This article tries to point out some of the difficulties faced by a teacher teaching the history of the Indian National Movement to a class of senior students within the constraints of a certain received version of it assumed and propagated by the syllabus and by standard textbooks. The author points out that such ‘official’ versions of the Indian National Movement are rather simplistic and ignore personalities, movements and groups whose interest did not exactly coincide with those espoused in the received versions. She advocates what she considers would be a more balanced view. This article will be of interest to teachers teaching the history of the Indian National Movement in Indian schools. — Ed.

I have been studying the history of modern India for over a decade. Last year, I had the opportunity to teach a part of this history—from the 1857 Revolt to 1947—to Class Ten at The School, KFI. This year, too I have taught the same course. My observations and reflections on teaching the history of Indian Nationalism are based on my combined experiences of reading and teaching.

The Problem of the Textbook

For the teacher of Indian Nationalism in the schoolroom, the first obstacle is the one posed by the syllabus and how the standard textbooks interpret and adapt this to what they imagine to be pedagogical needs.

  1. Most textbooks assume the fact of Indian national identity as a given—we attained independence from the British in 1947 and if we are to explain how this came about, we need to provide clear causal links from the past to the present. This, of course, means that the past is read in terms of a singular logic. Events and actors in history, the motives that animated the latter, and the circumstances and contexts that determined the former are discussed or privileged only to the extent that they lead seamlessly to 1947. Anything which detracts from this goal is given short shrift. Thus, for example, the debates around social and religious reform, education and national identity are referred to in the barest possible terms, and only to link the actors involved in these matters to the struggle for political freedom, or extricate them from it, as the case may be. Likewise, events of a later period—the two decades leading to 1947—and the contentious issues they raised, such as Dr. Ambedkar’s disagreement with Gandhi on the question of the rights of the Untouchables, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s concern over the increasingly strident Hindu sentiments voiced by certain Congressmen, are ignored.

    Interestingly, when I attempted to link the struggle for political freedom with these various issues, a child raised a pertinent question: if these problems had been taken seriously then, perhaps, we wouldn’t have to deal with them today. He meant issues of caste discrimination and the communal divide. This seems to me, not just a comment on modern Indian history, but also the way this is remembered, recorded and transmitted today. Whatever the debates amongst historians on these matters, and these are undoubtedly rich and complex, they seldom figure in school textbooks, and more important, do not possess a public resonance. Thus, school history comprises ideas and opinions that are at best a set of untenable generalizations about the essential unity of Indian society and nation. These gravely expressed pieties imperceptibly merge with the historical commonsense all around us—a commonsense informed by a heady and rhetorical patriotism, by an obdurate sense of ‘my country, right or wrong’. In effect, this leaves the child who is prone to questioning and curious about ‘what happened then’ bewildered: did we not know better in the past? Or have we mis-remembered the past? Does the fault lie with historical actors in the past or with historians?
  1. The second important limitation to the textbooks we possess is, for reasons best known to the authors of these books, that they present the history of the Indian National Movement as essentially the history of the Indian National Congress. This is problematic for a number of reasons. It assumes that the Congress, as the main player in the past, and the most successful, is therefore a historical icon almost and therefore beyond blame or reproach. Nothing in the textbooks allows the student to understand the Congress or its leaders critically. The class-caste composition of the Congress leadership, the fact that its decisions were as much motivated by tactical considerations as by ideological ones, the relationship of the Congress to other political and social movements—these are either not discussed, or if they have to be, are done in a manner that shows the party and its leadership to advantage. Thus crucial moments in the Congress’ political growth, such as the emergence of differences between Gandhi and Subash Bose, which resulted, eventually, in the latter leaving the Congress to found, first the Forward Bloc, and later, the Indian National Army, are not argued out. Neither are we told why Bose chose to disagree with Gandhi at that moment in time, nor are we allowed even a glimpse into the deeply ambiguous nature of the Congress’ relationship to the British during this period.
  1. Another serious problem with the textbook has to do with its sense of what constitutes India. Here, again, the idea of India is made to appear coterminous with the concerns and interests of the Congress party, and its official and unofficial ideologues. The diverse nature of this society, the extremely specific manner in which different parts of the subcontinent responded to the events of the period that we are concerned with, the tension, sometimes creative, and at other times antagonistic, between local realities and larger political imperatives as outlined by Gandhi or the Congress—these constitute the grime and grit of history during this period. However, these are all ironed out, ignored in a saga of national history, where we have a sense of a nation, but not of the people who constitute this nation. Predictably, amongst those whose lives and work are treated as being of national importance, leaders and movements from the south, east and west of India figure very marginally or not at all.
  1. The textbook reflects the standard political understanding of the communal problem. Muslims are comrades and heroes when they and the Hindus make common cause; when they do not, they immediately become ‘separatists’ or ‘pro-British’. This rather political—and pedagogically problematic—treatment of an extremely contentious and sensitive issue is bound to confuse the child. For one, a patriot, by being one, ceases to be a Hindu, whereas a Muslim who is not willing to subscribe to a certain notion of patriotism, becomes communal. Thus Hindus become patriotic and Muslims communal. To disentangle this conundrum is challenging, especially since the textbook, with no help from the Hindu Right Wing, assumes this as a fundamental premise. Clearly the problem is not just ‘Hindutva’ and its rewritings of history, but ‘Nationalism’ itself, as an idea that is so naturalized that neither the syllabus makers, nor the political imperatives that at some level influence their choices, consider it important to examine it critically.
  1. The textbook studiously avoids the problematic questions raised by E.V. Ramasamy Periyar and Dr. Ambedkar with respect to nationalism: Can Hindus constitute a nation, when they cannot nurture fellow-feeling beyond the boundaries of their respective castes? Is not social justice an important and necessary constituent of political justice? Why should the Congress party not be considered a partisan organization, informed by the interests that animate the Hindu upper castes and their merchant and industrial patrons? These issues surfaced at various moments in the freedom struggle and they are pedagogically significant. For one, they provide a critical view of nationalism from within the historical moment we are concerned with. Secondly, they are immensely important for a nuanced and complex understanding of the idea of ‘freedom’— that includes but goes beyond the idea of political liberty.
  1. Lastly, the textbook is uneasily silent about the role of the Communists in the freedom struggle. Not only is this an important omission in terms of factual information, but also in terms of actors whose struggles allied them with the dissent of the poor and the deprived. With the Communists we encounter a notion of struggle that is political, yes, but in a different sense—neither constitutional, nor charismatic, but instead, principled and ideological. It is important that students know how this manner of doing politics arrived in India.

