On the right side of history: 3 Bengal teachers combat distortion of past

At a time when the BJP-led Centre is accused of rewriting history in textbooks, these women are writing children's books on the Partition, citizenship and linguistic politics

A page from 'Desher Manush (The People of the Nation)', depicting the different citizenship laws that have historically determined citizenship in India (photo courtesy: Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata)
A page from 'Desher Manush (The People of the Nation)', depicting the different citizenship laws that have historically determined citizenship in India (photo courtesy: Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata)

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

At a time when the BJP-ruled central government in India is being accused of rewriting history and appropriating 'facts' in the service of the Hindu nationalist agenda, three women historians and academics from West Bengal have come together to author children’s books on the "real history" of topics such as the Partition, citizenship, language politics in the post-colonial period.

Part of a project initiated in 2022 and helmed by the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata (ISDK), with funding from the German political foundation Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS), the books by Anwesha Sengupta, Debarati Bagchi and Tista Das are written from a holistic critical perspective to underscore the diversity and plurality of the nation.

Three books have been published so far under the project 'Revisiting the Craft of History Writing for Children'. The series of books — called Itihashe Hatekhori ('first dabbles in history') — was originally published in Bengali, and later translated into English and Assamese.

The three books are:

  • Deshbhag (Partition) by Anwesha Sengupta

  • Desher Bhasha (Languages of the Land) by Debarati Bagchi

  • Desher Manush (People of the Land) by Tista Das

The illustrations have been done by Ranjit and Sirajuddaulah Chitrakar, patachitra artists from West Bengal’s Pingla village. 

Aimed at school children between the ages of 12 and 14, these picture books simplify landmark moments in India’s history, such as the 1947 Partition of India, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, the Citizenship Act of 1955, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and its recent amendments.

The project aims to make contentious and sensitive issues about borders, territory, rights and belonging accessible as well as enjoyable for children, as a way to encourage them to engage with India’s history beyond their school-mandated textbooks. 'To provide a factually correct and historiographically informed narrative of deeply contested issues lucidly and from an intersectional perspective' is the objective, according to the project statement.

Speaking to National Herald, Sengupta, the author of Deshbhag, says that nine more books are in the pipeline, touching upon similar crossroads in the nation's history.

"Through these books, we wanted to discuss the idea of a 'nation' and simplify what constitutes national identity and belonging for children," she said. "These are all historically constructed ideas. These are not sacrosanct principles. The borders of India shifted in 1947, and then in 1971. We wanted to emphasise the fluidity of a nation-state and the volatile nature of territorial boundaries." 

Highlighting that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the consequent nationwide reaction compelled historians to 'correct the narrative', Sengupta adds, "We wanted to introduce children to the idea of citizenship, making space for conversations around who is an 'Indian', a 'refugee' or an 'illegal immigrant'.”

In a recent interview with The Hindu, Das, who authored Desher Manush, said, "History textbooks for children do not really engage with ideas of citizenship, which are part of the curriculum for Civics. Therefore, for children, the legal framework in independent India is usually coterminous with a sense of justice, and citizenship is understood through a uniform notion of rights and duties. It was essential, therefore, to put across the idea of a difference in the experience of citizenship for different groups of people in India, which this book has tried to do." 

Since the BJP came to power in 2014, there have been multiple amendments to textbooks, with critics alleging a "saffronisation" of the curriculum. The 'infiltration' of non-historians into the field of education and their initiatives in the recent past to remove or attempt to erase essential points of Indian history — such as the Partition, the Mughal era, references to Islamic leaders and thinkers, riots connected to the prime minister's own career history, references to Mahatma Gandhi's opposition of Hindu nationalism — and of various other critical perspectives has triggered mass outrage from academics and activists alike.

Rudrashish Chakraborty, associate professor in the department of English, Delhi University, told National Herald, "Government-run academic spaces are full of officials who have no idea what critical thinking is all about. The administration today prescribes Hindutva collaborators like Savarkar while removing Iqbal's political theory. They have a skewed understanding of the Partition. For them, the Partition is not a human tragedy but a golden goose to be monetised periodically to further expand their personal and political interests."

Historians have to actively counter this "infiltration" by the non-historians, who have immense state-backed power and resources, says Sengupta, who believes that responding to "right-wing propaganda" through presenting informed narratives in the public forum is the need of the hour. She added, "Our intention is to critically engage with the past and enjoy the process. As historians, we are all concerned about the right wing's distortion of facts and ideological cleansing. Itihashe Hatekhori is our response to the Centre’s ongoing mission of erasure of certain crucial points of Indian history."

While copies of the three books have already been distributed free of cost to various schools, teachers, libraries, NGOs, press and policy makers (250 Bengali copies, 150 English and Assamese each) over the past year, the PDF and open-source versions are freely available on the ISDK websites and circulated through emails and social media.

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