Abstract

The article is a brief overview of a project initiated by the Government of India in the early 1960s to draw on the expertise of professional historians and involve them in writing textbooks for Middle and High School, in an effort to improve the quality of textbooks. The attempt to distance the books from religious and nationalist biases did not however protect the project from interference by political parties and the governments these formed. Historiographical approaches came under discussion as also the questioning of the kind of historical interpretation that went into the making of national identities. The enterprise has come up against two problems, one relating to the teaching of history and the other to the control over the contents of history textbooks by successive governments supporting variant political ideologies. Textbooks have to reflect the changes in historical interpretation which means in turn that those teaching history in schools have to be made familiar with these changes and why they have occurred. Textbooks used in state schools and published and subsidized by the state, even if they form a small fraction of the pedagogy involved, will inevitably be mauled each time that drastic changes in political ideology result from a change of government. Institutions established for the preparation of textbooks have to be autonomous and free from governmental interference.

THE SEQUENCE

I wrote two textbooks on Indian history for Middle School, one on Ancient Indian history for Class VI (age group 11-13) and one on Medieval Indian history for Class VII (age group 13-14). The books were used for about forty years with a couple of revisions. They were replaced by other textbooks in the last few years. The story of how these books came to be written and why they were replaced touches on much that is happening to history textbooks in many parts of the world. I would like to relate the story in the context of India and in the form of a personal memoir.

My first acquaintance with history textbooks for schools came about when I was asked by UNESCO in 1961 if I would review a sample of textbooks used in the teaching of history in various schools in the Union Territory of Delhi. I had never thought of such an idea before and it interested me so I agreed. The sample consisted of about twenty books if I remember correctly and I submitted the report fairly soon. I was appalled by the quality of the information that was being conveyed in these books, with an adherence to outdated ideas and generally colonial views of the Indian past, a totally banal narrative and predictable illustrations of a poor quality. I was thanked for the review and for the moment heard no further.

The review it seems coincided with a committee on history textbooks appointed by the government under the Chairmanship of Dr Tarachand. The Editorial Board consisted of the most eminent historians of that time: Professors Nilakantha Sastri, Mohammad Habib and P. C. Gupta. The Ministry had established a National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) as part of being generally alert to the problems of school education in India. One of its functions was to commission the writing of textbooks for school. Mr Chagla, the then Minister, a liberal and thoughtful lawyer, was concerned that textbooks in history should not recite myths but provide secular and rational explanations of the past.

It was presumably thought that if the books were to have some quality they would have to be written or at least supervised by academics recognized as authorities in the subject. Among the committee were three senior historians from Calcutta and Delhi Universities: Professor R. C. Majumdar who had written extensively on all periods of Indian history, Professor Bisheshwar Prasad who was a historian of Modern India, and Dr Dasaratha Sharma whose field was ancient Indian history. Subsequently R. C. Majumdar was made Chairman of the Editorial Board and he invited me to join it but I declined as I had just started writing the first book.

It was decided to start with Class VI and a book on Ancient India. Quite how my name came to be mentioned as a possible author is unclear to me. My initial reaction was that I wished to continue my research and not spend time on writing a textbook and furthermore that I had no interest or expertise in writing for children. However I was eventually persuaded by some of my colleagues at Delhi University where I was then teaching, who argued that this was a national cause and as such I should agree.

I would like to emphasize that even fifteen years after India became an independent nation (in 1947) the notion of a national cause was very strong. My generation had been imprinted with the nationalism of the forties and early fifties. Its essential characteristic was the sense of enthusiasm that we were involved in the building of a nation and could therefore move away from conventions to some degree so as to encourage the implanting of new ideas. It was from this perspective that I agreed to write a textbook for Middle School.

The syllabus that had been worked out had two concerns: that the child should envision the ancient past as more than just the recital of conventional ‘glories’ and see some of the multiple facets of life and action; and that it must be heavy with information rather than explanation. I enjoyed exploring the first but had problems with the second. The syllabus remained the skeleton of the book.

