I earn my living by applying lessons from Indian history to human behaviour. Most people tell me they found history irrelevant and boring in school. Others liked it because their teacher was a great storyteller. But has it helped them in understanding their identity better, or in not repeating mistakes made in the past? Most often not.
Bridging the divide
How history can be taught differently is one conversation, and how the content can enable that is another. Scanning through the CBSE Class 7 textbook, a north-south divide is evident. Students in India are required to study the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal empire, and six out of 12 chapters are dedicated to them. For the rest of the country, there is just about half a chapter on the Vijayanagara empire. In a country already divided on religion, let me not stoke the fire anymore. So, if we don’t get into what should not be included, let us consider what can be. We must do this also in the context of the history syllabi for the higher classes, since every aspect of the subject cannot be taught in Class 7 alone. The Northeast is ignored in the curriculum. A chapter on the Ahoms (or Tai-Ahom), and the oral history of other ethnic groups will make us, the “mainstream Indians”, more educated about an important part of India. Oral traditions can also open up exciting discussions in the classroom on what historians consider “valid proof” in historical research. African, South American and Asian traditions have long considered oral traditions valid proofs, whereas the western tradition considers what is in a book more truthful.
Given the founding mandate of the CBSE, it will always be nationally focussed. However, with more parents opting for CBSE rather than State Board schools, the former, today, is broad-based. At least for this new avatar, it can re-examine its syllabus.
Perhaps we can start with history that is closer to the child, rather than the farthest away, and hence abstract . Or we could start with local history and subsequently move to State, national and international histories, over the many years children learn the subject.
If those are the major changes, can incremental changes be made? Could chapters be different for each State? Children in Tamil Nadu know nothing of the Pandya dynasty that promoted Tamil, and which was also one of the longest-ruling dynasties in India, besides the Cholas and other famous empires of classical India. Kerala could have chapters about the Kulasekhara (who had a state-of-the-art observatory), Andhra Pradesh the Kakatiyas, and so on. A chapter on cultural history in medieval times, about what people ate, how they dressed, the nuances of irrigation, land cultivation, how they resolved fights and what games they played, would be fascinating for 11 to 12-year-olds. Perhaps a local history project could be implemented if the region has medieval remains.
At a time when the issue of Hindi imposition is gaining weight, a chapter on literature across the States of that time may work. Languages have much more than just religious verses — there are dramas, fun poems with onomatopoeia, word puzzles, or entire books where every stanza is a palindrome.
Teachers in CBSE schools are fired up much more by the passion to better the lives of children than the salary they earn. They work long hours and teach multiple classes, in addition to doing administrative work. The volume of north Indian content in the book will not help increase their passion, as teaching something that stoked their own passion for history would. If there can be an option of two, or even three chapters, aided by the reliable information we have on the Internet today, I am sure we can have more representative content for medieval Indian history, rather than something that means little to those outside Delhi. History should help children increase their sense of identity. One hopes there will be a re-examination soon.
Pradeep Chakravarty is a behaviourist who uses history to change behaviour in organisations