The Issues of Method

Once one is aware of the limitations of the textbook, one has to obviously work within, through and beyond these. This raises a different set of problems: How do we teach nationalism, which, after all, is a historically achieved condition, and, at the same time, historicize it? Knowing what we do about the past, from our present context, how do we avoid talking about the past as a movement towards the present?

These are serious problems of method that haunt history pedagogy as a whole, but they are particularly fraught when it comes to nationalism. The events that led to national independence are not lost in the recesses of time but are present in public memory in the form of monuments, rhetoric and personal remembrances. Besides, Nationalism and patriotism are incessantly touted as eternal verities and values. Thus, every child knows Gandhi as a great man and Nehru as a consummate politician. Most important, fed as children are on a glitzy, yet insistent sort of patriotism, through media, they consider national identity and loyalty precious and emotive. (Films like Ghaddar, Lagaan, Bhagat Singh have reinvented Nationalism and the anti-British struggle for this generation.) Moreover, patriotism also exists as style—a form of self-expression, assiduously cultivated by the media for the consumer industry, and this further naturalizes patriotism and nationalism.

It appears important to address the question of method within the classroom in a self-conscious way—and this does fetch results. For instance, I asked my students if anyone could ‘remember’ Mughal India? Obviously, none could. And we went on to note that unlike other periods in history, the period that we are about to study is one about which people have clear, personal views. I asked them to talk casually to older people, their parents and grandparents, about the freedom movement, about Gandhi. This way they found out how the times they were about to study were part of the way people lived, thought and expressed themselves. From here, we went on to discuss, how we would, then, study a period such as this one. We agreed that we needed to be aware of the various problems that are likely to come up—controversies about people and events, and diverse interpretations.

At a later moment, in and through actual events and acts which ‘unified’ India—the coming of a common legal system, for one, the growth of communications, for another—I presented the notion of ‘India’ as a modern idea. What I did was to get the students to see a nation as emerging out of certain material conditions which make it possible for people to see and sense themselves as part of a whole—a sense, which they, then, go on to develop by looking at the past, by trying to connect it to the present and so on.