My own research was a critical re-examination of the nationalist interpretation of history, emerging out of a critique of the colonial view of ancient Indian history. The colonial view had been faulted on many grounds but the nationalist interpretation was also by now being regarded as somewhat ambivalent in relation to certain themes. There was a hesitancy to analyze the inequities of caste, or the degree to which the social articulation of religions formulated societies or failed to do so. Whereas colonial views of the recent past were critiqued, nationalist interpretation was less ready to critique the ancient Hindu past or the Islamic past, which were as much in need of critical analysis as the modern. Pre-modern history had to be a narrative of greatness and glory on the whole, with little reference to that which could be prised apart and viewed without preconceptions.

The second problem concerned the amount of information a textbook should contain. There was a tendency towards putting in more, the argument being that some at least of the information would stick. Decisions about what could be omitted as not so relevant became a source of contention with the committee. I would try out my chapters on the age-group for which they were intended and some found them heavy going and too stuffed with ‘facts’, which I then had to dilute. Arguing with a committee was not easy and there were many occasions when I wished that there had been some school teachers on it rather than only high-powered historians.

Nevertheless one kept trying and slowly the chapters started to take shape. Unfortunately this committee of rather elderly historians then began to lose their enthusiasm for the project, which in any case had not been a matter of great prestige or of central interest to them. There was a whiff of disdain for school textbooks, especially since these historians were otherwise involved in major publications of multi-volume projects, such as The History and Culture of the Indian People, and The Role of the Indian Armed Forces in World War II. So my textbook which had been written for and approved of by the Committee rather drifted along without getting anywhere.

To get the project moving the Ministry decided that a more active committee was required and therefore replaced the old one. The new Editorial Board, as it was called, comprised Sarvepalli Gopal as the Chief Editor, and as editors, Nurul Hasan from Aligarh University, Satish Chandra from Rajasthan University and myself. The textbook project leapt into life; there were frequent discussions of my text which then went to press. This first book, Ancient India, written for Class VI, was published in 1966. In 1968 I revised it on the basis of reactions from teachers and historians. The textbook for Class VII on Medieval India was published in 1967. Gradually other books for High School were commissioned by the Editorial Board. These were Ram Sharan Sharma, Ancient India; Satish Chandra, Medieval India; Bipan Chandra, Modern India; and the last of the series for Middle School, India and the World by Arjun Deva. These constituted the NCERT Textbooks, Set 1. The High School Textbooks were substantial in size and involved extended discussions.

THE HISTORIOGRAPHY

There was a certain excitement in being able to provide the kind of history that we thought contributed to the Indian child's understanding of our past. We were distancing our history from that written under imperial auspices – the writing of historians such as Vincent Smith, Edward John Thompson, Geoffrey Garratt and Hugh Rawlinson, or even their Indian counterparts. For Vincent Smith, Indian history led up to the inevitability of the British Empire which brought the pax Britannica to India. The model was the Roman Empire that Britain was said to be emulating. The heroes were kings and the sign of triumph was victory in campaigns. The historian set the pace of how events moved and separated the heroes from the villains. In Ancient History a major focus had been the glorifying of the coming of the Aryans and Aryan civilization, in which Indian nationalist historians also participated. Medieval history meant reiterating the division between Hindu and Muslim communities and referring to them as the two nations of India.

Orientalist scholarship from the eighteenth century onwards, when it searched for histories of the ancient past in Sanskrit literature, found only one text, and that too of a limited kind: the Rajatarangini, a twelfth-century history of Kashmir. This was in part because they were looking for histories of Enlightenment type. They were largely scholars in the colonial administration, such as William Jones and H. H. Wilson, who saw their role as having to discover the Indian past, given what they believed was the absence of historical writing. This knowledge was to enable them to understand the colony that they were governing; incidentally they also claimed to be bringing historical knowledge to the Indian over whom they ruled and who had lacked this knowledge from his/her own tradition.

