An Unfinished Democratizing Intervention: History Lessons in the 21st century for School Children in India

by Kumkum Roy, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

I do not remember when I first met Monica. However, from the 1980s, when I first began teaching in a college at the University of Delhi, I do remember hearing about a bright, energetic teacher and scholar. Our more systematic interactions started when I joined the Department of History at the University. Monica was already teaching there, and with her I learned to negotiate the nitty gritty of academic life, participating in exciting and intense discussions around texts that she initiated with students which were rigorous, demanding, challenging, insightful, and nuanced.

Some years later, we met again as part of a large, unwieldy yet enthusiastic team of historians, teachers, and administrators, trying to put in place a new curriculum for Indian school children to be developed through a series of fresh textbooks. Monica’s contribution, a chapter on the French Revolution for students of Class IX, remains one of my favorites. Apart from her own contribution, she was constantly available over e-mail responding promptly, efficiently, and precisely to all kinds of queries; verifying, clarifying, qualifying, and refining half-baked chapters, with energy and professional commitment that was remarkable. It is this combination of deep and reliable scholarship, presented imaginatively and creatively, along with her warmth and affection that makes Monica special.

Book Cover of India and the Contemporary World I: Textbook in History for Class IX. © by NCERT 2006.


In what follows, I reflect on the moment in 2005 when the National Curriculum Framework for India was revised, and turn to the implications and possibilities that opened up for the Social Sciences. I will be discussing Monica’s chapter, locating it within a larger framework, and draw attention to subsequent developments which indicate that the intervention of 2005 will most probably be reversed in the near future.

The ensuing years have witnessed dramatic changes in the educational scenario in India. Briefly: state-supported educational institutions are in a state of decline and being replaced by private institutions, where the former are highly subsidized offering virtually free education (apart from hidden costs) and the latter are often driven by concerns for profit. Consequently, access to education has become highly differentiated. State institutions now cater generally to the poor, marginalized, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, and, more often than not, to girls rather than boys; as wherever possible, in a society where gender hierarchies are sharp, parents usually invest in the education of boys rather than girls. This provides a broad context for the interventions discussed below.

The National Curriculum Framework 2005

The history of formal educational institutions in post-Independence India is complex, and I will not attempt to reconstruct it. At present, education comes under the purview of the central and state (provincial) governments as a concurrent subject within a political structure that is formally federal but is characterized by centralizing tendencies. School education is meant to be shaped by the National Curriculum Framework (henceforth NCF), prepared by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (henceforth NCERT), an autonomous institution with links to the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It is now likely to revert to its earlier name as the Ministry of Education. The NCERT also assumes the responsibility of designing, producing, and publishing textbooks, which often serve as models for state governments. These books are generally prescribed for school-leaving examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Examination (CBSE) which has affiliated schools throughout the country, though many states have State Boards that conduct school examinations independently. Although the NCERT and the CBSE are meant to work in tandem, this is not always the case. And in a situation where examination results are considered to be crucial by all the stakeholders in the system, the role of the CBSE is often critical. Additionally, National Curriculum Frameworks often tend to reflect the opinions of the party in power.

The NCF 2005 was preceded by a document known as the NCF 2000, characterized amongst other things by an insistence on the importance and centrality of Sanskrit. According to the document (Section 2.8.3):

Sanskrit has a special claim on the national system of education because it: Has consistently been need [sic] in India for thousands of years and is still inextricably linked with the life, rituals, ceremonies and festivals of vast Indian masses; contains great store of knowledge and wisdom that needs to be revived, reformulated and enriched with whatever is the best in modern disciplines of knowledge; has the universal appeal all over the country; has very close structural, lexical and semantic relationship with Hindi and most other regional languages of India; … and has been internationally accepted as the most scientifically structured language and is being increasingly acknowledged as the best suited language for computer use. Therefore, it is extremely important to provide for and encourage the study of Sanskrit …[i]

While I have personally enjoyed learning Sanskrit, and use the language in my work as a professional historian, this privileging of Sanskrit was troubling for a variety of reasons. It ignored the histories of transmission, inclusion and exclusion, of the language and the textual traditions associated with it. Women and Shudras (those ranked fourth in the caste hierarchy) as well as Dalits and Adivasis, had been denied access to sacred texts in Sanskrit for centuries. Besides, Sanskrit cannot be considered representative of minorities such as Muslims and Christians. Also, some of the claims made on behalf of the language were unwarranted.

