CURRICULUM IN QUESTION: An Interview with Dr. Ranjan Anand

Updated: Apr 1

The University Grants Commission published a new draft curriculum for the undergraduate course in History. The new proposed curriculum has been under much scrutiny by academia - teachers and scholars of history alike. The UGC attempted a “corrective”, and the new syllabus sees veritable alteration from the present curriculum. Apart from structural changes of papers, there is heavy omittance of topics that have been core to the present curriculum.

Dr. Ranjan Anand currently teaches at the Department of History at Zakir Hussain (Evening) College, University of Delhi. His research focuses on ancient and early medieval India. He has been teaching undergraduate students for more than 25 years. COEUS reached out to Dr. Anand for his comments on the new curriculum.

Since this is the first time that the UGC has issued a full-fledged syllabus instead of issuing guidelines - why do you think this change was brought about?

Look so far as I know this is not the first time that UGC has come up with this kind of full-fledged syllabus. I remember in 2015 also the UGC had uploaded a full-fledged syllabus but that was a different kind of syllabus and UGC had retained what universities like Delhi University were already teaching. So this is the second time that they have come up with this kind of syllabus. This is what my reading is because this is the first time now that they have come up with full-fledged change in the syllabus, it’s a complete change there is no trace of the previous syllabus in the new syllabus.

Considering that the students and teachers are the primary stakeholders, were they consulted before devising the new draft syllabus? Is the process of curriculum designing inclusive of students’ and teachers’ opinions?

I don’t think. The draft syllabus was uploaded in mid-February and the public was given 15 days’ time to read, to comment and to suggest and we did not even know about this, So no. I don’t think anybody was consulted in the entire process of making the syllabus.

The syllabus is revised by a committee of teachers every 2-3 years since the semester system started in 2011. Do you think there was suddenly a need to completely change the structure and content of what is being taught?

There was absolutely no need because in 2019-20 the syllabus was completely revised by Delhi University. There was absolutely no need to revise in this manner and at this juncture.

The new draft syllabus has reworked not just the reading lists and themes/units to be taught but also changed the structure of the curriculum- do you think it is in coherence with CBCS (in reference to scope and accommodation)? According to you, how will this impact the students and the teaching-learning process?

This new draft syllabus, including the reading list and books that have been included, is completely outdated. It’s a fossil. If you look at the reading list most of the readings were published in 1950s or 40s or even 30s and 20s and those readings are basically of historiographical interests. We read them or we prescribe them in order to understand what was happening in the field of history writing in the 1920s and 30s or 40s and 50s. So, this is not the kind of syllabus that was required at this time. It’s not a 21st century syllabus, it’s an early 20th-century syllabus.

The syllabus has spelt out its learning outcome objectives- to learn “a basic narrative of historical events”. The focus has been more on knowledge rather than reasoning - how do you think this will affect future historians and students of history? Do you think this helps in promoting a singular narrative?

See if you read the initial pages of this draft syllabus you will realise that the makers of the syllabus are thoroughly confused. They want to instil scientific temperament and the same time they do want them (the students) to have that temperament. So, this confusion is always there in the minds of professors who have formulated (the new curriculum). But then I have doubt if the syllabus has been prepared by the people who are really historians because historians will never prepare this kind of syllabus which is rooted in the early 20th century or late 20th century. They have not focussed on the recent researches that have gone into making history as a discipline. I mean they have not given enough thought to the structure of the syllabus of history.

The introduction as well as the first unit of the syllabus has stressed on the “glorification of Ancient Indian history/texts” including topics like “Eternity of synonyms Bharat” and “ethics of Indian valour”. At a teaching level, (using terms like ‘eternity’, ‘glorious past’) what could be its consequences? What does it signify?

These are anachronistic, to say the least. The way history as a discipline has developed in the later part of the 20th Century and the early part of the 21st Century, it’s against all those developments. We do not teach our students to be subjective. We try to instil such critical faculties in them which may lead them towards objectivity. Absolute objectivity is not possible but we teach in a way so that students can reach nearer to objectivity. but then all these things that have come into the syllabus points towards the fact that objectivity is not a goal anymore. So, the students will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to the international level of research or understanding of history.

Which are the papers that you teach?

I teach Early India to History honours and B.A Program and a few SEC papers as well. I have been teaching the Early India paper since last 25 years.

The first core paper in the draft syllabus is the ‘Idea of Bharat’. Under this unit the primary focus has been on sanskritic traditions and texts. Is this a major shift from the current curriculum?

