premji Foundation can do a bit of it, maybe by talking to the functionaries in the department, but we are not able to do as much as can be done. So, the question is, instead of us becoming mute, how well can it be articulated to the department functionaries to build such narratives in the textbooks of the state board? You also mentioned Karnataka, so Karnataka having such a problem, what suggestions could be given?

Nair. I have no answers at all because I don’t know how you approach a state government to rewrite textbooks. But I will say this, because I received the books too late to incorporate them into this talk, that there has been—again, in Karnataka—a controversy about the social-science textbooks and history in particular for the very reason discussed this morning by my colleague Professor Kunal Chakrabarti. There is a chapter in the ninth-standard textbook which traces the historical origins of both Christianity and Islam within that one chapter. It is very brief, it is very basic, a thumbnail sketch if you will, and then, subsequently, there is a chapter which discusses various social reform movements, all of which are Hindu of course, including the very important Basaveshwara movement which led to the establishment of the Lingayat sect, now demanding religion status. There was an uproar because (again it was the Hindus) they argued that by teaching the historical origins of Islam and Christianity, you are actually trying to convert people and you have not provided a similar reading of Hinduism. In other words, something that matches and parallels the account of both, the historical origins of Islam and Christianity. So, that was one. The other thing is that—I got the books only yesterday and I had a quick look at them and it is interesting again, as my young friend just said—there is an entire chapter on Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali and it is all about the four Mysore wars. There is not a single iota of even a reflection of the huge body of extremely sophisticated work in the last 30 years on Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali by social and cultural historians, by political historians, by religious historians and new kinds of work on his life and times. Not reflected at all. It is as if there is some kind of frozen inter-state in which this textbook is stuck and it will not go beyond providing the political history of the four Mysore wars. Not one word—it does not say anything except that they reformed their army, in a little box, the ‘Did you know?’ kind of box. It says in that box that they reformed their army on modern European lines and so on. Otherwise, no social history, cultural history, religious history of any kind—not controversial either, just the four wars. So, when we move away from NCERT towards the state boards, we are dealing with a very different kind of beast which is really the bare minimum, and badly written as well.

Chintan Girish Modi. Since history as a discipline has been hijacked by prime-time television and by WhatsApp, do you think the history teacher can now . . .

Nair. No, I think we are making a mistake by thinking that is the only thing that is happening. I hope by providing you those four types of challenges, I’ve suggested that the field is in fact much broader.There are people looking to engage with history in some meaningful sense for their own sakes and that is happening outside the ‘Hindu Right’ annexation kind of story. So, please be aware of that because there is a whole range, a whole spectrum of engagements with history. I gave the example of community history, for instance—that is not necessarily coming from the rightwing; or, the example of the Kannada Hampi University students— that is not coming from the rightwing either.There are many ways through which there is an eagerness to deal and engage with historical questions which far exceeds the academy, far exceeds the classroom, far exceeds the textbook and so on. I was, in fact, trying precisely to lay out a much broader spectrum of engagements. I hope I have communicated that. I mean I haven’t gone into each one in detail, but that’s precisely what I wanted to communicate.

Modi. I have seen the Basavanna film by Deepa Dhanraj and I think it is fantastic. I am aware of the engagements that historians have had with others. What I wanted to ask was: Would this be a good time for history educators at the school level to think about how skill-build- ing might be a more important function than only content, because when there is so much information available in so many places, is the student not overwhelmed? How do they figure out what to believe? Are discernment and the examination of sources something that history teachers should be focusing on? That is the first question. The second is: When we know that there is no single story of India to be taught, is it possible to think in terms of histories of regions? I studied in a Maharashtra state-board school and we learnt about Shivaji for so many years that we were completely bored. But we never got to learn about histories from South India or the North-East. How do students understand the distinction between the mythical, the historical and the literary? In India, they seem to be quite closely linked.

Nair. First of all, let me correct you a little. Those seeking histories are not all historians. Some are amateurs, various kinds of people. Your first question is actually your summary of what I lectured. I was saying precisely what you said: that our role in terms of providing content is probably over and what we have to teach are skills of thinking historically.

On the question of how to distinguish, I hope that is exactly the kind of skill that we can build. We have to ask a few questions to be able to help students assess a historical source. I believe that is what the NCERT books were trying to do, and in that sense they were revolutionary in terms of allowing students a glimpse of how historians think, evaluate sources and so on.This has to be systematically done and it has to be done by taking a lot of time—that is, qualitatively. So instead of approaching state boards to try and rewrite the text- books, maybe we should approach state boards to say that there should be no textbooks for the first four or five years, and that we only have these kinds of inputs of thinking historically, teaching the skills for evaluating sources, encouraging students to say what they know by way of myths or epics and then talk about what distinguishes that from perhaps a historical account, and making them learn this distinction. I think those would be far more valuable, and for that there has to be some sort of demand from below. Right now, parents are certainly not interested in placing any such demand on schools or on their wards, and I am not sure if the teachers are in a position to make that kind of a demand either. But that is certainly the kind of demand that should be made. There should be no textbooks until you have to finally get to the board examinations.

Audience Member 1. I just wanted to consider the risks of the kind of approach we observed if it happens to be condensed in a classroom. Any kind of historical education that has been helpful to me has been so because it has been supplemented in a way by a certain conceptual understanding. So, even in the course of today, the things that have been helpful to understand how history should be looked at, for example, our words—‘periodicity’ or the ‘grand narrative’—are concepts of that kind. What I was thinking of was what the previous session cautioned us against, which is the obviousness of a certain kind of method. If we take an essentially practical approach to historiography, would that risk eliminating these conceptual supplements?—Which I think have been most enabling for me because, coming into college and being introduced to interdisciplinarity, I think knowing these concepts has been most enabling for me to navigate history.

Nair. But did the concepts come to you from a textbook?

Audience Member 2. Yes. I think we start our history courses with the historiography and philosophy of a history course and that helps. It helps knowing that people have different perspectives about how history starts or how it should be told. I understand and I think what has enabled me in college is getting to know these concepts and, if that could be brought down to schools, I don’t think they are too difficult to be condensed into textbooks.

Nair. I can only give you the example of the conversations we had with teachers about the NCERT books. There were some very illuminating conversations and, as I said, I have had some very interesting conversations with parents about those books as well. So, here is a set of books which were remarkable in terms of achieving the capacity to help students who read them carefully to think historically and to develop those skills. There were all sorts of material there that engaged the student in thinking historically. The big gap was that it was not delivered in the classroom necessarily by the teacher the way it was intended. And that is not the fault of the teacher, because, as I said a little earlier, of the pressure of having to produce somebody ready to take an exam. So, what the teacher very frequently did—and I know this because I saw my daughter through the boards using those books—was to stop students from looking into the boxes within the books which were the alternative sources. So it once more came back to sticking to this basic narrative, underlining and mastering the dates and the periods in which certain things happened but ignoring the sources, the more challenging boxes which asked questions, and definitely ignoring the visuals. In many cases, the visuals were simply ignored— maps, etc.—except when it came to something that would actually yield points in the exam. So, there was a way in which the impending exam seemed to actually put a seal on anything that an innovative textbook could achieve. There are many layers to this. It is not enough to have an innovative textbook. Somebody who is bright and capable of reading those books on their own, certainly benefits from them—we know many of those cases too. But for the average student who requires guidance and who, as I said, is full of fear about taking exams, teachers tend to take the easy way out.


Janaki Nair is Professor of Modern Indian history at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India.

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