It was this potentially exclusionary framework that was contested in the NCF 2005. Its perspective is laid down as follows:

Seeking guidance from the Constitutional vision of India as a secular, egalitarian and pluralistic society, founded on the values of social justice and equality, certain broad aims of education have been identified in this document… For teaching to serve as a means of strengthening our democratic way of life, it must respond to the presence of first generation school-goers, whose retention is imperative owing to the Constitutional amendment that has made elementary education a fundamental right of every child. Ensuring health, nutrition and an inclusive school environment empowering all children in their learning, across differences of caste, religion, gender, disability, is enjoined upon us by the Constitutional amendment.[ii]

Thus, there was an emphasis on inclusivity rooted in an understanding of the democratization of education as an on-going process. Also, the framework urged those designing syllabi and textbooks to incorporate fresh disciplinary insights, broader perspectives, and pedagogical strategies that involve the learner, rather than imparting information in the prevalent top-down mode that almost inevitably encouraged rote learning.

The New History Textbooks

In his sectional presidential address titled ‘Towards a Broader Canvas: Historiography of Countries Other than India in the Textbooks of the NCERT’ (Indian History Congress, 71st session, Gaur Banga University, Malda, 11th-13th February 2011), Hari Vasudevan, Chairperson of the Advisory Groups of the Textbook Development Committee of the NCERT, posed a question and provided an answer:

How far should the world of the researcher, the world of the university teacher and the world of the school coincide? The provisional answer to this must be that there can only be a limited disconnect.[iii]

In fact, one of the distinguishing features of the post-NCF 2005 scenario was an attempt to set up a dialogue between researchers, specialists, and school teachers as well as learners.

The pre-2005 history textbooks as Vasudevan noted,[iv] were selective, as indeed any textbook is. Furthermore, their narrow focus meant that questions from economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, and cultural studies found little or no space.[v] The attempt to redress the situation was characterized by a three-pronged approach for Classes IX and X. One strategy was to focus on developments in India, comparing these with other parts of the world. The second was to introduce historical developments that were not obviously connected to the Indian situation but yet “created Indian echoes,”[vi] and the third was developing themes in which India was central. Monica’s chapter exemplifies the second strategy. As Vasudevan observes: “The treatment of the French Revolution and National Socialism in Germany point to them as events that were great concentrations of experience which would mark and mar the modern world.”[vii]

There was another set of concerns, primarily pedagogical, that shaped the textbooks. These were lucidly described and elucidated by George and Madan:

The new textbooks have resulted from another question: how can textbooks reshape interaction between teachers and students in the classroom, so as to encourage students to think and weigh arguments (instead of only memorizing facts). So, while the earlier textbook writers debated whether to include particular bits of information (“Did the people of Rig Vedic society eat beef?”), and their decision was guided by ideological preferences, the writers of the new textbooks focused on the learning of history—what is history, how does one learn about the past, what are the complexities, how does a historian work amidst them, and so on.[viii]

India and the Contemporary World I, was part of an endeavour to bridge the “gap between the school, home and community,” and to “discourage rote learning.”[ix] Underlying this was a more radical shift—an attempt to “treat children as participants in learning, not as receivers of a fixed body of knowledge.”[x] The preliminary pages included the preamble of the Constitution of India,[xi] which was particularly apposite, given that the very first chapter of the book dealt with the French Revolution.

An Exemplary Chapter: The French Revolution

The chapter contributed by Monica, on the French Revolution, was part of this volume for students of Class IX (available as a free download from the NCERT website).[xii] One of its salient features was a consistent tracing of gender relations through various sections.[xiii]

The French Revolution is a landmark in human history because its slogan of liberty, equality, and fraternity inspired democratic movements in the decades and centuries that followed. Even if the revolution itself did not live up to the expectations of all those who had participated in it.

The chapter consists of six sections:

      1. French Society During the Late Eighteenth Century
      2. The Outbreak of the Revolution
      3. France Abolishes Monarchy and Becomes a Republic
      4. Did Women have a Revolution?
      5. The Abolition of Slavery
      6. The Revolution and Everyday Life

The chapter is also richly illustrated with seventeen captioned visuals accompanied by thought-provoking questions, integrating and enriching the text. These visuals include prints, sketches, paintings, charts, and maps.

The third structural element apart from the latter consists of boxes set in the margin explaining unfamiliar terms and concepts, inserted close to where they occur in the text.

