Parni Ray

On a hot Monday morning in April, a dozen of us were sitting in a classroom at Kolkata’s Institute of Development Studies, watching the pata artist and illustrator Siraj Chitrakar sketch on a blackboard. We were there to attend a workshop for the second instalment of the Itihase Hatekhari—First History Lessons—book series. Chitrakar was sharing an idea for a page layout. First published in 2022, the series consists of short, illustrated and easy-to-read history books for middle-school students.

Written in Bengali, all three of the initial books were later translated into Assamese, by the writer Arup Kalita, and English, by the translator Arunava Sinha. The books’ authors and co-editors, Anwesha Sengupta and Debarati Bagchi, told me that the second leg of the series, scheduled to be released by September this year, would follow suit.

In 2019, when they first began discussing writing the books with their third collaborator, Tista Das, an assistant professor of history at Bankura University, the country was in a furore. Just months away from the paralysing effects of the pandemic, the nation’s streets were ablaze with protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which could, along with the National Register of Citizens, pave the way to religion-based access to citizenship and the disenfranchisement of Muslims.

The perils these schemes posed for India’s Muslims were repeatedly denied in and outside parliament. In speeches delivered during the Bhartiya Janata Party’s election campaign in West Bengal, however, the union home minister, Amit Shah, described the CAA and NRC as a two-pronged technique to “detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” He also emphasised how poorly Hindu refugees were treated under the 1950 Liaquat-Nehru Pact. The CAA and NRC would right these “wrongs” of the Partition, he suggested repeatedly. Such ideas spread across WhatsApp networks run directly or indirectly by the BJP and its associates. Messages celebrated the CAA as a major step towards building a Hindu Rashtra and ridding India of Muslims. The justification for such actions drew from the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, premised on Hindu victimhood.

These distorted, communal retellings of the past rode high on the wave of misinformation and false claims the BJP had been propagating since its rise to power. These include audacious declarations about well-chronicled scientific inventions—that the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head proves that plastic surgery was practised in India two thousand years ago, that Hindu sages provided guidelines for making aircraft and ancient Hindus pioneered stem-cell research. Then there are the insistent theories about all of India’s Islamic monuments—world heritage sites such as the Qutub Minar and the Taj Mahal—being Hindu temples appropriated by Muslim invaders. All these conspiracy theories, misleading claims and fabrications, peddled as history and pushed on formal and informal platforms, have one thing in common: at their core, they are all informed by the Hindu Right’s idea about the supposed superiority of the Aryan race and a denial of an Aryan invasion into South Asia. According to this narrative, the Aryans were indigenous to India and the Indus Valley Civilisation was a part of their Hindu culture. This tallies with the Hindutva line of argument about Muslims being outsiders to the country, the original “invaders” responsible for the fall of India’s Hindu golden age.

These ideas have now been systematically introduced into institutional educational circles. The recent draft of the University Grants Commission’s Guidelines for Incorporating Indian Knowledge in Higher Education Curricula is one such example. Among other things, the draft includes suggestions to study the “Foundational Literature of Indian Civilization” in the form of “the Vedic Corpus,” “The Itihasas – Ramayana and Mahabharata” and the Puranas. It also suggests encouraging students to study plastic surgery and cataract surgery as described in the ancient Sanskrit text Sushruta Samhita and take courses on “Indian Systems of Medicine.” Such proposals follow on from the 2020 National Education Policy’s prescription to make Indian Knowledge Systems—defined as encompassing “all of the systematized disciplines of knowledge developed to a high degree of sophistication in India from ancient times”—an essential part of curricula taught in schools and colleges.

State school textbooks have also been undergoing revisions. In Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka, for instance, changes, deletions and inclusions have been focussed on ensuring students are trained in line with the ruling party’s ideology. If in Karnataka this has meant dropping information about the eighteenth-century figures Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, in Gujarat this has led to children learning that airplanes existed in India since the supposed lifetime of the Hindu god Ram.