They were primarily interested in codifying and translating the texts that their Brahmin informants told them were the most important. These were in the main, the Vedas, providing information on the origins of Hinduism, and the Dharma-shastras, texts concerning social codes and therefore focused on rules of caste and social obligations. The codification of the texts drew on European systems of classification and the translations were naturally conditioned by the intellectual and social ambience of attitudes to the Orient. These texts were regarded as containing first-order knowledge about the Indian past and even Buddhist texts were not given the same importance. Access to these Sanskrit texts led to the conviction that religion was the foundational factor in Indian civilization.

This understanding of the Indian past was contested in the nineteenth century by those who called themselves liberals and positivists and were hostile to the romanticism in the Orientalist image of ancient India as a golden age directed by a concern for spirituality and social harmony. James Mill and Thomas B. Macaulay for instance, representing what might be called the liberal-progressive view of those times, were critical of the Indian past and advocated legal measures to restructure Indian society. Some of their criticism was also meant as an aside on current British society. Mill was the first author who, in writing the history of British India, divided it into periods identified by the religions of the dynasties: the initial Hindu civilization was succeeded by a Muslim civilization and then by a British period. This periodization became axiomatic until recent times. He also gave currency to the idea of oriental despotism: that Asian societies had been ruled by despots and were static societies not undergoing any change throughout their history.

By the late nineteenth century there was a firm imperial control over India. The colonial power had succeeded in subduing revolts of soldiers and peasants and was slowly beginning to face the emergence of nationalism from the nascent middle class. Historical writing was necessary to contest this nationalism. It was argued that Indians had always been subordinated by alien powers and that the history of India was a recital of invasions; further, that the most persistent of these invaders were Muslims who settled and ruled in India giving rise to a powerful Muslim community. This inaugurated the undiminished strife between the Muslim and Hindu communities, strife that had been brought under control by the arrival of British power.

Nationalist historical writing reacted to all this, agreeing with some but disagreeing with much. A function of nationalist history was also to establish an Indian identity. This had to draw on the unity and uniformity of India throughout history. Attention to a common culture became axiomatic and this inevitably meant a historical discourse about the upper castes and the aristocracy, since these were the groups that made history. The new textbooks tried to draw attention to other groups of supposedly lesser status that also contributed to history but this was a less popular aspect of the books. Possibly the idea was not emphasized with sufficient examples.

For nationalist history the ancient past was used to construct identities as it invariably is in all nationalist history. The sources are mainly from elite groups, the period is so remote that much can be said that is imagined but cannot be questioned for lack of detailed evidence. Consequently golden ages abound and nationalist historians took their cue from some of the Orientalist scholarship. The obsession with the Hindu golden age was such that the Muslim period was contrasted as one of decline which allowed the British to conquer India. Anti-colonial nationalism can often foster a range of other more specific nationalisms some of which become central to the creation of nation-states. Religious nationalisms have been frequent from the twentieth century. In the Indian situation, given the kind of history projected by colonial authors and up to a point endorsed by nationalist historians, there was the emergence of Hindu and Muslim nationalisms – also of course furthered by the politics of the twentieth century in India. Hindu and Muslim nationalisms each argued for different pasts: the ancient past was Hindu and the medieval past was dominated by Muslim dynasties. Ancient and medieval became areas of controversy and the site of ideological struggles over defining a national history. This difference led to the notion that these religious communities constituted two separate nations and the ensuing history was used to justify the creation of two separate nation-states. Pakistan was the Muslim nation-state. In India historians and other supporters of secularism are battling to prevent India from becoming a Hindu state. Religious nationalism which takes an extreme form in communal historical writing is active in both countries.