Far more challenging are the boxes containing activities. These invite the learner to explore and analyse the material and form as well as express their own opinions. Some activities urge the learner to compare different viewpoints—such as those of Maximilien de Robespierre and Camille Desmoulin on liberty and tyranny or between the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the manifesto of Olympe de Gouges advocating the rights of women. These activities push the learner to appreciate the grey areas within apparently transformative historical moments. They create space for moving beyond simple classification of the French Revolution as either good or bad. Instead, they allow and even encourage an argument.

Overall, the chapter compels the learner to ask from whose perspective are they seeing or understanding issues, pushing the learner to move away from their comfort zone to a more unsettling engagement with a complex world.

I will illustrate this with a more detailed discussion on the treatment of gender in this chapter based on an earlier presentation.[xiv]

The very first paragraph of the chapter mentions that about 7,000 men and women took to the streets of Paris and organized themselves into a people’s militia on 14th July, 1789.[xv] In the hands of a gender-sensitive teacher this enables both teacher and learner to trace out the presence of women as a running strand throughout the text.

Further on, there is a box with excerpts from eyewitnesses who lived and travelled through France before the outbreak of the revolution. One of them, Arthur Young, who noted the sharp social and economic disparities that marked French society, observed: “And he who chooses to dine to the accompaniment of his victims’ groans, should not complain if during a riot his daughter gets kidnapped or his son’s throat is slit.”[xvi] Once again, a gender-sensitive teacher could pick up the statement and open it up for discussion on the ways in which large-scale violence often impacts differently on women and men.

Women who participated in the revolution also took part in apparently violent acts. For instance, one learns that part of the crisis that precipitated the French Revolution was an acute shortage of food—and women, after waiting in queues for hours, stormed the bakeries to get bread.[xvii] Examples such as these allow the learner and the teacher to investigate questions such as, which women were involved in these acts and why?

The first phase of the revolution was followed by warfare—both within the country and outside. This, interestingly, created certain opportunities for women—they found themselves in charge of household matters, and were also able to set up their own clubs or associations to press for their political demands.[xviii]

The question then arises, if women were active participants in the revolution, then what was the impact of the revolution on them?

Consider the vignette where the king convened an assembly of the three estates. Here, the first two estates, the clergy and the nobility, were allowed to sit, whereas those who represented the third estate were expected to stand. What is more, peasants, artisans, and women were denied entry, although they had filed thousands of petitions listing their grievances.[xix] Once again, the teacher can pick up the thread of the ways in which women (and others) were excluded and highlight it for the learner.

In a sense, this symbolic exclusion became real as the Revolution progressed. When a Constitution was put in place in 1791, women, children, and men below the age of twenty-five were designated as passive citizens with no voting rights.[xx] The grounds for inclusion and exclusion (men with property were given greater rights than those without) can be opened up for lively discussions.

At the same time, gestures were made towards the notion of equality. It can be noted that terms like Monsieur and Madame were replaced by citoyen (m.) and citoyenne (f.) implying a degree of equality amongst all those who were designated as citizens.[xxi]

Also, there were some major improvements that were attempted—schooling became compulsory for girls, and women could no longer be forced into marriage by their fathers. Marriage itself started being regarded as a civil contract. Divorce was legalized and could be applied for, by both men and women.[xxii] However, women’s suffrage was realized only in 1946.

How did women respond to the situation? There is interesting material including a visual of liberty that was conceptualized as a woman by a woman artist, Nanine Villain.[xxiii]

Jeanne-Louise (Nanine) Vallain (1767-1815), Liberty (La Liberté), c. 1793-1794, oil on canvas, 128 × 97 cm, Musée de la Révolution française, Department of Paintings of the Louvre, INV 8258. Photographer: E. Binnen, 1970. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Clearly, the turmoil of the revolution created opportunities for women to train as artists and display their work. The visual allows the learner to see how the artist used the revolutionary symbols—the three colours of the flag of the French Republic—red, white, and blue. Villain also shows the woman holding two things—a sheaf of papers symbolic of the Declaration of Rights and a cap. The cap was a symbol of liberty. However, women were not allowed to wear it. It is interesting to see how the artist both sticks to this provision and attempts to break away from it by creating the figure of liberty who holds the cap of freedom high in her left hand. Analysing such images helps open up questions about how gender relations/ identities can be negotiated if not transformed.

