What Indian school children learn about the Partition

I wrote recently about the surprising political maturity with which NCERT textbooks teach Indian students about the Partition. These textbooks were prepared under the National Curriculum Framework of 2005. This is of course not limited to the Partition chapter or indeed just the history textbooks. But I was particularly moved to see the Partition chapter. As you read it you realise what school textbooks can do in shaping how future generations see themselves, their own history and identity. I think a lot of people in both India and Pakistan would like to read it. Here it is:

24 thoughts on “What Indian school children learn about the Partition”

  1. I agree with your sentiments, Shivam. I really do. A couple of years ago, a certain Daniyal Noorani, who was at the time some MTV something of the month or other, asked me to collaborate with him on a music video for a song that was dedicated to peace and amity between us lost cousins. I felt the same emotions stirring then. But in the end, I could not work with him for a few other reasons. But there was one other thought that came to him, that I was a south Indian and yet connected with the partition and its aftermath.

    To tell you the truth, we south Indians have always been left out of the ethos and sentiments of our north Indian brethren. Maybe because we were not so affected by the disaster, nor by the massacres that happened in a land far away from our isolated existence. There is a certain kind of alienation between the north and south in that way. The north has always been disdainful of us because, apparently, we did not contribute to freedom. We were not famous for martyrs or freedom fighters (of course, that is because we probably did not have the kind of myth making or exposure as the north indian heroes either). Come to think of it, we will always be Madraasis, even in our national anthem, below the vindhyas there is only Madrasa, nothing else.

    I am not being chauvinistic or one of those Dravida warriors, but I just wanted to say that the connect that the northern people have to the events of the 47 partition is often lost upon the people living in the south. Very often, those in the north have felt the pain and the loss at first-hand. In the south, there was little of the strife (or should I say, little was known of the strife). Whatever the reason, I can still empathize with what we have lost to the partition. It will always remain a heavy burden. (And it is not akin to Savarkar having a statue of Bharat Maata, with her head chained in the paki region and me saying “I want my motherland to be reunited”. No, I want an unification, not reunification).

    I wish this became a common history for us as Indians rather than as northerners and southerners. But the disparity and disconnect will always prevail.
    And must I add? This is one of the reasons Hindutva works so well in the north compared to the South. There are still raw wounds there, still open, that fester, give constant reminders of what was done then. Here is our relative seclusion, we were protected from the worst of it.
    But, yes, it is a lesson worth learning – a history worth preserving, in spite of the pain the reminder causes. I commend your sense of history and oneness. I hope it is taken up by most people and if they could remember their own history, without the cynicism or the blame, then it would be truly an effort worth lauding.

  2. This is indeed a welcome change to the study of history in schools, not only because it depoliticises and contextualises a complex and processual event like Partition, but also because it alerts students to the dynamic construction of historiography and the crucial role oral history can play despite its purported epistemological flaws. When I was a student in Class 12 not so long ago, trying to combine archival government records with my grandmother and grand aunt’s “memories” through interviews alongwith other memoirs to reach a fuller understanding of Partition, I was not fully aware of the contradictions inherent in the methodology. Perhaps the contradictions are the best way to grapple with Partition though, beyond the male-oriented, political discourse that emanates mostly from a warped understanding of present day India-Pakistan (or for that matter, Bangladesh) relations, and celebrates Independence as a teleological ‘end of history’ (which was certainly the case with my History textbook). As I continue to research Partition’s longer term impacts on migration in Bengal, I only wish the chapter had highlighted why interrogating the effects of Partition continues to be important today.

  3. This is seriously impressive and huge leaps forward from the old hyper-nationalistic accounts. My only critique: in terms of suggested readings, there is no mention of Ayesha Jalal (whose own argument is clearly taken into account in the chapter). Still, fabulous.

    1. Perhaps, Prof. Jalal could follow the example of Neeladri Bhattacharya et al and write an equivalent textbook for Pakistan’s version of the NCERT. Would be good de-programming for that country’s schoolchildren still learning pretty hateful stuff. Perhaps an intellectual collaboration with the likes of Pervez Hoodbhoy would generate some much-needed rational discussion of history there. Although textbook content doesn’t seem to affect the ravings and rantings of Internet (so-called educated) bigots on this side of the border.

  4. Never read anything more balanced than this chapter regarding partition. Not just children the chapter should be made available to more and more adults to understand our history better. A lot of people more or less have a very misinformed and slanted view of partition and its causes. Everyone remembers the effects of partition, but not the reasons. This book helps people shed more light into the reasons for it, while objectively analyzing the effects.

  5. Followed your link to the story. Which textbook did you read where “Jinnah was the villain”? Was it a State Board? I had the old CBSE syllabus and I simply don’t remember it being stated like that. The new ones are of course more up-to-date with the research and better written, but I don’t recall any blatant Jinnah-hating from my (admittedly long ago) schooldays, even in the “official” NCERT history.

  6. Indeed very heartwarming. I did share this with a few of my North Indian and Pakistani friends to know what they think of it. However, sadly I myself did not study this in school because Social Sciences are optional after grade 10. So as balanced and eye opening the piece was, I think only a very limited number of students going through the CBSE system may have come across this brilliantly done chapter. Thanks for sharing Shivam!