The other theme prominent in the Hindu communal view of the past was the insistence on the Aryan foundation of Hindu culture, a view that still prevails among their supporters. Whereas in the nineteenth century it was held that the Aryan language came from across the Indo-Iranian borderlands, there is today no concession to this view among the Hindu religious nationalists. Their claim is that the Aryans were indigenous to India, were the authors of the earliest Indian civilization – that of the cities of the Indus valley and the north-west – and that wherever there was a language akin to Indo-Aryan it came through Aryan out-migration. In 1969 members of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee wanted my textbook on Ancient India to state categorically that ‘the Aryans’ were indigenous to India – a demand that was rejected both by the Editorial Board and the author. Most scholars would argue that Aryan culture, if it can be recognized as that, is an evolved culture with multiple inputs from a variety of sources, some coming with migrants from the borderlands and some from those settled in the plains of the north-west of the sub-continent.

THE SHIFT TO SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC HISTORY

With Indian independence in 1947 came increased interest in questions relating to the economic and social evolution of Indian society. Inevitably there was a turning to historians for information on the nature of traditional economies and social structures, and the histories of communities and castes. Historians were activated in new ways. There was less focus on political and dynastic history and more on social and economic history, and this in turn affected the discussion of causation. Extending the explanations for historical change introduced many new sources and the evidence they provided enriched the scope of historical causality. And just as inevitably, pre-modern history was drawn into the circuit of the social sciences.

The study of ancient India gradually shifted from being a subject within the fold of Indology to becoming a discipline of the social sciences. There has been a major move away from golden ages, oriental despots and religious periodization towards investigating a different set of themes that have to do with economic resources, the forms of social organization, the articulation of religion and art as aspects of social perceptions, and above all with tracking the major points of historical change in a history of three millennia. In writing about Indian achievements historians have increasingly tried to explain how change occurred through the interaction of various factors. This shift is irksome to communal historians who argue for a monocausal religion-derived cultural uniformity.

The history of ‘the nation’ also became a focus. Was the nation a creation of the colonial experience? Or did it emerge from factors related to modernization such as the coming of industrialization and capitalism as well as the need for a democratic and secular society? The issue was not just one of building a nation which required a common history, memory and culture, but also of explaining the nature of the societies and economies of the past that contributed to this commonness. Dependence on textual sources dictated a view in which elite cultures loomed large: what some referred to as the ‘living prehistory’ of India – the cultures of the forest tribes or of the lower castes – received less recognition. For some the ‘one-ness’ of the nation lay in the syncretistic thought and action of diverse groups that fused in the idea of the nation. For others it was what was described as India's composite culture which assumed diverse social and religious units in harmonious coexistence, each giving space to the other. For yet others, the definition of one-ness lay in being Hindu and this had to be protected against Muslim rule.

A history of the nation needed a central perspective. Colonial and nationalist histories had been written with the Ganges valley as epicentre. But with the growth of interest in regional history this was becoming problematic. The image of the one-ness of the nation had also to face the demands of regional histories. The provinces of British Indian administration, whose boundaries had been arbitrary, gave way to states with more realistic boundaries based on language. This intensified regional identity since linguistic states worked their history through their own language sources as well as through manifestations of regional culture in archaeological data.

On two occasions it was said that my textbooks in emphasizing the nation had not done justice to regional personalities. There was a demand for a separate chapter on Guru Nanak for the books used in the Punjab and one on Shivaji the Maratha king for books used in Maharashtra. On both occasions the Board felt that if the states wished to make the change it could not stop them, even if it would produce an imbalance in terms of the national perspective. Furthermore, since the books were intended as model textbooks they could only be a guide and could not be imposed. It was also agreed that permission from the NCERT would be required for making changes. I insisted that copyright was invested in the author and if changes were made my name as the author of the book should be deleted. The balance between the nation and the region was a delicate one, the more so when one was writing on a period when the nation did not exist. For such periods it was a question of dominant and subordinate states, but subordination became a sensitive matter in itself. What has now become problematic is the dominance of the identity of the region over the smaller subcultures which earlier had been hidden by the national culture.

