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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 18 New Delhi, April 18, 2020

Arjun Dev: Scholar and Secular Historian

Saturday 18 April 2020


by Malli Gandhi

Many of us are deeply saddened by the sudden demise of Professor Arjun Dev on 22nd March, 2020 in New Delhi at the age of 82. As an individual and as a historian he has long been an inspiration to many people in National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) who have read his books and relished a close association with him. As a historian he inspired teachers, teacher educators and scholars in NCERT. He was a great influence for many faculty members in the Council. He was a remarkable historian who changed the ways of people who teach history and education across various schools in the country. He contributed to historical research in many ways and strengthened aspects of teaching history at school level. He was unwavering in his commitment to articulate opinions if he believed that what he was expressing constituted the truth.

Early life, education and career

Arjun Dev was born in 1938 in the then territory of Pakistan. After the partition of the country, he came and settled in India with his parents at New Delhi. He graduated from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University and was trained by the eminent social scientist, K.M. Ashraf. He post graduated from Delhi University, and joined National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT, New Delhi) and served nearly four decades in the Department of Education in Social Sciences and Humanities. He co-authored curriculum development documents and took an active part in the preparation of educational materials in social sciences, particularly history. He was the author/co-author of various books including Modern India, The Story of Civilization, Contemporary World History and India’s Struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents. He was the Member Secretary of the National Steering Committee on the Text Book Evaluation and the National Advisory Committee on Contemporary India set up by the Government of India in Early 1990s. He was instrumental in compiling A Selection of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Writings published by the National Book Trust of India, New Delhi under the title Years of Struggle. He was actively associated with Human Rights Education and the campaign against communalisation of education with a particular focus on history text books. He was also the co-ordinator of Towards Freedom Project of Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi. He retired as Professor of History and Head of NCERT.

Erudite scholar and secular historian

Arjun Dev wrote extensively on Indian history, socio-economic history, contemporary history and world history. His works are very popular not only in India but also in various other countries. Some of the books written by him (like The Story of Civilisations, Part-I and II) were translated into Japanese language and bagged the Japanese Government’s award. He played an active and constructive role along with his colleagues and wife in the conduct of workshops, steering committee meetings for social science textbook evaluation, consultative meetings and textbook review meetings. He also played an important role in preparing secular and model history text books with the help of eminent historians of the nation, R.S Sharma, Romilla Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra and B.D. Chattopadhyay. The text books prepared under his academic coordination brought laurels to NCERT. He spent all his energy and time for the promotion of quality textbooks for school children, teachers and teacher educators in the country. He was also instrumental in the preparation of curriculum designs for social science subjects, history and guidelines, preparation of state curriculum, syllabus and text books in India. He along with his colleagues strove hard to design and develop pictorial documentation on Indian freedom movement. The volume was an instant hit with the reading public and was thoroughly appreciated by academic circles across the country. Arjun Dev was one of the rare historians India ever produced. He was an expert on pedagogic aspects of school history.

NCERT Publications

The Story of Civilisations, Vol. I and II: A Text Book for Secondary Schools for Class XI and XII, NCERT, 1980. The book shows how history occupies an important position among the subjects taught at different stages of school education. He emphasised that teaching of history should aim at cultivation of scientific, humanistic and forward looking. History should not be the story of great men. It should contribute to the general education of the pupils.

Modern India: A History Text book for Class VIII NCERT, 1989. The text book covers a crucial period of Indian history, the period when India became a victim of imperial domination and when the people waged a long and hard struggle to overthrow foreign rule. Interestingly, importance of learning and teaching of this period of India’s history has been emphasised in the National Policy of Education 1968.

Contemporary World History: A History Text Book for Class XII Part-I and II. 1995. The book pointed out that much of the contemporary history is provincial and open-ended and therefore needs continual updating.

India’s Struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents, NCERT, New Delhi, 1995. This work was a collaborative endeavour and integrated use of various types of material. The role of Arjun Dev was crucial in the entire project. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took keen interest in the entire project.

Role of Arjun Dev is crucial in the entire project, Human Rights: A Source Book: This was compiled and edited by Arjun Dev along with Indira Arjun Dev and Supta Das and was published in the year 1996. It deals with human rights education, articulation of concept of human rights etc. The first national curriculum framework in 1975 laid stress on the human rights. With the publication of the source book, NCERT undertook active steps and initiatives for the promotion of human rights education in the country. The book is of immense value for all as it contains historical documents, declarations, covenants, and conventions on human rights.

