Exploring alternatives


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EVEN as we write this essay the government of Madhya Pradesh has announced the closure of the social science teaching programme of Eklavya without even bothering to give an explanation. The programme was running in eight government schools and a proposal to extend it to all schools in two districts was pending with the government for the last two years. The government was then of the opinion that the programme could not be expanded without an ‘external’ evaluation, but has now closed it down without the benefit of one. This arbitrary action raises a number of issues which we will take up later and presently turn to children’s sense of history and possibilities of interacting with it through formal curriculum.

Kosambi drew the attention of historians to the fact that the transition from tribe to caste and state societies was a constant feature of Indian social history and that a historian who cared to look for it would find survival of various stages of social evolution all around him or her. This problem of multiple transitions and continuities, which he pointed to, has had a major influence on the texts on Indian history. However, its importance for teaching history has usually been ignored.

A society experiencing multiple transitions evolves a rich and nuanced perception of historical processes. Formal history teaching either serves to obliterate this understanding or encrusts it with pious banalities. Critical history teaching can be more meaningful if it were to draw upon this wellspring of historical understanding and provide it with methodological rigour. We draw upon our discussions with school teachers and children to explore some of these possibilities.

A lesson in the Eklavya class 7 text book discusses how royal dynasties emerged in different parts of the country during the first millennium of the common era. A thematic chapter, entitled ‘rajvanshon ka banna’ talks of no one dynasty in particular but of the general process. The chapter expects the teacher to preface reading with a discussion on kings the children know about. One of us happened to be in the class and was drawn into the lively discussion. We reproduce from the field notebook:



It took them some time to warm up and one of them came out with a story of a king who died in battle. Subsequently his queen gave birth to two sons. Her brother usurped the throne and the boys grew up incognito. Eventually they killed their uncle to get their rightful inheritance. The discussion then veered to the kings of the Ramayana, Dasharatha and his wife Kaushalya, Ravana and his wife Mandodari – strangely Rama was just a prince. They couldn’t remember the king in the Mahabharata, was it Arjuna or Krishna?

Then I turned to the main theme of the lesson, ‘Raja kaise bante hain?’ (How does one become a king?) ‘Lootmar karke, logon se zabardasti paise lekar, rangdari dikhakar’ (By looting, forcibly collecting money from people, by show of strength) was the unhesitating answer.

That was a rather strong formulation. Why was it necessary for the prospective kings to do such things? ‘Taki log unse dare, logon mein khauff paida karke.’ (So that people get to fear them and to create terror among the people). Couldn’t one become a king through honest and peaceful means? ‘Koi apki baat kyon manega? Imandari se kamate rahenge to budhdhe ho jayenge – kuch nahin hoga.’ (Why would anyone listen to you? If you keep earning honestly you will only grow old).

Another child explored a different possibility – the prospective king could get two kings to fight, share the spoils with the victorious king and then himself become a king. This was contested by the others – why would the victorious king share his spoils, he would rather kick him in the back! They then turned to another possibility: ‘Khandani raja hote hain!’ When asked for an example, they mentioned some kings from the epics.

We returned to the original theme – ‘Kya khandani raja bhi lootmar karte the?’ (Did the hereditary kings too indulge in looting?) The emphatic answer was, ‘Nahin. Ve to praja ki bhalai chahte the, ve kyon lootmar karte? Ulta ve praja mein garibon ke beech apana dhan bantte the.’ (No! They sought the welfare of their subjects, how could they loot them? On the contrary they would distribute their wealth among the poor subjects.)

Isn’t it paradoxical? The same person before he becomes a king indulges in looting and once he becomes a king turns benevolent! The children do not see this as a paradox – to them it is natural, ‘Ab unke pas dhan hai aur chayan hai. Ab unka kam logon ki bhalai karna hai.’



But where is the money to distribute among their subjects coming from? There is some confusion on this question. Different children in the class try various guesses: (i) The king would defeat other kings and get their wealth. This seemed the most plausible explanation. (ii) A child feebly suggested that he could be taxing his own people (lagan leta hoga). This is emphatically contested by a section of the class, ‘Apne hi logon se thodi lagan ikaththa karega. Garibon se kya lagan le sakta hai? Aisa to sirf dushth raja karte hain.’ (How could he tax his own people? How could he get taxes from the poor? Only bad kings do such things.) (iii) ‘Uski apni kheti hogi. Batai par deta hoga ya uske sainik usme kam karte honge.’ (He would have his own fields. He may give it out on share cropping or perhaps his soldiers worked them.)

