Arjun Dev: a legendary historian passes away

Arjun Dev

Arjun Dev

Professor Arjun Dev, the legendary educationist and historian, a kind, gentle and generous but extremely brave man, passed away today morning at a hospital near his home in Noida. Born on November 12, 1938 in Leiah, West Punjab (now in Pakistan), he did his schooling in Ambala and then studied at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. He is survived by his wife Indira Arjun Dev with whom he shared every aspect of his professional life.

Prof. Arjun spent the better part of his academic life working as a historian at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). In partnership with Indira he wrote a number of extremely popular textbooks for the NCERT on Modern and Contemporary India and the World. One of their books, which was discontinued by the NCERT under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime in 2002 was republished by Orient Blackswan as History of the World: From the Late 19th to the Early 20th Century and has remained a very widely read text.

For children

During his tenure at the NCERT, Prof. Arjun had collaborated in the effort to get some of the tallest professional historians India had produced since Independence, like Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Satish Chandra and Bipan Chandra, to write textbooks for schoolgoing children. This was as an effort conceived since the late 1960s to create modern, scientific textbooks, which would replace the ones that had continued from colonial times with their colonial and communal bias. These texts became a great success and became a template for textbook writing globally.

However, a large number of textbooks were being produced which were deeply communal and divisive. Some of these emerged from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-inspired Vidya Bharati and Saraswati Shishu Mandir publications. A National Steering Committee on Textbook evaluation, consisting of a large number of eminent academics from all over the country, and Prof. Arjun Dev as Member Secretary, was formed to look into this. Under Prof. Arjun’s leadership, a report was produced and placed before this committee in 1993 and 1994. The report was explosive as it detailed through long extracts the communal poison and hatred towards the minorities being spread through these school textbooks.

Within the NCERT, the Bharatiya Janata Party, beginning with the Vajpayee government in 1999-2004, made massive efforts to replace the textbooks written by the country’s most renowned scholars with texts by unknown scholars toeing the Hindutva line. Prof. Arjun spearheaded the determined struggle against these efforts but, alas, could not stop them in the end. The New York Times of October 18, 2002, quoted Prof. Arjun Dev’s criticism of this “assault on history” which would promote a “version of the past [which] is crucial to their political…ideology of Hindu supremacy. They will go to any lengths to achieve this, even put forth a fake invented past.”

After retiring from the NCERT, Prof. Arjun took up another major enterprise, the Towards Freedom Project of the Indian Council of Historical Research. It was a project conceived as a rejoinder to the British government-inspired Transfer of Power Volumes which documented the history of the last ten years of colonial rule in India in a manner that did scant justice to our great national liberation struggle. Started under the General Editorship of Prof. Sarvepalli Gopal, the first two volumes came out in 1997 and were published by the Oxford University Press. With the coming to power of the Vajpayee government, two volumes in the press were withdrawn and the project stalled. The project could be restarted only in 2005, and Prof. Arjun was the indefatigable coordinator of the project with Sabyasachi Bhattacharya as the General Editor.

Heart and soul

Prof. Arjun put his heart and soul into the project, and a large number of volumes were published, covering the period right up to 1947. Unfortunately, the second volume covering the year 1941, edited by Prof. Arjun Dev himself and the third volume, covering the year 1947, edited by Prof. Sucheta Mahajan, have yet not seen the light of day, even though they were sent to press several years ago. Prof. Arjun told an online publication, on August 27, 2017, “After the publication of the first two volumes, the BJP had realised that the documents related to the role of the Sangh Parivar will not do it any good. Many of these documents expose its nationalist pretensions and show the communal role played by the Sangh during the nationalist movement.”

( The authors retired as Professors of History at JNU )

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2022 5:17:31 pm |