Writing History: School Textbooks in India

This is not the blog post I intended to write, and recent events can be held accountable for this volte-face. Earlier this month, The Hindu carried ‘One Story, Two Sides’, an article on The History Project, a Pakistan-based endeavour that has compiled Pakistani and Indian versions of the same set of historical events, as depicted in school textbooks, into one ‘textbook’ or reference book. I find the project especially heartening – in April, at the conference where many of the bloggers associated with this initiative first met, we were all asked for the one thing we thought was holding the India-Pakistan relationship hostage. My opposition was to the writing of history textbooks, the unsophisticated portrayal of heroism and villainy, and the role it plays in co-opting young minds into thinking of a country as Enemy No. 1.

Growing up in India (and by the same logic, one would imagine Pakistan as well) is disturbingly conducive to the development of antagonism towards ‘those across the border’. A collective consciousness that comfortably encourages bigotry helps move things along. Atavistic perspectives and self-righteous, often ill-informed indignation thrive happily in such an obliging environment. With this as the basis of the India-Pakistan relationship, it is no revelation that all efforts at bettering it are so wonderfully lacklustre.

For the uninitiated, therefore, a little bit of recent history about the politicization of history textbooks in India. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is tasked with providing textbooks for schools that follow the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum and implementing the National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCF), among other things. The introduction of NCF 2000 during the BJP-led NDA’s reign was soon followed by a slew of allegations: ‘saffronization’, inaccurate historical revisionism, violations of copyright, removal of reputed historians on the grounds of being Marxists and Macaulay’s descendants (See criticism of Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, 1835) etc. When UPA-I came to power in 2004, swift modifications were made based on contents that pre-dated the 2000 updates. Given all this baggage, I expected to encounter badly written, propaganda-heavy texts (all prescribed textbooks are available online at http://bit.ly/hO2cin). I was pleasantly surprised.

CBSE students are taught the history of India through standards VI-VIII, and India and the contemporary world through standards IX and X. Periods in history relevant to this post, such as Partition, are taken up in XI and XII. Since I have yet to lay my hands on a Pakistani textbook, I am unable to comment authoritatively on the divergent interpretation of historical events. But I can say with some confidence that the subject as it is taught now (in India) is much more nuanced than the way it was taught then.

Instead of the dry facts that students were used to, which very often precluded any further interest in the subject, the text is now much more narrative in form. This employs the use of anecdotes, which have the tendency to humanize events that would normally read as mere statistics or simplistic blame games. The language is mostly thoughtful and considered. All of these unanticipated developments are very important especially when trying to decipher the subtleties of events such as Partition and the freedom struggle. Shivam Vij, whose article led me to the chapter on Partition and subsequently, all prescribed NCERT history textbooks, writes about it here: http://bit.ly/17Wxt5d

Education starts at home, and is followed by the classroom. It is here, at the very beginning of our social conditioning, that sensitization ought to be implemented. To be sure, there are other curriculum bodies in India such as the state boards that I don’t know very much about, nor can I guarantee that the NCF is being implemented fully. Having said that, and political machinations and impending elections aside, the current NCERT history textbooks seem to be doing a decent job of it so far. These school kids have access to a more tactful and measured account of our past, and I must therefore duly apologize for the diatribe I was about to launch into until I was better informed.


Posted in , Education, History, India

Ruhee Neog

Ruhee Neog is the Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in New Delhi, India and the coordinator of its Nuclear Security Program. Her research focuses on the nuclear weapons politics of India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Prior to IPCS, Ruhee worked as a political and parliamentary monitor at the House of Commons and the House of Lords, UK, and with the Labour party, UK. She holds an MA in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics, and a BA in Literature in English from St. Stephen's College, New Delhi. She was an SAV Visiting Fellow in July 2017.

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8 thoughts on “Writing History: School Textbooks in India

  1. History has to be correctly recorded, not fabricated, and a good historian is one, free of bias. Ideally I would like to read or crosscheck and verify facts from multiple independent sources, before forming any opinion. The history of Ancient Civilizations is always very fascinating and can teach us many lessons.

  2. Actually I was surfing for something else,by chance went through ur article.Being the mother of two growing up children,now I m scared of their learning. Ruhee, step forward for the change. Appreciating you….

  3. Accidentally I went through your article. Being a teacher I appreciate you. Step forward and unveil the truth.

  4. Let me add my compliments to that of the others on a very well expressed post by Ruhee.
    On a slightly different but related note, there is hardly any contact between historians in India and Pakistan. Visa problems and official discouragement are at work, so they can only meet in foreign locations like London. In these circumstances, access to their respective archives is out of the question, which is tragic for Indian historians since most of the official records of ‘Modern’ Indian history are in Lahore. Is anybody concerned?

  5. Thank you, all.

    Prof Chari:

    I, too, am of the opinion that South Asian visa red-tape is partly to blame for the lack of access to cross-border archives. It is a very interesting issue and merits investigation, and I wonder where one should start. Perhaps by interviewing historians who specialize in modern India.

  6. Very interesting post, Ruhee. Being a historian myself (and an IR student in a former life), I fully empathise. The problem with history-teaching in India is a complex one.

    First, there is an absence of military-strategic history of post-independent India. History seemed to have stopped at “at the stroke of the midnight hour”— after 1947, social science/humanities research in India is mostly in political science, economics, sociology, and postcolonial and subaltern studies. In other words, history has not been able to do what it could to contribute to international security studies.

    Second, agreed that the paucity of Indian archival documents is lamentable, but a lot of primary sources can be found online, e.g. the Digital National Security Archive, the Wilson Center Digital Archive, the Parallel History Project, etc. Surely they are not as effective for pursuing paper trails of decision-making, etc. but at least one has something to start with.

    Final point: the willingness of scholars to incorporate archival documents into IR research is wanting. This is a predicament not only in South Asia but also in other countries. That probably needs the most attention.

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