The Hindu Right was the primary detractor of the first set of standardised history textbooks published for schools by the National Council of Educational Research and Training in the 1960s. It has repeatedly emerged as the primary player in almost all controversies about school history textbooks since, the most recent among these being last year and earlier this year. Even as we sat discussing the Itihase Hatekhari books at the workshop, our phones were abuzz with news of “rationalisation of textbooks” made to “help stressed students, and as a responsibility to society and the nation.” The revisions had removed whole chapters on the Mughal Empire from the NCERT textbook for the twelfth standard. Sections in the same book referring to the “dislike of Hindu extremists for Mahatma Gandhi’s pursuit of Hindu Muslim unity” and the ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh following Gandhi’s assassination had also been dropped. The 2002 Gujarat pogrom, the Cold War, the Industrial Revolution and India’s first education minister, Maulana Azad, were similarly removed, as were certain references to anti-caste movements and caste discrimination.

“In the books, we wanted to show that nation, nationality and national or regional identities are historical constructions that have always involved violence and that violence is in fact inherent to all sanctioned history insofar as it involves the erasures of certain histories and the privileging of others,” the authors told us during their presentation at the workshop. “Our aim is to encourage young readers to question some of the basic tenets of writing history with this understanding, and to ask: Who secures a place in the pages of history and who is left out? Who is accepted as a historian? What role do personal beliefs and ideas of the historian play in the construction of such history?”

THE EASE WITH which India’s past is being bent, moulded, altered and omitted from public memory provided the initial inspiration for the Itihase Hatekhari books. The authors described the impact of dubious historical narratives on children as the particular reason for their conception. But the books were also urged on by the lacunae such narratives were perhaps benefitting from: the lack of historical nonfiction for young adults written by trained historians. “The only connection most kids have with history tends to be via their textbooks, which colours their relationship with the subject,” Bagchi pointed out, adding that they were keen to work “beyond the textbook space” in areas closer to popular history or historical nonfiction.

While there is a range of such publications in the English language and quite a few initiatives in the pan-Indian context, the authors told me, only a few precedents in the genre exist in Bengali. Among them is the biography series produced by the Kolkata-based publishing house Papyrus. Initiated by the Bengali poet Shankha Ghosh in the early 2000s, these were written specifically for middle schoolers and priced at less than R70. The series began with Ghosh’s own books on the lives of Bengali literary figures. Others were written by the author Mahashweta Devi, the theorist Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, the film scholar Mainak Biswas and the Classical and Biblical studies scholar Amlan Dasgupta. The books cover the lives of a range of historical figures, from the Adivasi revolutionary Birsa Munda to Italian astronomer Galileo, actor Charlie Chaplin and Jesus Christ. So far Papyrus’ biography collection consists of 52 paperbacks, and there are plans to add more.

An eight-book series put out by the Kolkata-based People’s Study Circle is a second example. Released between 2018 and 2021, these booklets responded directly to the CAA and NRC propositions and were written by participants of the study circle, an independent discursive platform attended by academics, activists, artists and researchers. Sengupta co-wrote one of the books. The brief, she told me, had been to make the text accessible to anyone who can read Bengali. It was also to be kept short, short enough to be read during a journey on a local train, one of the many places the books were distributed. They include Ashamer Nagorikaponjir Shatkahon—The Saga of Assam’s National Register of Citizens, which was translated into Assamese and English, and Nijer Deshe Refugee Hobo?—Shall I be a Refugee in My Own Country?

Although the Itihase Hatekhari series took inspiration from such publications, they differ from them in one fundamental way. “Unlike most of the other book initiatives we discovered, our intention was to specifically introduce children to the critical questions of history-writing so that they can learn to think historically,” Sengupta told me. For the first set of books in the series, the authors decided to do this by taking up subjects that had generated the most polarising narratives and misinformation during the CAA–NRC debate—the Partition, citizenship and language politics. The books, each focussed on a single topic discussed by a single author, break down these complex themes conversationally. The authors, whose doctoral and postdoctoral specialisations focus on the Partition, migration, refugee rights, language and regional identity, often use material from their own archival research.

The stories often include personal trajectories, such as that of 13-year-old Deshraj, who had travelled on foot from his village, freshly assigned to Pakistan, to the Indian border town of Fazilka. From here, he accompanied his family to Delhi and took refuge at the railway station. They ate at a nearby camp, where rice and dal were served night and day. “But Deshraj and his family were from Punjab,” Sengupta writes in the book on the Partition, “they were used to eating rotis made from wheat. How were they supposed to savour rice day after day?” After a week, Deshraj’s family heard that rotis were being served at Jhansi and went there, but learnt the rotis being served at Jhansi were made of millet, not wheat. Deshraj and his family went back to Delhi, where they felt they would be better off.

