History here and now!

Meghaa Gupta

Exploring the challenges and opportunities in taking contemporary Indian history to school children.

For Indian children, writes the educationist Krishna Kumar, the study of history is frozen at 15 August 1947. Everything thereafter trickles down through the measly civics syllabus, popular cinema, and television. History as formally constituted knowledge of the past does not cover it. So, as an author of a series of ‘history’ books on independent India for young readers, every outing in a classroom is an adventure for me. How much will my audience know about all that transpired on this land in the decades following independence?

Fighting judgment
As I work my way from the turmoil of Partition to the various milestones of nation-building – democracy, development and their discontents – the children begin to jog their memories. I hear stories of what they’ve read, heard, or seen in books and the media or what their family members may have told them. Running through these various accounts is an undercurrent of judgment. A need to find villains and victims.

A common example of this in school classrooms, particularly in the context of postcolonial history, is to blame the colonial rulers for dividing India and champion the freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi for driving them away and bringing us freedom. I’ve heard various versions of this narrative in more than one classroom and while it’s not entirely wrong, it’s woefully oversimplified and betrays a lack of critical engagement with contemporary history.

The moment one begins this history by saying how the British played on existing differences within the Indian society and the role of the devastating Second World War in weakening the empire and laying the foundations of the postcolonial third world, easy judgments are nipped in the bud and the class is compelled to look beyond the convenience of dominant narratives.

Looking beyond dominant narratives
Indeed, the greatest challenge and opportunity in taking contemporary history to classrooms lies in dispelling dominant narratives. Children, I find, can be especially influenced by these. For instance, given the increasing reportage on communal issues, it’s not uncommon to find students interested in talking about religion. In many cases, this is one of the few opportunities they will get to discuss such issues, ask questions, and air their views.

On one occasion, a 13-year-old Sikh boy spoke passionately about Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh riots. There was a brief but intense discussion on how, when governments fiddle with religion, no one is left unaffected. From Amritsar to Ayodhya, the scars are everywhere. I could sense a ripple of unease run through the adults in the classroom. After all, it’s easy for such discussions to get out of hand. Unsettled differences are the cause of much of the world’s grief and the classroom is no exception.

My solution, then, is to try and contextualize issues, without picking at historic wounds. Unifying ideas like democracy and secularism, I tell the children, have been tested repeatedly in a country as diverse as India. Either we can focus our attention on how intensely they have been tested or on the ideas themselves and how India has benefited every time it has chosen to put them before everything else. How Indians have prodded through all manner of challenges and differences to write the Constitution and conduct the greatest experiment in democracy. How scientists, regardless of their different religions sent a poor, underdeveloped nation into the space age. How dairy farmers acquired the most advanced dairy in the country back in the 1970s….

One of the biggest problems caused by dominant narratives is that they draw attention away from other things. I’ve found the greatest success in discussions around technology. After all, it’s such a huge part of children’s lives today. Many children are slightly surprised when I tell them that I had not heard of the internet or of mobile phones till I was 11 years old. But they recover quickly. “Miss, my grandmother still doesn’t know how to use her mobile phone properly”, “Miss, when did you first hear about Apple?”, “Miss, did you have a computer when you were in school?” The comments and questions come hard and fast.

At the end of the session, we discuss the pandemic – online education enabled by technology and how this came in the way of children who could not afford it. This leads to a larger discussion on examples of unequal development that became painfully evident during the pandemic and how India still has a long road ahead of it.

Addressing vulnerability
Contemporary history emerges from the stories of existing society. Unlike the history of long-dissolved civilizations and empires, its failures and successes are often too close for comfort. Even as an adult, I sometimes worry about the events unfolding around me and wonder what consequences they might have on my life. So, it’s easy to imagine the fears that children might experience as they negotiate the daily news cycle with tales of grisly murders, hate crimes, religious intolerance, natural disasters, etc.

Children, as author Katherine Rundell writes, are “people who have no money, no vote, no control over capital or labour or the institutions of state; who navigate the world in their knowledge of their vulnerability.” One needs to be conscious about this vulnerability when taking contemporary history to young readers.

For all its tales of doom and despair, history can also offer an antidote to fears. At the time of independence, few believed that a country made up of British provinces and over 500 princely states could survive as a nation, even for a few years. That a land stripped of its riches, wracked by disease and famine, and divided along tense communal lines could thrive in its aspirations. Yet, in seven decades since independence, India has grown beyond anyone’s expectations. Even though it has had its share of spectacular failures, stories of resilience and hard-won success are never far behind.

As someone taking contemporary history to young people, I can never let the latter fade away in the shadow of the former. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’m rubbing off my idealism on the students. But children, more often than not, tug at happiness harder than adults. They remind me of the need to hold on to my battle-weary idealism, and make room for hope instead of becoming cynical about the challenges of contemporary times. Besides, contemporary history is a story that’s still very much in the making and no matter what the dominant narrative might be, picture abhi baaki hai!

• Krishna Kumar as quoted in Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.
• Katherine Rundell, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise.

The author has written award-winning children’s books published by Penguin Random House India and Tulika Publishers. She can be reached at mg6686@gmail.com.

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