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New Lessons

North-East passage

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HISTORICAL ERROR: Campaigner Binalakshmi Nepram (left) hopes that the NCERT 2015 meet will lead to greater inclusion of the North-East in textbooks

A campaign aims to correct a grievous omission in school textbooks - the near exclusion of the history of the North-East.

Binalakshmi Nepram, a 30-something activist from Manipur has traded guns for history. A noted disarmament activist (Nepram is the founder of the 'Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network' and convenor of the 'North-East India Women Initiative for Peace' ) she is presently canvassing the cause of the history of the North-East, which she feels isn't adequately represented in school and university textbooks across the country.

"Every child in India who goes to school knows about the Rani of Jhansi. Why not about the people from the eight states of the northeast who too did something worthwhile to be read about in school books? In our syllabus, the North-East is reduced to only trivia like Cherrapunji is one of the wettest places on earth, " she says, with some resentment.

Like so many other youth from the region Nepram went to college in the capital in the 1990s. She studied history at Delhi University (a bachelors and then a masters) but pursued it with some indignation - mostly because the history of her part of the country didn't manage even a chapter in her five years of study. "It surprised and even angered me. I confronted one of my professors, the renowned Sumit Sarkar, and he apologised on behalf of the entire fraternity for this miss, which was shocking to my mind, " she says.

But she was able to take up the issue only a yearand-a-half ago, and with a few like-minded friends from the region, founded the campaign called 'Weaving Histories of North-East India'. Much background research has been followed up by talks with local historians about the need for incorporating the region's history into mainstream Indian textbooks. "We have approached all those bodies that make school syllabus because that's where the change has to begin first, " says Nepram. The group has had meetings with the NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) and the ICHR (Indian Council for Historical Research). "We've also met Shashi Tharoor, the minister of state for human resources development, as his ministry is the final authority in approving any changes in the syllabus, " she elaborates, adding that she was greeted with positive responses.

While the CBSE has told them that it was already beginning to rectify its online courses, the NCERT has asked them to prepare suggestions for inclusion in mainstream textbooks by 2015, when it is likely to meet to evaluate school syllabi.

However, the NCERT's response to TOI-Crest is different. MVSV Prasad, of the NCERT's Department of Education in Social Sciences states that, "No specific proposal was sought from any particular group. However, NCERT takes account of representations, suggestions and feedback from various sources as and when the current syllabus and textbooks are revised. During the processes of designing curriculum and developing syllabi and textbooks, the concerned committees consider various issues that are to be incorporated at different levels. "

He adds, "It is unfair to say that the North-East has been ignored from our textbooks. Indeed, the latest NCERT textbooks, developed during 2006-2008, have made extensive references to the region. " Prasad also points out that the NCERT has to focus on the entire nation when developing textbooks. "The North-East region may be eight states but they make up only 4 per cent of the population of the country whereas the region's coverage in the textbooks - not just history but across subjects - is about 10 per cent. However, that doesn't imply that we can't have further coverage. "

It's such 'further coverage' that could pacify ruffled feathers on the subject. Priyam Goswami, a professor of history at Gauhati University and honorary director of the Northeast chapter of ICHR says, "Most of the historical references right now are Brahmaputra Valley-centric. Yet the region is not one homogeneous whole but highly diverse. At places where we can't have whole chapters, we could incorporate the history of the region in a way we do for South India. Since I'm from Assam I could point out certain instances of Assamese history that could be mentioned - reference to Assam in epics, pauranic and tantrik literature;Muslim invasions of Assam in 1206, 1226 and 1257, all of which were repulsed;Buranji literature or the historical chronicles of Ahom rulers (who ruled here for six centuries ); Maidams which were vaults with chambers to bury Ahom kings and nobility;Sankardeva, a Vaishnavite saint/scholar/reformer who had a tremendous impact on Assam and so much more. " She adds that even college books on India's freedom struggle hardly make references to Assam, creating an assumption that the region was not involved at all.

Goswami, however, points out that the coverage of the North-East should not be restricted to just history but should extend to other subjects as well.

The NCERT counters by saying that many such references already exist and suggests that the exercise begin at the state level. "Besides, we get such grouses from all over the country. Whichever part of the country you go to they feel they have not been adequately represented. Certain districts too have similar complaints about not getting enough representation in the state books!"

Even as the debate about what makes for adequate representation goes on Nepram's group plods on with creating its proposal for the next NCERT meet, which may take place in 2015. "It's not a difficult task as we don't have to begin from scratch. There are quite a few good books only on the history of the region and along with the historians, we have to figure out what is important enough from each state to be given a national platform, " she says.

More tiresome for Nepram's team is, perhaps, handling detractors who, surprisingly, also hail from the same region. "I was shocked that instead of supporting us, some historians are actually decrying our work. Why do they then blame India (sic) for their problems when they themselves don't want any resolution?" she asks.
Some of her critics have even questioned the right of Nepram's team to undertake this exercise. "We are not historians, " she responds to her critics, adding, "we are only facilitating an exercise as a catalyst. "

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