From civics to social and political life – confronting ‘blunt situations’

Arvind Sardana

When we at Eklavya’s social science group started working on civics around the mid 80s there were a few objectives that were clear. One was to reformulate the government related chapters, introduce new themes to expand the notion of civics, move towards conceptual explanation within an overall framework of democracy and avoid preaching. We were developing alternative textbooks and assessment methods for middle school social science for the Madhya Pradesh government. Nine government schools were part of the project and they were to try out and implement the new course materials.

Over the years, some incidents (discussed below) that occurred during teacher workshops or in classrooms, which we would like to call ‘blunt situations’, kept reminding us of these objectives and challenged us to respond more creatively.

Reformulating chapters
When we began, the traditional panchayat chapter appeared to be a moral science lesson in cooperation; that the wise council of villagers would address all problems in a fair and just manner. This seemed bizarre in a context where there had been no elections in Madhya Pradesh at the panchayat level for many years.

Our panchayat chapter began with the question, “Why do we need panchayats?” The next section went on to describe the process of how a panchayat is formed – preparation of voters list at the village level and the elections. Since government teachers carried out this process in real life, it was familiar territory for them. They could easily explain questions that children might ask and even give examples from personal experience.

But there was one situation when a teacher in a nearby town was stumped by a blunt edge question. A boy asked, “My parents’ names are registered both in the town and our native village. What’s wrong?” “But that is not as per the rule”, explained the teacher although she felt that her answer was incomplete. She did not want to openly criticize the parents involved. She had to think this through.

Providing real-life examples is not just about better examples but real thinking, since children naturally apply themselves. She understood that the boy was saying that people do this as they belong to two places, so what is wrong about this in principle?

How would you explain the logic behind the rule? Wouldn’t that lead to a deeper understanding of equality?

The panchayat chapter provided many such situations that led teachers and children to ask questions since they could both relate to the context. The conceptual issues of representation and voting rights have procedures that reflect equality in the political sphere. We included case studies that would introduce children to the system and the underlying ideas.

During a teacher training session in Rajasthan, under the LokJumbish initiative of the government, a strange situation arose. We were discussing the role of the gram sabha with a hypothetical question – “What if every decision of the panchayat was taken in the gram sabha? Would this be useful?”

A group of teachers suddenly objected asking why they should ‘assume’. This is not the rule and not true and therefore needn’t be discussed further. My colleague was stumped. “I’m only asking you to assume”. They retorted, “No, we won’t discuss this. No assumptions. Don’t teach us wrong things.” For good measure they added, “If the Panchayat Act is so great why don’t you get the Bihar government to accept it before you explain to all of us in Rajasthan.” The teachers were aware that the Bihar government at that time was delaying formulating a new state law that would implement the three tier panchayat structure.

It made us realize how strong the above view of civics was. It was seen as a totally rule-bound subject – what is the rule and how it should be followed. No understanding was required. The purpose of civics was only to pass on these rules. There was no preparedness to discuss the logic or principles behind these rules and regulations, let alone understand the grey areas. Their political awareness was high, however their notion of civics was apolitical.

Moving to social and political life
At about this same time, scholars were looking at the history of civics education and how during the colonial period informing citizens about the government and creating loyal subjects was the stated purpose of civics. They contended that post independence this view of civics had not changed. Being loyal to the government in power continues to be an unstated purpose of civics teaching. The texts were never critical of the government. Very often during conversations teachers would ask, “Do you want our view or the
governmental view?” They too had imbibed this notion of civics. We were reminded of this in no uncertain terms by a prominent MLA of our area. He quoted from the panchayat chapter (in one of the books we developed for the Madhya Pradesh government) and told us that we were inciting people to revolt against elected representatives. He was talking about a story we had included of a protest in front of an MLA’s house regarding a water problem.

Years later during the discussions on NCF 2005 we strongly supported the move to change the nomenclature of civics to a more disciplinary focus and calling it “Social and Political Life”. This way understanding democracy in a deeper sense and being an active critical citizen would be a natural objective.

Examining our experience against ideas
It takes time to realize how our ideas around equality operate and also that there are many layers of our experience that need to be peeled to understand it. In the alternative textbooks designed by us we had chapters on the bank and taxes at the class 8 level. In the chapter on taxation there’s a section, “What is a fair way to tax?” As an introduction to this section we often did the following exercise with teachers.