And so went the discussion. These children had not read the debates on early states; they were innocent of Fox, Gordon or Wink, and yet these debates wouldn’t have sounded strange to them and they would have engaged these scholars in some fruitful discussions! This is but one of several such discussions we and the teachers associated with the programme have had with children on evolution of religion, caste, imperial policies and British policies towards peasants or tribesmen.1 All these institutions are evolving today and children are experiencing these transformations at close hand and hence have a deep and perceptive understanding of them. The children went far beyond the scope of even our chapters and delved into great complexities.

It is true that the children are not witnessing any primary state formation. Yet they have drawn heavily not only upon folk understanding passed on through the epics, but also upon the experience of the emergence of fresh power centres around them.



When we set out to develop new history texts over 18 years back we were ignorant of these possibilities. To us history was to be written by historians and transmitted to the masses through ‘popularisation’ efforts. Popularisation required that we meticulously remove all verbiage and reduce all concepts to concrete images so that those not familiar with the jargon of the historians could understand the substance. A second innovation, also inspired by pedagogic concerns, consisted in structuring a degree of discussion in the classroom between the teachers and students through guided questions.

These two innovations enabled ordinary school teachers and children to engage with those histories and this engagement inevitably drew upon their experiences and perceptions. They had their own perceptions and understanding of social processes against which they measured the theories of historians, sometimes dismissing them as nonsensical, or as enriching their own understanding, but seldom feeling them to be outside their area of interest.



A necessary concomitant of such engagements were methodological debates. Whenever there were two contending conceptions, methods of validation came to the fore. In our debates with the teachers it got firmly established that ‘sources’ were central to this process. This opened up a Pandora’s box of problems: what constituted a source, how does one interpret a source, and what does one do with contradictory readings of sources. We realised that the entire range of issues had to be introduced to students too, and a large number of our class 7 books dwelt on various aspects of sources and their interpretation. A byproduct of this was a challenging project undertaken by Shereen Ratnagar to prepare a book on sources of ancient Indian history for teachers.2

Imperceptibly we were moving from the framework of ‘popularisation of history’ to ‘democratisation of production of historical knowledge.’ A fuller realization of this objective would involve generation of local history and relating it to the mainstream historiography. This is what Eklavya was embarking upon with two kinds of interventions. First, an attempt was made to interact with college teachers spread across M.P. who were engaged in research in order to build a fruitful dialogue between them and metropolitan historians. This also took the form of intervention in a journal devoted to research in history and folklore published from Ujjain.

Second, Eklavya also initiated a process of bringing together district level intellectuals including school teachers and others to prepare materials on local history, geography and developmental issues.3 The larger vision was to link up all these into an effort to redefine the meaning of history teaching. It is rather unfortunate that the Government of M.P. should have decided to discontinue the experimental social science teaching programme at this point. The challenge now is to carry forward the process outside the framework of formal school curriculum.



If history teaching is really an interaction between different ways of constructing the past, some incipient and others mature, then it is necessarily embedded in deeper social concerns. We would like to share here our dialogue with teachers on hunter-gatherers. It is rather puzzling that most mainstream history textbooks have little to say about hunter-gatherers, and the chapters on the stone age are usually confined to discussion of tool types and some banal generalizations.

Likewise, despite the fact that tribalism is a very significant way of life, globally and in our country, textbooks have little to say about it and almost entirely concentrate on state societies. This neglect of social dimensions of prehistoric societies and early social forms has important political implications. In ordinary school teachers it reinforces the view that hunter-gatherers and tribals are ‘sub-human’ – ignorant, uncultured, unsocial, lawless. The image of ‘nasty, brutish and short’ lives of the ‘early man’ gets transferred to and reinforces the image of modern tribals and by extension of all depressed sections.