“You may be wondering why these people, in the middle of all that trouble and turmoil, couldn’t be happy with their two hot meals a day,” Sengupta writes. “Why did they have to go off in search of wheat-bread? But that’s what human beings are like. When the world is turned upside down, when everyday life changes beyond recognition, we humans find security in familiar foods and clothes, in old toys, in the neem tree in the yard. We get great comfort in knowing that even though everything else has changed, one or two things remain the same.”

Elsewhere in the same book, she introduces us to the elephant Joymoni, one among a herd that the British maintained in Bengal’s Malda district. Before Independence, elephants were a way for British bureaucrats to compete with powerful local landowners. But, once India was free, such petty contests became redundant and the elephants an impediment. Complicated calculations were then undertaken to decide who the British would dump the elephants on—India or East Pakistan. But even after a conclusion was reached, Joymoni’s mahout refused to take her to her new home in East Pakistan. So the elephant stayed put in India, eating copiously and proving to be expensive to maintain. In about a year, when East Pakistani officials got tired of waiting for India to send Joymoni to them, they came to take her themselves. The Indian commissioner then promptly asked them to cough up a sum of R1,900, the cost of the elephant’s upkeep over the past months. When they could not pay, the officials were thrown in jail.

It is through such, often tragicomic, chains of events that the authors illustrate the central arguments of the books. If the book on the Partition focusses on the logistics of a complex historical event and the many ways in which it continues to be underway beyond its time frame, the book on the “People of our Country” illustrates how the Partition shows up in our present-day understanding of who is “Indian” and who an “infiltrator.” “Languages of Our Country,” meanwhile, describes the power that language has wielded, and continues to hold, in the formation of such identities.

Given the premise of the books and their target audience, language proved a pivotal concern. Writing in Bengali about subjects often studied and discussed in English posed its own challenges, as did figuring out how to write in a manner that would appeal to children. The authors, all three of whom are otherwise accustomed to academic writing, admitted that keeping it simple proved to be the major feat. Many at the workshop flagged the language as perhaps still too difficult for middle-school students or brought up the need for a wider variety of readers of the targeted age group and discussed the intricate ways in which language could be used to negotiate subjects that are unavoidable but difficult to discuss with children, such as communal violence.

Selecting the languages the book would be translated into raised its own questions. Choosing to write in Bengali had been as much a reaction to the growing hegemony of Hindi under the BJP as to the prevalence of English in academic writing. Yet the desire for a broader reach across the country made English a necessary vehicle. The focus on conversations around citizenship made Assam, where the idea of the NRC had originated and which was impacted by both the Partition and language politics in unique ways was significant to the project. This led to Assamese becoming the other language the books were translated in.

The next books in the series are scheduled to be launched this September. They will continue with the Itihase Hatekhari format, staying with the established purpose and premise of the series and engaging with contemporary debates. But their focus will move beyond the idea of the nation. This time, the authors said, the discussion will centre around transnational issues—colonialism, commodity circulation, conflict, human geography—all explored through three books, focussed on tea, rivers and war. As previously, the project will be supported by the Berlin-based Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and the books will be available for free, both online and in print, in Bengali, English and Assamese.

POPULAR HISTORY is having a moment in present-day India. Much of it claims to be a rejection of institutional history, but the narratives advanced are quickly emerging as unlikely bedfellows of the school textbooks the BJP is formulating. Over the past few years, a pattern has emerged of several self-appointed historians echoing the ruling party’s narratives, writing bestsellers and building their brand through social media, podcasts and live events. Almost none of them are trained historians, but this is often an advantage. Mainstream notions of the past and academic history have almost never seen eye to eye, so a lack of institutional training has become a badge of authenticity.

The author Sanjeev Sanyal, currently a member of the prime minister’s economic advisory council, is perhaps the most prominent icon of the phenomenon. In format, Sanyal’s books are very like the Itihase Hatekhari books. Each focusses on a big, but familiar, subject—geography, revolutions, rivers—that offers room for conversation about their specific historical context as well as a rich array of interconnected issues. The language is informal and approachable, the tone chatty and narrative. But, despite being packaged as neutrally informative, even a cursory look at their titles—The Ocean Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline, The Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won Its Freedom—suggests an approach towards history as the glorification of an ancient past.