Another visual depicts less exalted women in action.[xxiv] This print shows ordinary women dressed in the colours of the revolution—red, white, and blue, carrying as their weapons tools of daily use—rakes, axes, hoes, and holding aloft a standard with the sign of justice—the scales and the cap as a symbol of liberty. It is evidently a representation of the women whose lives are described in the text, working for a living and carrying the burden of housework as well.

These women organized themselves into clubs and put forward demands for equal rights. One of the leaders, de Gouges, made an impassioned and reasoned plea for equality stating “Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights.”[xxv] However, many revolutionary men such as Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette thought that the difference between men and women was natural and insisted that it be maintained. Ultimately, most of the women’s political associations were closed down, and women such as de Gouges were executed.

Once the reading of the French Revolution is engendered, the understanding of it becomes more complex. It is no longer simply the starting point of present-day democracies. It also represents a time when ordinary women actively participated in revolutionary activities, some of their hopes and dreams were met while many remained unfulfilled. It leaves the learner with a richer, perhaps even disturbing understanding of historical processes and their impact, and can shape future interventions in the world in a variety of ways.

The Fate of the Chapter

All the material contained in schoolbooks is ultimately subjected to examinations, designed and conducted by the CBSE. Unfortunately, in spite of several attempts at reform, examination questions generally reduce even the most innovative chapters into material for rote learning. This is often supported by a series of unofficial, parallel publications. The French Revolution, for instance, figures in a volume known as the Golden Social Science.[xxvi] The preliminary pages of the Golden Social Science emerge from an immediate, pragmatic milieu, far removed from the Constitution and its values. The reader learns:


The Golden Books contain all that is required in the examinations.
The Golden Books are written in sweet, simple but idiomatic language.

The Golden Books contain all the Expected Questions likely to be set in the Examinations.

The Golden Books suit all the pockets and serve the triple purpose of Textbooks, Help-books and Examination Papers, just All-in-One.

Running into thirty-one pages with only a single visual, the chapter on the French Revolution in the Golden Social Science provides the reader with a relentless torrent of accurate information.

The first section, titled ‘TECHNICAL TERMS’,[xxvii] includes virtually all the words glossed along the margins of India and the Contemporary World I. However here, each is a standalone term, deprived of the context in which it is used and converted into a decontextualized item to be committed to memory. Given that a total of twenty-nine terms are listed, studying the French Revolution can become an intimidating task.

The second section is titled ‘NCERT TEXTBOOK QUESTIONS’ and provides answers to all the questions posed at the end of the chapter in India and the Contemporary World I.[xxviii] The largest number of questions (fifty-five) is in the section titled: ‘VERY SHORT ANSWER TYPE QUESTIONS.’[xxix]

There are three features that are noteworthy. Firstly, all the questions are answered and answered accurately. Hence, all that the learner has to do is to memorize the ‘correct’ answers. Secondly, the chapter is converted into a total of 140 questions. If the ten activities and the six questions from India and the Contemporary World I are included then there are 156 answers to be learned. Thirdly, the structure of the chapter as developed in India and the Contemporary World I is dismantled, and the information provided is reassembled. This follows certain principles.

The first strategy is to arrange the questions in an order that does not correspond to that of the chapter in India and the Contemporary World I. This sequencing disrupts the logic of the original chapter. The other strategy that renders the original chapter redundant is the weightage given to various sections in the Golden Social Sciences. For example, there is not a single question on section 4, which poses and addresses the question, ‘Did Women have a Revolution?’. And expectedly, there is an overwhelming emphasis on rote learning. A typical example is No. 41.

Austrian princess Marie Antoinette was queen of which of the following French rulers?
(a) Louis XIII (b) Louis XIV
(c) Louis XV (d) Louis XVI[xxx]

Consequently, Golden Social Science introduces fresh content. This in itself would have been unexceptionable, even desirable. However, these insertions of ‘fresh’ material almost invariably cluster around a set of historical figures who lend themselves to being classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or as winners or losers. Thus, Louis XVI and Napoleon receive considerable attention.

I will conclude this section by quoting an interpretation of a term from the list of technical terms in the Golden Social Science.

Revolution: A recognized momentous change in any situation. A revolution may result in sudden overthrow of an established government or system by force and bloodshed, e.g., the French Revolution. It can also be a great change that comes slowly and peacefully e.g., the Industrial Revolution.[xxxi]

Meanwhile, India and the Contemporary World I does not attempt to circumscribe or define a revolution.