Publications by the National Book Trust, Government of India

Gandhi - Nehru Correspondence: A Selection. Arjun Dev with the active support of Indira Arjun Dev and colleagues published the select works of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The works brings together select correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Together they portray a strikingly unique relationship that was not only personal but also political. Notwithstanding the ideological differences, these exchanges bring out a comradeship.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Years of Struggle: Selected Readings. This was compiled by Arjun Dev, and published during the year 1989. The volume is of great academic importance to scholars as the volume brings together the major statements made by Jawaharlal Nehru in his writings and speeches on selected themes belonging to the period, 1927-1947. Though there are a number of books available on Jawaharlal Nehru the current publication brought out by Arjun Dev is an important and interesting contribution about Nehru’s role as a freedom fighter and an ideologue who together with Mahatma Gandhi gave a shape to the vision of free India.

A Hand Book of Human Rights edited by Arjun Dev and published in the year 2003 is of great academic value because of the important documents included in the publication: the International Bill of human Rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights. These two books are suggested readings for the UGC sponsored courses at the graduate and post graduate level.

Contribution to History Congress Sessions (National and Regional)
Arjun Dev actively participated in the annual Sessions of Indian History Congress held in different parts of the Country. He was the Sectional President in 2002 and delivered the talk, The Case for World History. He emphasised on the need to study curricula used in Indian universities dealing with the history of countries other than India. His contribution to Andhra Pradesh History congress is very significant. The distinguished Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah Memorial Lecture was delivered by him during the 17th Session of Andhra Pradesh History Congress held at Tirupati in 1993. His Presidential address, On Misuses History lamented that that History was under attack and had been used for vicious communal purposes. The transformation that took place in the content of history, changes, purposes of study, teaching etc were covered during this crucial address.

Workshops and Secular History

Some of the academic projects undertaken by him brought popular name for NCERT, and were of immense help for teachers, teacher educators and the whole NCERT faculty. The workshops and consultative meetings organised by him were attended by popular historians, social scientists and scholars. He constantly appealed to government and argued in favour of rationalisation of history and secularization of historical Knowledge. His long association with historians like Romilla Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra, Irfan Habib, Harbans Mukhia, Aditya Mukherji, Mrudula Mukherji, Champaka Lakshmi, Keshavan Veluthat, K.N Panikkar, Surendra Rao, D.N Jha, B.D Chattopadhyay, Rajan Gurukkul, R N Nandi, M G S Narayanan and Vakulabharanam Ramakrishna has been his sole strength in taking forward the secular mission of historical writings and research in the country. After retiring from NCERT, Arjun Dev associated himself with Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi and contributed to Towards Freedom Movement project. He served as Co-ordinator Editor and documented important letters and correspondence of Indian freedom fighters, and also rare archival sources of the Indian freedom movement.

Other Publications

History of the world from the late Nineteenth to Early twentieth Century by Arjun Dev and Indira Arjun Dev (Orient Black Swan, Hyderabad, 2009) lucidly presents a comprehensive overview of the world history from the last decade of the 19th century to present times. The book chronicles the major events that have shaped and defined today’s world.

Reversing the Main Thrust of the National Policy on Education, is a scholarly article published in Social Scientist (Vol.33, Nos. 9-10, September-October 2005) by Arjun Dev along with Irfan Habib, Anil Sadgopal, Shamir Akthar, K.M. Shrimali, Romilla Thapar, Prabath Patnayak, C.P. Chandrasekhar and a host of other scholars etc.

Arjun Dev headed a study under the auspices of National Steering Committee on Text Book Evaluation and commented on evaluation of textbooks of different states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and various other states.

Fond remembrances

My association with Professor Arjun Dev began in 2004 in NCERT. He was a great humanist and erudite scholar in social sciences. He served the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities in NCERT for more than four decades. It was indeed a great pleasure to work with him in various workshops, textbook review meetings, orientation programmes and national consultative meetings organised by NCERT. He contributed extensively to the field of history education and historical scholarship. He constantly made endeavours to promote secular history throughout his life and country. He always batted in favour of feeding school children with secular knowledge and value-oriented education on the subject history in the country. Professor Arjun Dev loved people and life. He led a valuable life and strove for the betterment of country education system. He has a great command over Urdu language, literature and fluently used to recite some of the verses from Urdu literature. He lived in reality and left a legacy of secular history. He was one of the key members in the development of the Department of Education in Social Sciences and Humanities of NCERT.

Arjun Dev was more than just a historian. He was a social intellectual who helped many of his associates to remain connected to basic values of human solidarity. He is deeply committed to the principles of humanitarianism, enlightenment, integrity and critical thinking. He had a staunch belief in teachers’ ability to improve history teaching and learning through collective action. His death is a great loss to historians, scholars, NCERT faculty, friends and family. He will certainly continue to influence the future generations of NCERT faculty as a virtual guide and teacher. His books, translated into other languages will go on attracting readers in India and across the globe.

The author Malli Gandhi, is Professor, DESSH, RIE, NCERT, Manasagangotri, Mysuru

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