Like Sanyal, Rajiv Malhotra is a prominent Hindutva history ideologue. So similar are their areas of interest, in fact, that Sanyal has, in the past, been accused of plagiarising Malhotra’s work. Malhotra is an author of bestsellers such as Sanskrit and Non-Translatables: The Importance of Sanskritizing English and Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. But it is on various platforms on the internet that his clout is truly on display. “He is to swarms of angry right-wing bloggers, chat-room lurkers and Twitter trolls what Ayn Rand is to American libertarians,” Shoaib Daniyal writes in a Scroll article. This rise to fame came on the back of Malhotra’s essay “Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” which tore into the US Indologist Wendy Doniger. He followed it up with a book titled Academic Hinduphobia: A Critique of Wendy Doniger’s Erotic School of Indology. Behind the scenes, he was also a pivotal force pushing for the ban on Doniger’s acclaimed book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

The man at the forefront of the ban was Dinanath Batra, the founder of the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utahan Nyas and Shiksha Bachao Andolan. In 2006, Batra, who is now 93 years old, filed a public-interest litigation against the NCERT, raising 70 objections against the secondary-school history and social-science textbook. A decade later, he again sent the NCERT a five-page list of recommendations about how school textbooks could be less “biased” and more “inspiring”—by dropping English, Arabic and Urdu words. Batra has successfully campaigned to remove AK Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation from Delhi University’s undergraduate syllabus. He is a consultant on textbook-writing in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana, where books written by him are used in state-run schools. In 2017, the BJP government in Rajasthan also ordered Batra’s books to be placed in school and public libraries. The books follow from his former role as general secretary of the Sangh’s Vidya Bharati schools. They have been known to ask their readers to draw pictures of an enlarged India, which includes neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and famously suggest that everything from cars to stem cell therapy and plastic surgery were invented in ancient India. Narendra Modi has personally endorsed Batra’s books.

Sanyal, Malhotra and Batra often articulate the need to rewrite Indian history textbooks. The fixation is easy to comprehend, because textbooks wield considerable power and influence how Indians understand the country’s past. Multiple political battles have been fought to claim this power since the early 1960s, when the NCERT was established to create model textbooks for schools across the country. Professional history-writing in the country began as early as the start of the twentieth century, but school textbooks continued to be written by non-specialists. This changed following the appearance of the NCERT, which roped in historians, including Romila Thapar, RS Sharma and Sudhir Chandra, to write new textbooks.

Their early interventions centred on decolonising existing texts, which had often borrowed uncritically from British officials, and countering communal commentary by choosing a secular, democratic approach. During the four decades that the books they wrote remained in circulation, both the authors and their work remained at the heart of several disputes. The initial conflicts involved contestations between Hindu and Muslim nationalists over defining a national history. The ancient and medieval periods, which were understood to coincide with Hindu and Muslim dynasties, respectively, became areas of controversy and the site of ideological struggles.

The other contention concerned the so-called Aryan foundation of Hindu culture. The claim was—and continues to be—that the Aryans were indigenous to India and had authored the earliest Indian civilisations, such as the one in the Indus Valley. In 1969, the authors had to defend the books’ stand, which echoed the nineteenth-century understanding that the Aryan language had come from across the Indo-Iranian border, in front of a parliamentary consultative committee. The committee had been necessitated by the demands of Hindu nationalists who wanted the textbooks to categorically state that “the Aryans” were indigenous to India. Both the authors and the editorial board rejected the demands.

Other moments of public critique appeared during the tenure of the Janata Party government—of which the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was a part—in 1977, after the books were deemed “anti-Indian” and “anti-national.” But the books still continued to be prescribed, until 1999, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance formed the government. The history textbooks immediately became a bone of contention. Objections were raised about the doubts the books raised about the historical veracity of the Mahabharata and Ramayana and the existence of religious figures such as Ram and Krishna—none of which, the books pointed out, had been adequately substantiated by archaeological evidence. Outrage was also expressed over the authors’ assertions about beef-eating in ancient India, their references to the Brahminical indoctrination of the caste system and to the mention of Mughal patronage for Hindu places of worship. The NCERT textbooks were, thus, repeatedly described in parliamentary speeches as anti-Hindu and anti-Indian, and passages from the books were blacked out. Finally, a new set of history books was commissioned. Murli Manohar Joshi, the education minister at the time, suggested the new history books be vetted and cleared by religious heads before being sent to schools.