The Use of Scholarship

Indian Nationalism and its complex history have been studied, debated and discussed endlessly—and every year new data, studies and ideas make more complex a field that is already extremely layered in the manner in which it figures in historical writing. For the teacher who wants to use this scholarship, and yet not depart too much from the scheme of learning, as outlined in the textbook, this presents several problems.

The most immediate one has to do with classroom requirements and abilities—we work within a compact time frame, we have to negotiate varying levels of interest and ability to sustain attention. Therefore, the choice of information becomes crucial—how particular does one get? When does a generalization work, and when does it not? These are crucial questions, because, with something like, say, the ‘Salt Satyagraha’, while there were differences in the way different regions responded to Gandhi’s Dandi march, these were not determinate to the outcome of the event, or how it came to be understood. But when it comes to something like, say, the Khilafat movement, it becomes important to distinguish the nature of Muslim support: Who supported it, why, what did it mean to endorse the Caliph at a time when democratic movements were eager to topple the Caliphate in Turkey; did Muslims all over the subcontinent respond in a like manner to the Khilafat movement; or did they respond to it for very different reasons? If we do not differentiate these issues it becomes difficult to talk of Muslims as a diverse group of people. And when we fail to do that, then Muslims remain marked by their faith and nothing else— which explains neither their support for nationalism, nor the allegiance of some of them to Left Wing politics.

There are other problems. There exist detailed regional studies of nationalism and of the National Movement, enunciating how the idea was received, assimilated and expressed in terms of local concerns, and how nationalism sometimes failed to heed these latter, even while utilizing the support of those who were driven by felt and perceived interests. How do we bring these differences into our teaching? How germane are they?

I addressed this problem in the following manner: for every important segment of time that we looked at from 1857-1947, I tried to unravel it from the point of view of different social groups, parties, and regions. After this, I went on to demonstrate how certain local concerns were refigured as national ones. For instance, the Bardoli Satyagraha became the archetype for Gandhian modes of struggle, though its immediate local impact was very limited; whereas a more intense and long-drawn out struggle like the Moplah rebellion in Kerala did not figure in the national imagination at all, except as an instance of Hindu-Muslim conflict. Although, clearly, this had to do with the divide between landlords who happened to be Hindu and the bulk of the tenants and labourers who happened to be Muslims.

It appears important to do this in a sustained fashion—demonstrate how, in spite of several different sorts of issues being pertinent, certain issues alone achieved national visibility and importance.

A further issue arises when we consider the scholarship of the last few decades—of anti-caste movements and studies by Left Wing historians, which constitute some of the most trenchant and founded criticisms of not only Congress, but of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, in short of those around whom a national mythology has been constructed. To take into account this scholarship while teaching, requires one to make certain major methodological shifts: a) making children see the struggle for political freedom as a very partial one, which does not engage with issues of social or economic discrimination and inequality b) problematizing Gandhi’s contribution to the freedom movement, including his theories of non-violence and social trusteeship. But for the teacher, whose business is to cultivate in the child, a vocation for historical enquiry, such partisan options are not to be had.

The danger here is of ‘debunking’ and ‘deconstructing’—something that the scholarship on Left Wing and anti-caste radicalism affords in its discussions of Gandhi and the Congress. Teaching Gandhi, for instance, is a challenge: How does one communicate the Mahatma’s undeniable greatness, and the salience of his creed of pacifism and honesty, and yet alert the child to his equally undeniable skills as a political strategist? How does one distinguish between his sincerity of purpose from the sophistry he was sometimes wont to display, over issues of Hinduism and caste? Clearly, there are no easy answers. Perhaps, it is important, in fraught instances, such as this one, to formulate questions that will serve as pedagogical guides.

One way of addressing Gandhi, which I found fruitful, was to look at his life and ideas from the point of view of different people, those who agreed with him and those who were critical of him, those who influenced him and those he influenced. This helped children to see why someone agreed or disagreed with him and also to see him in context—not as a lone Mahatma, but one whose greatness was constituted in and through affection, dissent and dialogue. At the same time, it appears important to draw the child’s attention to several others who were his contemporaries and whose views are equally interesting and important—such as Dr. Ambedkar, Ramasamy Periyar, Swami Sahajananda, and so on.

