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Amid the Indian history curriculum debate, authors and publishers of children’s and general history books say their challenge is not to question history but to present it to kids in a way that engages them

If certain fragments of history are deleted, that would also mean a lack of knowledge
If certain fragments of history are deleted, that would also mean a lack of knowledge

During a recent promotion for his film Samrat Prithviraj, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar kicked up a storm by commenting that rulers such as Prithviraj Chauhan “should be written about” in Indian history textbooks. “There were only three-four lines about Samrat Prithviraj in the history books that I read. Thanks to this film, I got to know so much about him. I don’t think anyone else also knew about him,” he said during an interview, adding, “When I was talking to my son about him (Prithviraj), he said, ‘I know about the British empire, Mughal empire, but who’s he?’ So, it’s a sad thing that we don’t know about our own kings. There were only a few lines about Rana Pratap, Rani of Jhansi. But there are a lot of chapters on Mughals.” He also appealed to the education ministry to “try and (bring about) balance and bring our culture, Hindu kings also in our textbooks”.

Kumar’s view found both takers and opponents, but the debate over the rewriting of history textbooks for political gains has been raging over the years, and successive governments at both the states and the Centre have often been accused of promoting their own ideologies through them.

While history textbooks have often come under the scanner for alterations in content, what about children’s and general history books? Authors and publishers of such books—both fiction and non-fiction—say their challenge is not to question history but to present it to kids in a way that engages them.

Tina Narang, publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books, says: “For students, there is a certain comfort in knowing that what they have studied in subjects like history is not likely to change. History is based on facts and unless current research throws light on some unexplored aspects there is little scope to change it. That’s what makes it history. As publishers, our challenge is not to question history and its facts as set down in textbooks by subject experts but to present it to children in a way that engages them,” she says.

Narang suggests making history more engaging through visually-driven formats, a better balance between text and visuals and using the narrative non-fiction approach to make history a subject that kids want to read for reasons other than just writing an exam.

The curriculum debate

English novelist George Orwell had once said that “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history”. The quote can be viewed in the light of the recent developments cooking up in the Indian history curriculum debate.

In recent times, ghosts of the past have been resurrected many times in debates and for political gains. BJP leader Nupur Sharma’s quote on Prophet Muhammad led to India being criticised by Islamic nations for insulting a religious leader, even though the national party maintained its stance that it respected all religions.

In December 2021, the Delhi High Court refused to entertain a PIL demanding the removal of a paragraph in the Class XII textbook of history. The paragraph had talked about Mughal rulers like Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb giving grants for repair of temples. The high court bench came down heavily on the petitioners for wasting the court’s time.

On Saturday, it was reported that the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) had removed portions on the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Emergency, Cold War, the Naxalite movement and Mughal courts from its textbooks of Class XII. The removal was stated as a “syllabus rationalisation” exercise and NCERT cited reasons such as “overlapping” and “irrelevant” for dropping the portions. Some of the changes had been announced earlier this year when the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had rationalised its syllabus.

Earlier in May, it was reported that several BJP-ruled states had been altering history textbooks like the addition of a few paragraphs in a Class IX history textbook by the Haryana government on Congress’ ‘appeasement policy’, and the Gujarat government’s addition of parts of Bhagavad Gita in the Class VI-X syllabi. The Haryana Board of School Education (HBSE) was also in the news recently for its Class IX history textbooks that stated that Congress’ greed of power was the reason behind India’s Partition in 1947.

Many states justified the recent altering of history textbooks in accordance with the National Education Policy (NEP) to provide an India-centric education.

The altering of history with changing political regimes is not a new fact. In the past, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was in a spot for attempting to saffronise education and the Congress was blamed for putting too much spotlight on Mughal history.

However, authors and historians will agree that political involvement in designing curriculums may distort historical representation. Tilottama Shome of Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of independent publishing house Speaking Tiger, feels that political powers must have no role in designing curriculums. “History is a foundation on which a culture builds its future. And while history may be twisted by the powerful, it’s quite clear that it is possible to delve and find different versions of a story because stories get narrated over time.” She suggests that school textbooks need to get the nod of scholars from diverse backgrounds to arrive at the curriculum. “A country like ours that is diverse and historically an amalgamation of different influences needs to recognise all major influences and that should reflect in our textbooks,” Shome says. Her recent books with Talking Cub include Taj Mahal: The Story of a Wonder of the World and The Kailash Temple at Ellora: Magnificent Monuments of India.

What students are fed through books becomes their learning and knowledge and shapes their future. So, the important questions remain: Who writes the history —the politicians or the historians? Should history be altered for one’s political gains? Who decides what to include and what to delete from history?

A learning process

As children, one would read storybooks of Akbar and Birbal, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which would be condensed and simplified versions of the heavy Indian epics and history. Such storybooks on historical figures and epics have in fact been mediums for early learning of Indian history and epics for children.