THE RECENT DELETIONS from the NCERT’s current set of social-science books are entirely in keeping with the 1999 agenda. The changes have been justified as a result of a “rationalisation” exercise, undertaken by the NCERT to reduce the course load on students following the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But what has been left out is enough to see how the exercise feeds into a broader strategy to revise India’s history and validate the ruling party’s policies.

The eleventh-standard political-science textbook, for instance, has omitted an earlier statement saying that Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India was based on a “commitment to safeguard its autonomy under Article 370 of the constitution.” Given the Modi government’s violation of this commitment and the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, this erasure seems conveniently timed. Chapters referring to Gandhi’s assassination in the political-science textbook for the twelfth standard are also gone, as is the reference to the multiple assassination attempts Hindu extremists made on Gandhi’s life as a result of his “steadfast pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity.” Portions deleted from the history textbook for the same class also erased Nathuram Godse’s Brahmin identity, his role as an editor of a Hindu extremist newspaper and his denouncement of Gandhi as “an appeaser of Muslims.” That the RSS, which Godse was a member of, was banned for a year due to its association with Gandhi’s murder is also no longer going to be mentioned. Elsewhere, chapters detailing social movements, the caste system, the prime minister’s abuse of power during the Emergency and the arbitrariness of colonial laws, such as sedition, all of which relate to recent political developments in India, have disappeared. References to the 2002 pogroms—described as “Anti-Muslim Riots in Gujarat” until 2018, when it was changed to “Gujarat Riot”—have been removed from two twelfth-standard and one eleventh-standard textbook. Whole chapters relating to the Mughal Empire have been dropped. Even poems and paragraphs mentioning the Mughals in Hindi textbooks are to be omitted. A number of these changes were announced by the NCERT last year. But others, such as the deletion of references to the Gujarat pogrom (from the eleventh standard books), to Gandhi and the Mughals, were kept under wraps. The NCERT director, Dinesh Saklani, has claimed the changes have “no ill intention.” But he has also said they will not be rolled back.

The BJP’s interest in school pedagogy and young people is not new. The school has been an important site of indoctrination from the start. It was with an eye to its “persuasive” capacities that the RSS built its first primary school in 1952, three years after the ban imposed on the organisation in connection with Gandhi’s assassination was lifted. Although the RSS schools—about four thousand in 1991, according to the historian Tanika Sarkar —use NCERT books, they devise ways of leaving a pedagogical mark on their students in other ways. One of these are the courses on Indian civilisation, which, Sarkar points out, “Hinduise every feature of India”:

Heroes, whether historical or mythological, are uniformly Hindus and overwhelmingly upper caste. Rivers and mountains have sacred associations. Cities are given approximate ancient Hindu names … Scientific information is always concluded with Hindu textual approximation. History is full of upper caste men and women who have fought Muslims.

All of these perversions are brazenly undertaken with a confident disregard for authenticated detail, often conflating boundaries between myth and reality.

A good deal of this was echoed by Murli Manohar Joshi in 1999, back when he and Dinanath Batra—then part of the NCERT—were together planning to overhaul higher education in India. Speaking at a 2001 seminar organised by Vidya Bharati, Joshi proposed that the university system “should also encourage systematic and scientific study of contributions made by Indians, ancient and contemporary in the sciences” as well as the need to study the “Aryan invasion theory” and “Saraswati civilisation.” The proposal was later forwarded to the ministry of human resource development.

The new National Education Policy, introduced in 2020, seems to continue from where Joshi left off. The policy document begins by describing “the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought” as its guiding light. A list of “great scholars”—almost identical to the one offered by Joshi—is presented to show the past accomplishments of the “Indian education system.” The policy announces a vision for an education system rooted in an “Indian ethos” and aims to instil “a deep-rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought, but also in spirit, intellect, and deeds.” In 2002, when the BJP government replaced the old NCERT textbooks, one of the new texts similarly emphasised that history contributed to an appreciation of the nation. As Sarkar observed, this clarified that, for the BJP regime, patriotism “is the sole purpose of history learning.”

