The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Two new textbooks that would engage diverse Indian children

If there is one area where the United Progressive Alliance has succeeded in initiating far-reaching changes, it is arguably in the field of the school curriculum. To gauge what is new, it is instructive to review what was on the National Democratic Alliance's school-anvil, and the manner in which a textbook version of a majoritarian nation was being forged into existence. In those days, history-writing had begun resembling the famous 'disputed structure' in Ayodhya: majoritarian nationalists were hell-bent on tearing it down. Our best school-books, products of the Seventies, were getting scanned for objectionable material, and new ones assembled furtively by writers ensconced in the academic equivalent of Afghani caves.

In what appeared then to be a long, oppressive present, a historian's academic worth was to be gauged strictly within the coordinates of the Indian republic, extending at most, perhaps, to the requisite 'twelve nautical miles measured from the appropriate base line', as the Survey of India maps have it. The more well-known an Indian scholar outside the country, the greater was the mindless charge of rootlessness. Large sections of the scholarly community, and of civil society, were understandably upset at this party-political turning of the world of history upside down. The response of those in charge of education was nonchalant: now that we are in power, they seemed to say, we will patronize the sort of history textbooks we like. We will have writers of our own; we will subsidize the inculcation of the idea of India as essentially Hindu, and we will people our 'Freedom Struggle' pantheon with a new set of our very own heroes. The electronic and print media had been seized by the textbook issue. Verbal duels were staged on television, and heads of apex school curriculum bodies quizzed by citizens, parents and school-goers, with unsettled matters often brought to a close by a show of hands.

The last year and a half have witnessed a welcome turn around. A new, child-engaging curriculum framework was formulated, widely and passionately debated, and allowed to take off. Commending the new curriculum, the legendary folk-theatre personality, Habib Tanvir, had evoked a poignant image: 'If you allow it to take wing,' he advised policy-makers, 'it will reach out to the other end of the sky; were you to force-fly it, it would hop off and simply perch itself on the next roof-top.' Soon began the more important task of the writing of the new school-books. Product of the energies of a new generation of post-Midnight scholars and educationists, some of these newly-minted textbooks, so fresh in many ways, have now begun rolling off the press. It is time, therefore, to examine the new coin for its true worth, biting into it in the manner of old silver rupees to test the genuineness of the article.

It is in Class VI that the two broad and interrelated subjects, social science and history as parts of this larger group, are to be introduced to our eleven-year-olds. The allotment of a large plot to history within the social science estate, so to speak, is in keeping with the close relationship that has marked the recent development of both these professional fields. A pithy example of this is the change that the most important historical journal in the world, the French Annales, has undergone since its inception in 1929. Launched in the late Twenties as a periodical for economic and social history, it now proclaims an unproblematic relationship, 'History, Social Sciences', sans any conjunction, on its cover.

Both the new Class VI books on history and on the social and political life of our country are a joy to read, and would be for our children as well. Led by two women academicians, the team of writers has produced two scintillating texts for schools. Both are high on innovation, and tailored to whet the appetite of children going about the business of learning, as they normally do, while asking questions ' and not simply giving pat answers.

Both attempt to do more than put the record straight. Rather, they are animated by a vigorous and finely-tuned effort to underline the plurality and diversity that animate the 'idea of India', past and present. The book on present-day social and political India begins with the child as the centre of discussion. Beautifully illustrated with children's own and other child-like illustrations, it is marked by a constant attempt to understand and educate without being preachy. That it is able to convey the ideas of equality, justice, discrimination and stereotyping at the level of the everyday, and of panchayati raj, municipal administration, representative democracy and governance, rural and city-based social and economic life with such ease is not because of its superior fact-quotient, but a result rather of its child-centred pedagogy. Thus the idea of the shunning of untouchables by caste society is brought out by a story from Ambedkar's childhood; the novelty of universal adult franchise underscored by an apt quotation from Gandhi about the colonial inequity of a property-based franchise. Perhaps most innovatively, a municipality's remit is explored by boys and girls trying to make amends for having broken a street-light during a game of gully cricket, unsure of which individual (as with an earlier broken window) to compensate.

The prefatory statement and text in the Class VI book on history are no less innovative and sure-footed for that. The title Our Pasts-I: A Textbook in History signals viewing times past and present of a collectivity like the Indian people in a fresh and hugely interesting way for the diverse eleven-year-old school-goers. If the plural 'pasts' hint at the widely-recognized fact that, say, 'the lives of herders and farmers were different from those of kings and queens', the 'our' of the title is here not an inward-looking communitarian past. As the book unfolds, it emerges as a possessive marker for an entire subcontinent, boun- ded geographically, and yet permeable to migration and move- ments, both within and across its perimeters.

This first primer in history does not fight shy of tackling the difficult question of why bother about the past or, indeed, 'Why study history', and it comes up with more than school-masterly answers. History, it says, is not just about 'the past of the present', the emergence of 'the modern world'; reading history is equally about 'seeing' many of history's sources for oneself, the sort that historians work with in their several workshops. And more importantly, doing history enables us, both young and old, to see how other people whose lives were different from ours may think and act. Tall claims, no more than academic throat-clearing noises, some may say. But as one goes through the deft and engaging presentation of aspects of our subcontinental past, from earliest times to 1,200 years ago, one realizes that as with all good prefaces, written at the end of a book but placed upfront, this statement is more a summation of the book than a declaration of authorial intent.

It is the constant move between times long ago and the children's far-from-uniform familial and social presents that allows for the recounting of the past and for the reading of history to take shape between the covers of the book and in the classroom. As with the other Class VI book, the newness resides not so much in the stories told to eleven-year-olds, as in helping them ponder what would normally be a set of 'routine history lessons'.

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