The historiographical change became more marked in the 1960s and ’70s when marxist historical writing encouraged a paradigm change. Debates on modes of production among academic historians had the fall-out effect of releasing more information and interpretations of social and economic history. Whether or not one participated in the debate, historical research introduced questions about state formation, the role of agriculture, the extension of trade and the degree to which these changes were reflected in art and literature. Historical interest had moved towards another dimension irrespective of whether it conformed to marxist models. The debate was largely among those who worked on the post-Gupta period, from about the eighth to the thirteenth centuries – what is now called the early medieval period to distinguish it from the medieval period which is once again basically the period of Muslim rule. The distinction therefore is not very helpful. The early medieval period was generally described as the dark age of small kingdoms as against the golden age of large empires. That darkness was dispelled as the debate brought to the fore the history of new kingdoms, their economies and governance, and the role of local courts in defining culture. Communal historians, bogged down (as they still are) in the Hindu-Muslim divide of medieval times both early and late, rarely participated in this debate since for them the finer issues of the formation of states, or local cultures were of little importance.

For the earlier period the break-through came from extensive archaeological excavations. The major sites of the Indus civilization and Harappa culture were located in Pakistan. There was therefore a concerted effort to discover similar sites on the Indian side of the border and the effort met with astonishing success. The Harappa culture was far more widespread in the north-west of the subcontinent than had been assumed earlier. This interest spurred determination to find the archaeological equivalent of the Aryan culture, a determination that continues undiminished. Such a discovery is of course not possible in the absence of a decipherable script, since Aryan is essentially a language label. But all this activity gave a centrality to archaeological data and therefore to the inclusion of material culture in historical interpretation.

The colonial construction of early Indian history was grounded in concepts such as oriental despotism, periodization by religion and an insistence that Indian society was static with castes being frozen social entities, and isolated, self-sufficient village communities widespread. These were the generalizations that were systematically unwound with the new ways of investigating history. Some concepts that nationalist historiography had appropriated from colonial views, such as golden ages and dark ages, were also axed from this new history.

THE START OF THE BATTLE OVER HISTORY

These were the historical debates current in the 1960s and more so in the 1970s when the NCERT Textbooks (Set 1) were being read in schools run by the Central Government. The textbooks were appreciated for the more expansive vision of history they offered. Teachers recognized that the information they presented was reliable evidence and not fantasy, and that there was a logic to the way in which the narrative was set out. Possibly this was part of the reason for the later criticism that they were not as user-friendly for children as they could have been.

Critical reactions came from Hindu and Sikh religious organizations who felt that their respective religions and religious teachers had not been glorified. Certain religio-political organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Arya Samaj claimed that a statement made in the book ‘went counter to the religious sentiments of the Hindu nationality’. In Ancient India, I explained that the ancient Aryans venerated the cow but, like all cattle-herders everywhere, ate its flesh on ritual occasions or when honouring a guest. The protest against this statement and similar ones in the other textbooks emanated from Hindu political mobilization around the demand for cow protection and a ban on beef, since it was argued that not eating beef was axiomatic to Hinduism. A lengthy article in a leading newspaper argued that there was no mention of the eating of beef in ancient Sanskrit sources. I countered this by quoting chapter and verse from texts which are unambiguous on the matter, and from excavation reports. I was then told off for being immoral in questioning orthodox opinion and encouraging young minds to do likewise. Objections were also raised to our stating that the shudras, the lower castes, were not always treated well.

In 1975 Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency which closed down free discussion. She was voted out of power in 1977 and the Janata Government – a mixed bag of parties – was elected with Morarji Desai as Prime Minister. Although expected to be reasonably liberal, this government turned out to be so dominated by the feuds of party factions and by persons propagating Hindu religious nationalism that it did not last its full term. But it did manage to fire the first governmental salvo against the NCERT Textbooks. Morarji Desai supported and forwarded an anonymous note to the Education Minister, asking for these history textbooks to be proscribed as they were anti-Indian and anti-national in content and prejudicial to the study of history. The note was leaked to the press and when we as the authors heard of it we decided that it should be publicly debated. We argued for the legitimacy of independent interpretations, emphasizing the proviso that they be based on reliable evidence and logically feasible explanations.