Books by Amar Chitra Katha like Jataka, Panchtantra and Hitopadesha tales, and collections that narrate stories of various important historical figures have played an important role in introducing children to the folk tales, epics and the cultural diversity of India.

AdiDev Press, too, has published books like Service with Guru Nanak, Peace with Buddha, and My First Hanuman Chalisa to introduce the little ones to the spiritual leaders in an easy way.

Publishers feel that they have a huge responsibility in bringing to the fore diverse voices, stories and perspectives which help shape mindsets and world views. Sohini Mitra, publisher, children’s division, Penguin Random House, says that their history books can also act as supplements to the learning process. “We have done some ground-breaking work in publishing books on history that could work as a supplement, offering an accessible and multi-dimensional frame of reference—in some way, food for thought to young minds. The best part is, that these books are written like stories and unlike textbooks, with anecdotes, fun trivia and little-known facts,” she says.

Mitra shares that their upcoming book series is on Mughal history and is illustrated and meticulously researched. It will focus on the reign and personality of the Mughal emperors, deviating from the biographical information and bringing alive fascinating facets of their life and times.

Questions of what to teach in history and how to teach it are unfortunately often as much about political concerns as pedagogical ones, says Ashwitha Jayakumar, author of Incredible Indians: 75 People Who Shaped Modern India (published by HarperCollins). With regard to the current debate, she says, “The books in circulation do not actually dedicate an inordinate amount of space to the Mughals, to the best of my knowledge, so the debate seems to be on shaky ground to begin with.” She feels that the decisions about what to include in a history curriculum and what to move to make space for something else should be arrived at through objective, impartial, scholarly discussion, independent of a dominant political trend or agenda.

For Narang of HarperCollins Children’s Books, the quality of what is in Indian history textbooks matters more than how many chapters are dedicated to which dynasty. She adds, “Most history textbooks are criminally boring, and reduce complex, multidimensional and diverse communities and people into lists of features and achievements to be memorised and regurgitated in an exam.”

Apeksha Rao, whose book Akbar-Birbal and the Haunted Gurukul by Puffin Books India, an imprint of Penguin Books India, is releasing this month (June-end), seconds Jayakumar and says that Mughal history is as much an integral part of the unique heritage of our nation as the other dynasties. “Instead of erasing it from our textbooks, a more cohesive syllabus that talks about all the different rulers that ruled and moulded India and its people might give young minds a better insight into the colourful past of our country,” she adds.

If certain fragments of history are deleted, that would also mean a lack of knowledge, according to Chitwan Mittal, who has authored several children’s books and is a founder of independent publishing house for children, AdiDev Press. She says that history is full of nuance and interrelationships across time and geographies. One can’t understand a period without understanding what happened before and after or what was happening at the same time across the world. She says, “To understand India fully, we must study all periods of our history.”

Further, she says that the teaching of history must go beyond memorising dates. “We should make children explore human psychology through the teaching of history, which made people act the way they did. They could also interact with primary sources in museums and heritage sites, delving deeper into local histories,” she suggests.

Mamta Nainy, author of 10 Indian Art Mysteries That Have Never Been Solved published by Duckbill Books, says that people in power have always been rewriting history. What is important though, according to her, is to draw the attention of children to the fact that our knowledge of the past is often limited and not definitive at all. “History, when viewed from the lens of subjectivity, can lead to certain groups or individuals being overlooked due to their religion, gender, ethnicity, ideology or social standing, among other things. That being said, history is a discipline and a true historian needs to overcome these subjectivities to interpret history in the correct perspective,” she sums it up.

However, Gayathri Ponvannan, author of 100 Great Chronicles of Indian History published by Hachette India, feels that while Mughal history is extremely fascinating, the histories of their contemporaries, too, deserve better focus. The Ahom dynasty of Assam, the Deccan sultanates, the Samoothiri /Zamorin of Kozhikode, the Madurai Nayaks (with their charismatic regent, Rani Mangammal) and the Thanjavur Marathas are but some of the dynasties that just find passing mention in mainstream textbooks, and often only in terms of their relations with the Mughals themselves, she says. “In my opinion, textbooks could be written with equal academic input from different regions of the country—this could help format historical accounts that include these fascinating histories too,” adds Ponvannan.

It is true that fragments of history cannot be deleted and altered and history must remain untouched in all its purity. As Paro Anand, a Sahitya Akademi and Bal Sahitya Award winner for her book, Wild Child, and winner of the Kalinga Karubaki Literary Award for Fearless Women Writers, puts it, “Isn’t it amazing—the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal appeared out of thin air? The British never ruled India. And by the way, did cave men even exist? Why stop at deleting just Mughal history? Let’s wipe away our entire inconvenient past and teach our children the real truth. That we are not an ancient, multicultural, multi-faceted country. We are India shining very newly.”

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