Thus far, I have considered problems in teaching the history of Indian Nationalism from a pedagogical point of view. But this pedagogy needs to be informed by an understanding of the discursive and political implications of nationalism as such—the sensibilities it cultivates, the vision of community and culture that it suggests and the demands that it makes of its adherents.

Understanding and Teaching the Idea of Nationalism

This is a task that requires the teacher to acquaint herself or himself with the history of nationalism across the globe—the conditions of its emergence, the cultures that provided it with its successes, and its movement across different geographical locations. There are a lot of books available on the subject and several of these, especially those published over the last two decades interrogate the self-evident nature of nationalism.

To work these arguments into the syllabus is not difficult, and much can be done through demonstrating how the idea of India came to adumbrated—in newspapers, through speeches, in pamphlets, books and so on. The more challenging and daunting task is to help children see the ways in which nationalism seeks to invoke solidarity—through appeals to religious sentiment, cultural and linguistic pride, and so on. In the context of Indian Nationalism, this is particularly important, since from very early times, nationalists drew upon Hindu mythology, religious symbols and feeling, to forge a sense of national unity.

How does one distinguish such attempts to imagine a common nationhood from the more sinister attempts, all of which were contemporaneous with nationalism, to define all of the Indian subcontinent as ‘Hindu’? Though nationalism is a modern ideology, why does it insistently turn to the past to define the present and the future? What other identities are overlooked or willfully subsumed when a community or a society privileges a certain sort national identity alone?

These questions need to be posed in the context of concrete instances in the history of Indian Nationalism—for instance, with regard to Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s celebration of Ganesh festivals as national festivals, and his argument that he was doing this to counter the fervour aroused by public celebrations of Moharram. We need to ask these questions even of Gandhi—why, in spite of his religious eclecticism, could he not understand the anguish of Dalits who found Hinduism demeaning and did not want to call themselves ‘harijans’; why, Jinnah, an avowed agnostic ended up demanding a nation-state defined on a religious basis. We also need to look at criticisms of nationalism advanced during this period – by people as divergent as Ramasamy Periyar and J. Krishnamurti. Why did they consider nationalism problematic and atavistic?

This is a difficult question to address on a sustained basis, and what we managed to do in the course of classroom discussions was to constantly ask if a certain type of nationalism was broad and catholic, or appealed largely to specific sentiments and constituencies. But as one teaches the onward rush of events that constitute Indian Nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, such reasoning becomes increasingly complicated, with the emergence of groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS as major players—the relationship of the Congress to these groups is neither one of simple opposition or strategic alignment. There were great overlapping areas of concern and belief and these are not always easy to disentangle in the classroom.

Using Caste, Class and Gender as Analytical Tools

One effective way of deconstructing nationalism as an idea and historicizing it is to show how, though the nature of its appeal is universal, it ultimately serves certain social groups and not others.

In the case of Indian Nationalism this is somewhat easy to do, given the extensive critique of nationalism by those who are convinced that it was an idea that was well utilized by upper caste Hindus and a combine of industrial and mercantile classes. The upper caste biases of Indian Nationalism are evident from the earliest period onwards, when the Indian National Congress delinked social reform issues, especially of caste inequalities, from political issues and argued that it would worry about the former when India gained freedom from British rule. Though Gandhi brought back untouchability to the forefront, his subsequent differences with Dr. Ambedkar revealed his interventions in this regard to be both ethical as well as strategic. This is a point that is not at all lost on children when they are asked to examine the circumstances that lead to the Poona Pact. Likewise, in and through a tracing of the influence that Indian merchants and industrialists had on the Congress—revealed through a wealth of correspondence, now publicly available—it is possible to demonstrate in the classroom, the role played by this class in determining the movement of Indian Nationalism.

It is hard, however, to deploy gender as an analytical category. Though there is a fair amount of writing available on the subject, the manner in which women figured in nationalist writings, the role assigned to them in the Congress, the internal caste and class distinctions amongst the women who were in the forefront of public issues—these constitute a history, which involves a scrutiny of their personal as well as public lives. Therefore it demands attention of a kind that is not possible to cultivate, given constraints of time and the demands of the syllabus. However, it is important to keep bringing gender into the discussion, for otherwise, unwittingly, one ends up reproducing the subjects of history as male.