The issues that were raised by our critics were routine and predictable: why did the books mention beef-eating? why didn’t they state that the Aryans were indigenous to India? where was the necessity to mention the disabilities of the lower castes? why did we not consistently depict Muslim rulers as oppressors and tyrants? – and so on. For three years the Sunday papers carried articles for and against the authors of the textbooks and the issues raised. We saw it as a means of demonstrating to the public that history is not just a body of facts that is packaged and handed on from generation to generation, but involves interpreting evidence. We insisted that both the evidence and the methods of interpreting it had changed and become more precise and analytical as compared to earlier times.

We heard that in November 1977 a committee of reputable historians had been asked to examine the textbooks. They apparently approved of the books and their consensus was that the books should continue to be prescribed. Some ‘liberal’ intellectuals wrote diatribes against us accusing us of conniving with the state in the first place by writing textbooks for the NCERT; what right had we, then, to complain that the books were now being banned? At any rate nothing was done before the government fell. The joke that did the rounds of Delhi was that no action was taken to ban the books because many thousands of copies had already been printed and were lying in the NCERT stores, and the Audits and Accounts Department of the Government of India objected to their being trashed!

The issues raised by the controversy were debated by the Editorial Board. One was fully aware now of the growing tension between the political parties and organizations appropriating and claiming to represent nationalism, a claim that was becoming an electoral plank, and also a means to target professional historians who refused to make concessions to the political requirements of nationalism. But the days when anyone and everyone could claim to be writing history were drawing to a close. This was particularly so in the writing of ancient history where technical expertise was becoming more demanding.

As the author of a textbook I felt that I had the responsibility of educating a generation to think differently and in new ways about the subject. Yet I was aware that this made me subject to political assault – as indeed were other authors of the Textbooks as well. One had to debate with oneself and with one's colleagues as to the implications of this. On the issue of beef-eating we were aware that apart from the historical importance of making the statement it raised political issues that had to be countered. Writing a textbook was clearly not just an academic exercise. Hindu communal opinion was politically strong, and history had a primary role in the formulation of its identity and its vision of Indian society – even if the formulation was based on distorted history. Those of us nurtured on the earlier anti-colonial nationalist tradition, as the members of the Editorial Board had been, had no hesitation in contesting communalist use of religion as a political foundation. The more sensitive question, as I saw it, was how to contest nationalism in its new guise of making concessions to religious communalism.

We then had a fifteen-year respite in which the books were revised before the attack started up again. This time it came from a collective of Hindu right-wing nationalist organizations labelled the Sangh Parivar which propagated their version of Indian history encapsulated in the ideology of Hindutva. It came into its own when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies were elected to form the government of the National Democratic Alliance in 1999. Hindutva history claims a uniform, monolithic Hindu identity for Indian civilization, often defined as Aryan and upper-caste. The multiple variant and lesser cultures are either ignored or at best marginalized. From this perspective the NCERT Textbooks that we had written were unacceptable and we were described as anti-Hindu, anti-Indian, traitors to the nation who were propagating perverted views that distorted the truth. Such statements were frequently voiced in Parliament by ministers of this government – presumably so that they could claim Parliamentary privilege. This assault – from virulent abuse to death threats – continues to embellish a number of websites on the Internet, largely ones controlled by wealthy Indians settled in the First World.

The attempt to proscribe the books did not succeed, so passages from the books were literally and laboriously blacked out. Finally it was decided to replace them. The NCERT, now under the control of the NDA government, commissioned new books conforming to the Hindutva version of history (NCERT Textbooks, Set 2); there was a frenzied writing of new textbooks in record time; and some of them were prescribed just prior to the fall of NDA government. This was only one move among many others to terminate history as a social science and convert it into a Hindutva catechism. There was no intention of discussing variant interpretations of history: instead only those that conformed to the Hindutva version would be permitted.