In our teacher trainings we decided to take up precisely these issues for discussion. A typical session would begin with our requesting them to articulate their views about prehistoric people. Invariably the stereotypical images would be expressed and often they would draw parallels with the tribal people they know of. Over two days of intensive discussions, viewing different kinds of stone tools and paintings, reading ethnographic materials and Marshall Sahlins’ essay on the ‘original affluent societies’ would enable most teachers to grudgingly acknowledge that they needed to revise their view of both the prehistoric people and contemporary tribal societies. Some of them would begin to recognise the importance and relevance of value systems, knowledge systems and aesthetics of the tribal people and the hunter-gatherers.

Such re-examinations help alter the framework of political understanding within which teachers work. One might cite another example from the other end of Indian history. Eklavya chapters on ‘modern India’ concentrate on the experience of a cross-section of the population during the colonial era and their reactions – women, peasants, tribals, middle class, industrial workers, industrialists and so on. Significantly, local memories of colonialism and the freedom movement are full of these images. Yet the textbook narratives of the freedom movement which emphasize one homogenous anti-British ‘national movement’ have little space for these images and invariably the grand movement of the national movement culminates in the formation of the post colonial state.

Broadly the scheme seems to legitimise the modern state with the halo drawn from the freedom movement. When teachers read the chapters on women and tribals they are not only moved but also begin to see that the tasks of the freedom movement remain incomplete and those who fought against British rule find their problems intact after half a century of ‘self rule’.



The radical possibility in the curriculum emerges precisely because of the dialogue between the lived experiences and textbook narratives. Sensitivity to lived experience is rather difficult to achieve in textbooks written without a reference point. Textbooks developed by the NCERT or the manifold private publishers or even the SCERTs do not locate themselves among a people – they remain aloof as historians are supposed to be. When Eklavya books were developed in the regional context of western M.P., friends in the NCERT looked upon it as some kind of benevolent work for a small rural area with little relevance for textbook writing for the entire country, which was the agenda before that venerable institution.

Subsequently, Eklavya was invited by Lok Jumbish to develop a curricular package for middle schools in Rajasthan. This gave us an opportunity to develop a similar package but rooted in a different context. This effort not only meant looking for Rajasthani examples (archeological sites, local dynasties, etc.) but also revising our own notions of Indian social history. The liminality of Rajasthani folk culture so ably highlighted by Shail Mayaram, Dominique Sila Khan and others prompted us to rework our conception of religious history. Thus, instead of the two chapters on Hindu religion and Islam, we now had one chapter on religious life of the people.

Rajasthan is particularly rich in folk memories of history preserved by bards and a long line of local historians. We came across several school teachers who had meticulously documented oral traditions relating to the settlement of their villages and the various communities of the region. Most of them pertained to the later medieval and early modern epochs. We had just begun to work on them as a part of the class 8 curriculum when the Government of Rajasthan equally arbitrarily decided to dismantle the work of Lok Jumbish and terminated the arrangement with Eklavya.



This brings us to the problem we had begun the essay with: the relation between the state, professional academics and civil society institutions in evolving curricula. Development of a meaningful curriculum which treats people not merely as recipients of knowledge but also as generators of knowledge requires a collaboration between the three. Unfortunately, we do not yet have institutional frameworks and processes to bring the three together.

The erstwhile monopoly of state institutions gave governments arbitrary powers to determine the nature of the relationship between the three ‘actors’. This has given a free hand to the petty political considerations of the day to interfere with curricular matters. The need then is for working out norms for the collaboration and ensuring transparent and mutually agreed methods for decision taking. Of course all this is based on the assumption that the state is committed to developing a liberal and democratic curriculum. The events of our times have only helped to shake our confidence in the commitment of our state to such ideals.



1. For other examples see Rashmi Paliwal and C.N. Subramaniam, ‘Texts in School’, Summerhill Review, December 1998 and ‘Eklavya Social Science Programme: A Review’ (unpublished) .

2. Shereen Ratnagar and Ajay Dandekar, Bharatiya Itihas ke Srote: Prachin Kal, I, Bhopal 2001. The second part of this book is forthcoming.

3. The state government too has announced that local geography and history would be made a part of school curriculum. How serious is this effort meant to be and how it plans to execute it remains to be seen.