The recent cuts in syllabi—in history, but also in the sciences—follows on from the NEP’s directive to reduce curriculum content to its “its core essentials.” A new National Curriculum Framework is already in the works to seamlessly implement the new changes. Among other things, this will undo the broad-based NCF of 2005. Experts have highlighted the stark ideological differences between the two frameworks. Perhaps fundamental to these is how both view conflict. The 2005 NCF used conflict as a “pedagogic strategy”—“when children and teachers share and reflect on their individual and collective experiences without fear of judgement,” it said, “it gives them opportunities to learn about others who may not be a part of their own social reality.” The proposed framework is more wary. It warns that contents taught in the ninth standard, under Individuals in Society, for instance, “should not ignite extreme views or passion.” If, in 2005, the focus was on “teacher autonomy,” in 2023, strict stipulations about what needs to be taught at different phases of school life leaves little room for educators to improvise. Instilling a “deep-rooted pride in being Indian” is as much a priority in 2023 as “nurturing an overriding identity informed by caring concerns within the democratic polity of the country” was in 2005. The proposed NCF repeatedly refers to “constitutional values” but, unlike the NCF of 2005, avoids specifying them. Tellingly, it also steers clear of the word “secularism.”

During the formulation of the 2005 NCF, Krishna Kumar, the NCERT director at the time, had brought together a team of around sixty historians, teachers and educationists to work on a new history syllabus and books for secondary classes. The resultant textbooks, launched in 2006, remain some of the most innovative in the contemporary Indian education system. Much like the Itihase Hatekhari books, these problematised the single linear notion of the nation, highlighting, among other things, the idea of the homogenous national identity built through the erasure of particularities.

“The 2006 history books introduced new thematic subjects—histories of everyday life, print culture, leisure, clothes,” Kaustubh Mani Sengupta, an assistant professor of history at Shiv Nadar University, told me. These topics, all easily relatable, were discussed via the latest academic research in accessible language, he pointed out. “But perhaps what sets them apart especially is their dialogic nature,” he said. “They repeatedly encourage readers to imagine how they would respond to the situations they are reading about. This makes students have to empathise with past actors, their conditions and situations, not just learn about them in a distant, detached manner for exam purposes.”

Tista Das, one of the Itihase Hatekhari authors, told me that the books made their mark on other textbook-writing in the country. In 2011, she was part of a small group of young scholars involved in the making of history books for the seventh to tenth standards of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. The 2006 NCERT textbooks had served as a model for the format, presentation techniques and engagement with students. “The goal had been to get past presenting students with a political history of rule and governance alone,” she said. “We wanted to discuss cultural history, land systems and resource implementation. This was important to help students understand past rulers and dynasties beyond war, victories, defeats and annexations, which is likely how the Mughals will now be understood by students after the chapter deletions.”

Kaustubh Sengupta was present at the workshop where the Itihase Hatekhari authors shared chapters of the upcoming books and requested their respondents to be “unrestrainedly critical.” This was not the first such workshop hosted by the authors. Following the release of the first three books, the authors organised over a dozen such meetings across West Bengal with the aim of getting feedback from teachers, pedagogists, illustrators, students and parents. Such evaluative exchanges are a significant component of scholarship, an essential means of keeping academic endeavours dynamic, multivocal and responsive to the needs of the present times. But, in this case, it was also a means for discussing and discovering ways to introduce criticality to children, perhaps the most difficult and significant goal of such an undertaking. “Criticality, I suggest, is the ground on which we can build the premises of a child’s understanding of the world,” the historian Neeladri Bhattacharya writes in his account of writing textbooks for the NCERT. “The taken-for-grantedness of everything has to be unpacked for children, the historicity of everything has to be discussed. To historicize is to show how things are constituted through historical processes, and in this sense it is to unpack the naturalness of things. The project of textbooks should be to develop this sense of criticality.”