“A group of four friends decided to stay together by contributing money towards the rent of the house. The rent was Rs.2000 per month.

  • How could this be shared among them?
  • We also know that two of them earned 3000 per month and the other two 7000 per month. Is there some way of sharing that each one feels the pinch equally?
  • Which way of sharing would you prefer and why?”

At one of the teacher training sessions in Indore after we did this exercise, a group of teachers was quite blunt. “We understand what you are getting at but we don’t think it should be shared like this. Equality to us means equal amount to be paid by each one. The background does not matter.” It sharply demonstrated that the progressive tax system has really shallow roots. Equality is sought to be perceived as equal amount paid by both the rich and the poor.

Dealing with conflicts
Similarly, our strongly held perceptions are at the heart of the debate on reservations. This part of the Constitution chapter was never easy to discuss. Use of case laws, everyday examples and imaginary situations worked well in most cases but when it came to reservations the heat and tempo were different.

Everyone has experiences in their own families and neighborhood to hold on to their opinions on the issue. It was quite difficult to disengage and talk of the principle of “treating unequals equally”. Without this, the logic of reservations based on caste or gender can’t be understood. Macro data was effective to show that the overall position of lower castes had not changed substantially and reservations were not being implemented.

On the other hand, it was interesting that the reservation for women at the panchayat level was debated by all teachers with some rigour and many women shared examples from their own experience. They argued for reservation. However, when it came to caste it was usually the dominant view that prevailed, especially among the urban teachers. It was not defended as forcefully as the women’s reservation issue. The dalit teachers were few in number and their ‘silence’ was evident.

It is not always discussions, no matter how good, but creative actions that can speak. This is a story of a rural school teacher who would listen but not talk much during our discussions. One day on a school follow up visit we found that he was coaxing one of the villagers to come in and sit down in the chair in front of him. This teacher was responsible for giving school leaving certificates to the parents when their children left the village school after class 8. He insisted that the father come inside and sit down while he retrieved the certificate from the record files. He made polite conversation all along, enquired about the child and tried to make the fidgety parent comfortable. We didn’t understand the import at that moment. Later we realized that this dalit teacher was consciously trying to get lower caste parents to come in and learn to speak with the teacher on equal terms. Sitting on the chair in front of him was a great leap in equality at the village level where people from the lower castes would not enter upper caste homes or sit with them on the same cot. Everyone knew that equality could be practiced in the school space but it requires initiative to do so.

A more complex picture emerged among a small group of KV teachers who were discussing the class 7 chapter on equality in the NCERT Social and Political Life book. There’s a story by Om prakash Valmiki (dalit writer and poet) about his school days and the discrimination that was practiced in school and his father’s courage to fight it. One of the teachers said that untouchability has been banned and therefore we should not discuss such incidents in a school textbook. Another teacher intervened to say that caste discrimination is rampant in society and we should discuss this. This conversation was open at a theoretical plane till a teacher said that she had actually faced a disturbing situation in her school. After she completed her lesson she found some children teasing some others saying, “Jhado laga”, just as Valmiki was asked to by his teacher. This really disturbed her and she couldn’t sleep that night. She did not know how to respond. Then she gathered courage and thought of an idea. She collected many examples of discrimination practiced in that region. After a few days she held a separate class discussing openly these practices and their impact on society.

Conflicts are inherent in the teaching of social science and it is best to meet these openly with creative ideas than to sweep them under the carpet.

It is significant that unlike our first experience with textbooks in Madhya Pradesh, the NCERT books offered very limited interaction with teachers. This has been a great drawback. On the other hand, theoretical issues find greater space in the NCERT chapters.

It is probably time that NCERT finds a fresh way of forming teacher peer groups across schools and through them initiating direct dialogue with ALL teachers instead of the superficial teacher-orientation done by most individual schools.

The author is a member of the Social Science Group at Eklavya. This group has some fulltime members and many associated members as resource groups drawn from schools, colleges and universities. The social science team developed alternative textbooks and assessment methods for the Madhya Pradesh government and later worked with the NCERT teams. They also worked with various state governments, such as Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Bihar among others that were keen to adapt and further develop their social science textbooks. He can be reached at

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