This is a major shift. They are aware of the fact that archaeology, anthropology, sociology, all these subjects which historians utilise in interpreting the past, they question the text on various bases. So they have concentrated on texts and removed the usage of Archaeology, Anthropology and Sociology and the theories related to it. So that students know only the texts. And they accept the texts uncritically. In later years they will be unable to collate material from other social sciences. They will be at loss.

The draft syllabus focuses selectively on a few philosophical concepts rather than giving a comprehensive overview of the diverse ancient Indian philosophical concepts, traditions and treatises. Do you see this as a problem?

This is part of the idea of one nation, one text, one language.

Previously the Early Indian history syllabus was taught over two different semesters in two different core papers (from the Earliest Times to the end of the Vedic culture and the Proto-historical to Early Medieval Phase then the core paper on Early Medieval India). In the new draft, the coursework of the entire period has been reduced to only one paper- from the earliest times to 550 CE. With this change what may be the implications in the teaching and learning process?

In the Earlier syllabus, the focus was on processes of development or historical processes, but now the entire focus is on political history, not even political but dynastic history. If you look at other papers it is all about dynasties, their administrative systems and other aspects related to the dynastic histories. So, the social processes and other aspects of history are completely neglected. They have in fact removed these aspects deliberately which will not instil the critical aspect of the curriculum or syllabus into the students. There is no mention of Caste, Untouchability, Gender and Environment. These are the aspects on which historians are now focusing. However, all these are not part of the syllabus. Also, the recent developments in the division of Indian history into many periods is not considered. They are still in the colonial era, Ancient, Medieval and Modern as well as focus on dynastic history, so all the works that historians have done in the last 50/60 years is of no use in the current syllabus. That means the research done in the last 50 years is wasted. We do not gain anything and we will not give back anything to the students. We will again return to rote learning in terms of pedagogical practices.

The draft syllabus also exclusively mentions the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation, a theory that has been much contested by historians. Do you think changes are exclusionary towards other major existing narratives and theories about civilization?

On the aspect of Sarasvati-Indus civilisation, I can only say that not enough work has been done on this issue. The archaeological culture are named after the site where it is first identified of found or on the basis of major river which sustained the culture/civilization and as such is a very old tradition. However, the new dual nomenclature which was non-existent in the previous syllabus but inserted now is clearly related to the new hyper-nationalism of this present dispensation. The problem can be traced to the crisis in Indian Archaeology after partition when two major sites became part of Pakistan. So, it (the new dual nomenclature) has no academic value.

The epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana in the new syllabus are being considered not as historical sources for the reconstruction of the past but as marvels of epic literature. What are your views on this?

Mahabharata and Ramayana are sources of history, we generally ask students to look at these texts critically and never accept anything and everything at their face value. But mentioning them as marvels of Indian culture is just overstating all these aspects. All cultures have produced great texts. So, these should remain as sources but then this shouldn't be done on the exclusion of other aspects of our sources, like archaeology, anthropology, and theories and studies related to them. They have to be seen in the context of recent literary studies, archaeological and anthropological studies. This new syllabus again is the return to 1950s when Mahabharata and Ramayana were considered only as great pieces of literature and the true (historically) narrative. In fact back the students studied rubrics like the Age of Ramayana and The Age of Mahabharata. There is no doubt about that they are great pieces of literature, but scholars have shown that they have limited value for historians.

On the question of periodisation, the present syllabus focused on the debates concerning the Early Medieval period, whereas the new draft has conveniently skipped over those themes. What may be the consequences of this change and how does it affect our learning of history?

In the last 30 or 40 years, one major change that was bought in the historical research was the focus on inscriptions and coins. By removing most of the portions of the Early Medieval period they have removed the utility of these major sources. So, students will now be taught only on the basis of textual references (that too uncritically) and not on the basis of the recent researches based on inscriptions and coins and other kinds of archaeological materials, for example- the buildings, pieces of art, etc. They will not be studying that part of history. There are the rubrics in other papers, but not in the main History Honours papers.

There has clearly been a veritable alteration from the current reading list. As somebody who has taught and researched the early Indian period, what do you think has been included and what has been ignored?

Nothing has been included, everything has been ignored! Everything that we stand for as teachers of history and that we want students to study, nothing has been included, only dynastic history has been included. We always talk about processes and processes of change, now that aspect has gone. Now we will be teaching how many horses, elephants Chandragupta Maurya had and we will not be talking about the social changes or urbanisation in its totality! So students of history will be at loss and that will remain with them forever.

The major changes in the curriculum and the growing political pressure on academia has affected our pedagogical system. So what is the path forward for teachers and students of history?

We should protest this not only because somebody unknown has prepared it but because this is not the kind of syllabus, we would like our students to study. Each syllabus has to be an improvement on the previous one, otherwise, there is no point in revising the syllabus.