It is likely that the majority of students and teachers for whom the examination is a hurdle to be crossed, and for whom the social sciences are a low priority in any case, pay far more attention to the Golden Social Science and its equivalents, and ignore or at best refer occasionally to India and the Contemporary World I. While this may be an effective strategy for passing the examination, it also means that most learners with access to formal education end up considering history as an assortment of facts, more or less easily recalled, and more or less relevant. The challenge of thinking through the past, of engaging in a dialogue between the past and the present, is virtually erased. The potential for argument, debate, and discussion, and the chance to evaluate and assess historical writing, and the blurred and constantly shifting lines between history, myth, and fiction is also lost.

Where are We Today?

It is evident that the promises and the vision of NCF 2005 were only partly realized, and that some of the richest and most challenging chapters were reduced to material for rote learning within the entrails of the examination system. But there are more challenges that loom ahead. We are likely to see an overhaul of the entire education system, including school education. The privileging of Sanskrit at the cost of other languages, with all the exclusions it entails, implicitly and explicitly, is being advocated once again along with a unitary and almost monolithic Indian identity.[xxxii] What is at stake is the survival of critical thinking, a pedagogical approach that enables learners to pose questions and find answers, an engagement with plurality, diversity, and multiple perspectives. In such a situation, thoughtful intellectuals like Monica will be greatly needed, to intervene and to remind us of constructive and complex possibilities.


[i] National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), “National Curriculum Framework 2000 (NCF 2000)” (NCERT, New Delhi, 2000),, 53–54.

[ii] National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), “National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF 2005)” (New Delhi, 2005),, vii–viii.

[iii] Hari Vasudevan, “Towards a Broader Canvas: Historiography of Countries Other Than India in the Textbooks of the NCERT,” in Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, ed. Indian History Congress 71 (Kolkata: Indian History Congress, 2010-2011), accessed December 10, 2020,, 876.

[iv] Vasudevan, “Towards a Broader Canvas,” 886.

[v] Vasudevan, “Towards a Broader Canvas,” 886.

[vi] Vasudevan, “Towards a Broader Canvas,” 886.

[vii] Vasudevan, “Towards a Broader Canvas,” 888–89.

[viii] Alex M. George and Amman Madan, Teaching Social Science in Schools: NCERT’s New Textbook Initiative (New Delhi: Sage, 2009), 6.

[ix] National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), ed., India and the Contemporary World I: Textbook in History for Class IX (New Delhi: NCERT, 2006), iii.

[x] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, iii.

[xi] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, viii.

[xii] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 3–24.

[xiii] Some of what follows is drawn from Kumkum Roy, “The Uses and Teaching of History’,” in Handbook of Education in India: Debates, Practices and Policies, ed. Krishna Kumar (New Delhi: Routledge, 2017).

[xiv] Kumkum Roy, “Why Engender History?,” (unpublished manuscript, 2011).

[xv] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 3.

[xvi] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 7.

[xvii] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 9.

[xviii] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 14.

[xix] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 8.

[xx] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 10, Fig. 7.

[xxi] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 16.

[xxii] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 19.

[xxiii] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 15, Fig. 10.

[xxiv] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 18, Fig. 12.

[xxv] NCERT, India and the Contemporary World I, 20.

[xxvi] Sudha Rastogi et al., eds., Golden Social Science: A Refresher for Class IX (With Sample Papers) (New Delhi: New Age International), A 2–32.

[xxvii] Rastogi et al., Golden Social Science, A 2–3.

[xxviii] Rastogi et al., Golden Social Science, A 3–6.

[xxix] Rastogi et al., Golden Social Science, A 6–10.

[xxx] Rastogi et al., Golden Social Science, A 31.

[xxxi] Rastogi et al., Golden Social Science, A 3.

[xxxii] For details see Kumkum Roy, “Elusive India: Lost in the National Education Policy,” The JMC Review 4 (2020), accessed December 10, 2020,


Kumkum Roy teaches ancient Indian social history at the Centre of Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her publications include The Emergence of Monarchy in North India (1994) and The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power (2010). She is interested in gender, political institutions, histories of marginalized groups as well as in pedagogical issues pertaining to the teaching of history, and has worked with teams involved in the production of school textbooks at the state and national level.

Cite this blog post
Jennifer Bürk (2020, December 30). An Unfinished Democratizing Intervention: History Lessons in the 21st century for School Children in India. Art History and Transculturation. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search