  7. Very good in every respect — intelligent history writing, textbook writing, mode of dissipation of information (pictures, captions etc.), politics of selection, sources, everything! I’m happy for the children who read these books.

    A book that explores this issue in depth is “Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan” by Krishna Kumar. New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 2001. An excellent read.

  8. This is absolutely fascinating. Thank you for posting the link to the NCERT text. And how I wish such a text were extant when I was a school kid in the 1960s.
    Professor Krishna Kumar, former director of the NCERT and one of the most sober and brilliant minds as regards education, wrote this book several years ago: “Prejudice and pride: school histories of the freedom struggle in India and Pakistan”
    I read the Kafila article just as I was translating a book review for a journal. The book in question is about history textbooks in East Asia, where intense anger flares periodically over reports of what revised Japanese textbooks say — or do NOT say — regarding events in the 20th century.
    (Fortunately the 5+ page introduction and the list of contributors is free to view. I draw particular attention to one of the contributors, Falk Pingel, consultant to UNESCO, an organisation that was the object of hate during the Ronald Reagan era in the US which dictated terms to international organisations).

  9. I was fortunate to study this chapter directly from the author himself, Prof. Anil Sethi. The sensitivity, sincerity and honesty with which this chapter has been written and the way it was taught to us in class was an inspiring and a moving experience. The textbook, this chapter in particular and Anil sir’s lectures inspired me to take up History in College.

    1. My thoughts exactly Ainee! I was fortunate to have Professor Sethi deliver longer versions of this chapter as lectures when I was at DU. I can hardly forget the Modern India classes we had with him. Barring classes with a few teachers, in most other history lectures one sat and yawned, and whiled away the time. With Professor Sethi, there would be such animated discussions among students– even long after his lectures had ended. I think what we found appealing, and what is evident even in this Partition chapter is that with him History felt like something tangible, it felt like it was about the experiences of ordinary people, and not some remote ‘subject’ that belonged only in books!

  10. So good to see this. It is true that North India (Punjab/Haryana/UP/Delhi/Bengal) bore the brunt of Partition, as one of your readers from Karnataka says.

  11. Excellent link which may provoke objective thought on both sides of the border.
    Just the other day my mom mentioned that at 6 months of age she was hidden under dead bodies (with milk powder) in the migration from Lahore to India. What sort of memories are we creating by proving one religion or social group is superior to another? Inhouse and otherwise.
    A good read Satish Saberwal’s “Spirals of Contention: Why India was partitioned in 1947”? I believe the inspiration for this book came from a student question in Pakistan.
    There are a lot of people on both sides interested in unification through indo-pak friendship FB page, art, writings, films, and sports. Infact I have heard similar things from Bangladeshi friends who look up to India.
    Proposal: Let us set a better role model where once their people come over, we can aid their progress through quality work instead of exploiting cheap labor or blaming them for their countrys inadequacies.
    Ofcourse, giving free land and easy business is not an option based on our previous charitable experiences!

  12. These NCERT textbooks are indeed a great step forward. Not just in their coverage of difficult topics like Partition, but also in their introductions to citizenship and democracy in the lower class levels. Kudos to Krishna Kumar and the NCERT team.

    However, I think there are two statements in the text that left questions in my head.

    “Muslims were angered by “music-before-mosque”, by the cow protection movement, and by the efforts of the Arya Samaj to bring back to the Hindu fold (shuddhi ) those who had recently converted to Islam.”

    It is not clear to me why ‘Muslims’ would be uniformly angered by conversions from Islam (unless they were forcible) and I dont understand what all Muslims would have against cows.

    “Hindus were angered by the rapid spread of tabligh (propaganda) and tanzim (organisation) after 1923.”

    This makes no sense either.

    Obviously the roots of Hindu-Muslim antagonism in the early 1900s run deeper. Perhaps these class levels are not appropriate to discuss such matters. But if we cant bring up the truths, we should definitely not replace them with half and un-truths.

  13. Prof. Krishan Kumar, former director if NCERT also wrote a book on comparative study of history as it is taught in schools of India and Pakistan. The name of the book is Prejudice and Pride, it is a very good example of how nationalistic jingoism changes the way one looks at history.

  14. The history of national movement and partition and the way it was taught during my school days often left me wondering about the “heroes” and the “villains”. It was tacitly implied that Muslims, the “betrayers”, connived with Jinnah resulting in partition! I remember secretly hoping that this portion was either skipped or totally scrapped off the books. Thanks is due to Anil Sethi for offering, many many children like Ainee, a balanced insight into the complex event and an alternative view of Nationalism.

  15. I’ve had the pleasure of having been taught about the Partition by the man who wrote this chapter. So there are fond memories attached to it. And needless to say because it’s already been said so many times that it’s an excellent piece of work.
    Kudos to Anil Sir. :)

  16. Brilliantly written chapter. Especially the sources which incite a lot of interest and humanity to an event one would really not want to hear about much. The students are moved and this chapter has helped them to see a perspective not hitherto known i.e.the Pakistani perspective. It has helped to develop empathy for Muslims and thus build bridges much more than than any instruction can do. Great work!

  17. It is my fortunate that I currently study history from the auther Anilji, His class is great and he is very open and also more happy if you ‘fight’ with him on his views..

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