The BJP/NDA Government fell in 2004 and as one consequence their textbooks (NCERT Textbooks, Set 2) have now been replaced. The new government, somewhat less religiously nationalist than the BJP, decided on a completely fresh set of textbooks (NCERT Textbooks, Set 3), to replace all earlier ones (Sets 1 and 2). Rather ironically, the most acrimonious critics of the NCERT Textbooks Set 1, arguing against their reintroduction, were some ‘liberal’ historians who denounced the books as being ‘statist’, in the same way as we had been denounced almost half a century ago. It was almost as if there was no new way of critiquing those who wrote textbook history. In the end, though, the new historians who are authors of NCERT Set 3, have not been dubbed ‘statist’!

SOME PROBLEMS

The NCERT Textbooks (Set 1) were seen by some as an attempt to standardize history. This criticism may not be easy to sustain. Those were intended as model textbooks and states were free to modify them, as in some cases they did. They were prescribed largely in schools run by the central government, which were limited in number. Schools established by a variety of ‘cultural’ and religious organizations use entirely different textbooks. Some schools run riot with the subject, teaching what is hardly recognizable as history. In such schools the NCERT books are used for answering examination questions but the students are told that the real history is in the fantasy textbooks.

Textbooks such as mine that had been used for forty years would inevitably have had to give way to newer ones more representative of another generation of historical thinking. But there is a pedagogical problem that needs urgent attention. When my textbooks were prescribed in the 1960s, school teachers found them different from the books they had been using. The introduction of comments on dominant and subordinate castes, on patterns of landownership and the use of labour, on the difference between barter and markets, on monuments not just as structures in a landscape but institutions of community life, involved a shift away from conventional dynastic history and the narratives about kings, courts, campaigns, territorial control and administration. I was trying to show historical interconnections in the making of a society, as also were the other authors of the Set 1 books. The concept of the society was however unitary: I for one felt that introducing multiplicity at an elementary stage risked confusing child-readers.

Two generations of teachers have been teaching these books and now they will have to move to teaching NCERT Textbooks Set 3, again different from our books of Set 1 or the briefly used Set 2 of the books written for the BJP government. This will require far greater input into teacher training than has been conceded so far either by the new authors or by the NCERT. India has immense IT resources which educational bodies are refusing to use, perhaps because they continue to think conventionally and because governments are afraid of an educated public. There could be a drastic change in the comprehension of history by teachers and students alike if additional teaching were to be done imaginatively through radio and TV and via the Web. This was worked out in some detail ten years ago by a group of educationists. As a member of the Prasar Bharati Board – the Radio and TV Corporation – I had submitted the recommendations for implementation. But not surprisingly no further interest has been shown in the idea, whether by the educationists or by Prasar Bharati.

An even more fundamental change is necessary if textbooks of quality are to survive. This narrative has a recurring refrain: textbooks change each time the government changes. The pattern will continue unless the legal status of the NCERT in its production of textbooks is changed. In 2005 I kept writing articles in the newspapers arguing that we have to make bodies such as the NCERT autonomous and give them statutory status so that they would be able to retain quality textbooks regardless of changes in government. Admittedly it will still be a hard fight to secure the approved textbooks when governments are determined not to do so, but at least legal support might help. Without such a change we shall have a chameleon educational system which will change its colour with each change of government. The student will never know whether to state in the exam that 2 + 2 = 4 or that 2 + 2 = 5, and may end up having to say that it could be either depending on the circumstances.

Ancient history in particular has a special significance for contemporary times, especially in developing societies. In part this is because so much of the ancient past is still visible and evocative. But more importantly, identities, and the heritage linked to nationalism, still hinge on the interpretation of early history. In any broader understanding of the present it helps to be informed not only about the recent past but also about the remote past: the citizens of the future need willingness to distinguish critically but also to explore connections.