One cannot help but wonder if such criticality will be in play during the production of the new history books the NCERT will produce. Precedents suggest otherwise. Whether it is the addition of a speech by the RSS founder, KB Hedgewar, to a tenth-standard text in Karnataka, the Gujarat government’s inclusion of parts of the Bhagavad Gita in the secondary-school syllabus or many initiatives by the Modi government—demonetisation, development programs, foreign visits, Make in India, the Swachh Bharat Mission—being lauded in Rajasthan’s social-science textbooks, securing electoral supremacy appears to have taken definite priority over inculcating criticality in the recent past. At this rate, and until bodies such as the NCERT are allowed to function independently, history will continue to be moulded to suit the present party in power.

It is in part due to this that “secular” history has failed to have a significant impact beyond “metropolitan centres” and “highly educated middle class academic circles,” as Sarkar suggests.

This, she points out, has little to do with their scientific or secular approach, as is commonly supposed. “The flaw actually lies in their circumscribed view of educational dissemination, a focus on national level textbooks, written by fine minds no doubt, but in isolation from local, organic, social cultural processes,” she writes.

THE AUTHORS OF the Itihase Hatekhari series knew right from the start that they would not be writing anything akin to a textbook. This distinction, however, proved hard to establish, both at the workshops as well as in the reading sessions they conducted at schools. Many suggested the books include worksheets, questionnaires or some other form of activity plan to engage young readers. Suggestions were forwarded about how the readers could be tested to check whether this was happening.

Eventually, such suggestions ended up clarifying the purpose of the project to the authors. “We became sure that we intended the books to be read for pleasure and not for work,” Anwesha Sengupta told me. “We think it is possible to present serious academic work to children without making it a test or in any way insisting that they retain information in ways we prescribe.” But offering this liberty immediately brought on a new set of hurdles. Most took “leisure reading” to imply the books to be storybooks. Suggestions now poured in about collecting stories based on the themes of the books—perhaps students could create collections of tales, anecdotes, reminiscences collected in their localities, perhaps they could write their own books based on these stories, workshop attendees advised.

Such responses, though well meant, made the authors uneasy. They struggled to find ways to convey the disciplinary underpinnings of the project, to clarify that their goal was not to collect “stories” at random but to discuss specific critical perspectives via the stories, that the methods and sources used to find the stories was pivotal to their craft as history practitioners. Making such fundamental principles of history-writing was, after all, their core purpose. But somehow communicating it was proving more difficult than the authors had anticipated.

The success of books by the likes of Sanjeev Sanyal, Meera Visvanathan pointed out in a 2021 essay for this magazine, stems from a lack of interest in whether such books use questionable evidence or uncritical reading of source material. But perhaps this indifference is much less a sign of the public’s disdain toward academic history and more a reflection of how we are conditioned to understand what qualifies as history. It is foolhardy to deny the easy allure of stories, Visvanathan wrote: “No doubt, history is at its most appealing when it is presented as narrative.” But, she added, “audiences interested in history must recognise that not every narrative about the past qualifies as history.”

In the course of the Itihase Hatekhari project, the authors realised what others who have attempted to write history for the wider public in this country may also have had to learn: history practitioners in present-day India have to fight a dual battle. “On the one hand, there is misinformation, omissions, factual errors, misinterpretations, all of which has been exacerbated by social media and taken advantage of by the present regime,” Sengupta explained. “But the other front, which goes beyond political lines and is also more longstanding, involves our understanding of what history is.” While the Itihase Hatekhari books were conceived to address exactly these areas of tension, the outreach programmes planned for the books compelled the authors to attend to them in a more immediate way during their interaction with the public.

Two editions of a book series are not nearly enough to adequately tackle such far-reaching disciplinary conundrums. But the first three books of the series do offer glimpses of the ways in which the authors are attempting to negotiate them. The most significant among these comes in the form of the authors’ final note to the readers, which is also a list of primary and secondary sources they gathered their information from. “You may be wondering how I got to know all the stories I’ve been telling you,” these begin. In the section that follows, all three authors introduce their intended readers to the notion of the archive, and both the possibility of authenticating provided information and the responsibility of the historian to do so. “As you can understand, nothing may be said casually in a history book,” Das writes. “Various other papers, documents, books by experts, newspapers, and so on have to be consulted. Nothing can be believed just because someone has said it. Not even if  they say it often. Only after validation and judgement can what is being said be transferred from the ear to the mind.”

Parni Ray is an independent writer, researcher based out of Kolkata. Please consider subscribing to and supporting Caravan magazine.

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