Some Pedagogic Problems

I would now like to list the more important of the problems that I have encountered in the immediate context of the classroom.

  1. In spite of wanting to be sensitive to the diverse cultures of India, I find myself talking primarily about regional variations on a national struggle. This is largely to do with the nature of the syllabus and the textbook, which privilege the doings of the Indian National Congress’ leadership. Everything else is necessarily subsumed in these, or treated as reactions. In other words, I am not able to begin the story of modern India from a different vantage point, which means that one ends up considering only a particular trajectory, namely the nationalist one.
  2. It is difficult to present a fair picture of what Muslim opinion was at any particular period, without calling it that—which, in some ways, is inaccurate, because in any number of instances, Muslims did not respond as members of a religious community, but from their specific locations in the local society and culture.
  3. I found it particularly difficult to explain points of view that have become so overcoded, such as the Leftist or socialist point of view. For one, these terms have lost that commonsensical resonance they possessed for earlier generations and, therefore, one really has to begin at the beginning, trying to explain what socialism means. I have not found it easy to get beyond a simple description of socialism as a dream for a just and equal society in which all resources are shared. But this is problematic, since many times, political decisions are made by the Congress to counter, incorporate or nullify the demands of India’s vast working classes and castes. And unless one has a working idea of what the leaders of the Left Wing wanted, which, again, is contingent on one’s understanding of the moral power of socialism, this argument does not make sense in the classroom.
  4. Lastly, in the absence of a classroom knowledge of how caste Hindu society works, I found myself having to talk a lot about varnashrama dharma and the logic of the caste order. This is both time-consuming and difficult, since urban children who grow up in defined neighbourhoods scarcely feel the weight of caste and therefore do not have a sense of how it works.


Given the current political conjuncture, when history has been rendered contentious, the teaching of nationalism assumes a certain urgency—and also because in public debate, there appears a haste to defend the ‘right’ sort of Nationalism from the ‘Hindutva’ variety. The claims of History as a discipline are conveniently overlooked in this debate, and even by historians, who are so busy defending their claims of political correctness and credibility, that they do not pause to ask if their craft is not already in jeopardy, considering the fate that it meets at the hands of indifferent syllabus makers and textbook writers. In this context, the History teacher’s tasks appear very fraught. To promote a historical way of thinking, it seems to me, is urgent and important. Practising the craft of the historian (who meticulously records and connects, who is aware that her point of view is contingent on the evidence she marshals and the arguments she advances) and transmitting that craft to our students—these may redeem the misuses of the past.

Given below is an extract on nationalism by J. Krishnamurti—Ed.

We must realise that as long as we identify ourselves with a country, as long as we cling to security, as long as we are conditioned by dogmas, there will be strife and misery both within ourselves and in the world. Then there is the whole question of patriotism. When do we feel patriotic? It is obviously not an everyday emotion. But we are sedulously encouraged to be patriotic through schoolbooks, through newspapers and other channels of propaganda, which stimulate racial egotism by praising national heroes and telling us that our own country and way of life are better than others. This patriotic spirit feeds our vanity from childhood to old age. One must look at all these expressions of violence and antagonism with an unprejudiced mind, that is, with a mind that does not identify itself with any country, race or ideology, but tries to find out what is true. There is great joy in seeing a thing clearly without being influenced by the notions and instructions of others, whether they be the government, the specialists or the very learned. Once we really see that patriotism is a hindrance to human happiness, we do not have to struggle against this false emotion in ourselves; it has gone from us forever. Nationalism, the patriotic spirit, class and race consciousness, are all ways of the self, and therefore separative. After all, what is a nation but a group of individuals living together for economic and self-protective reasons? Out of fear and acquisitive self-defence arises the idea of ‘my country’, with its boundaries and tariff walls, rendering brotherhood and the unity of man impossible. The desire to gain and to hold, the longing to be identified with something greater than ourselves, creates the spirit of nationalism; and nationalism breeds war. In every country the government, encouraged by organized religion, is upholding nationalism and separative spirit. Nationalism is a disease, and it can never bring about world unity.

[From Education and the Significance of Life]