Humanist and historian

Published : April 03, 2020 19:42 IST

Arjun Dev, delivering a lecture in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Arjun Dev (1938-2020) was associated with the NCERT from 1963 till 2000 and a key figure in curriculum development of textbooks in the 1970s.

On March 29, Arjun Dev, historian and former Head, Social Sciences, and Dean at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), breathed his last at a hospital in Noida. Born in 1938 in Leiah, Pakistan, he grew up in Ambala, Haryana, and later studied history from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. He would have turned 82 in November this year. He is survived by his historian wife Indira Dev who also retired from the NCERT and like him remained committed to the discipline of history and unwavering secularism. He was associated with the NCERT from 1963 till 2000 when he retired.

Arjun Dev was no ordinary historian. He was a member of the Communist Party of India, having forged an early association with the students’ wing of the party in his younger days. His thinking and approach to history were, therefore, influenced with a strong scientific temper and a critical understanding of the subject. To that extent, both ignorance and obscurantism were insufferable to him. He was a key figure in curriculum development of textbooks in the 1970s and it was under his tenure at NCERT that history textbooks by leading historians like R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and Satish Chandra were commissioned. His own book Contemporary History of India and History of Civilizations was also part of the history curriculum. He was a member of the Advisory Committee in the Central government headed by well-known historian Sarvepalli Gopal. Yet he did not aspire to be Director of NCERT though he would have more than qualified for it. Once, a widely respected historian who was part of the Selection Committee appointed for shortlisting a director for the NCERT asked Arjun Dev whether he was an applicant for the position. He replied in the negative despite the fact that he could have easily applied for it.

After he retired from NCERT, he did not give up on his commitment to promoting secular and scientific values in social sciences, particularly in history which was his subject. He worked closely with the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, especially on identifying and removing the communal biases that had crept into history textbooks of the NCERT in the first tenure of the National Democratic Alliance government in the late 1990s. In 2002, one such book co-authored by Arjun Dev and Indira, Modern and Contemporary India and the World, published by NCERT was removed from the list of prescribed textbooks. The newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party government went on to rewrite and “purge”, with messianic zeal, the history textbooks of what it felt was biased history. A new curriculum framework was also drafted to lessen the burden on students, which essentially was a cover to re-write or remove textbooks written by historians of eminence like Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra, R.S. Sharma and others. It was in this period that mediapersons writing on education and correspondents of Frontline met him regularly seeking information and perspective on the new textbooks.

Arjun Dev’s was a mild mannered persona. He would gently demolish arguments, mainly of the insular and sectarian kind, with laconic humor, often with cigarette in hand. As the gentleman he was, he would ask his guests whether they were comfortable before he lit a cigarette. In 2002-03, all the books written by the historians were withdrawn and replacement books introduced. There were so many errors in those books that in 2003, the Indian Council of Historical Research brought out an 88-page volume edited by Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal and Aditya Mukherjee titled “A Report and an Index of Errors”. Arjun Dev helped in the compilation of this volume brought out by this group of prominent historians. In 2005, he was appointed by the ICHR as editor-cum-coordinator, along with Sabyasachi Bhattarcharya who was the general editor of the voluminous ten-part series titled Towards Freedom: Documents on Movement for Independence in India (1937-1947). He also co-edited one volume with A.K. Gupta pertaining to the developments in 1941, which was in two parts. While one chapter of part one was published, the other two parts remained unpublished. The second part of the volume included chapters on “Movements in Indian States”, Communal Politics and Labour and Kisan Movements. It was a 1,700-page tome with an introduction running into 45 pages. “It would be a tribute to him if ICHR published that volume,” said an academic associated with ICHR.

Arjun Dev was also the sectional president of the Indian History Congress in 2004 and a member of the governing body of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) with Manmohan Singh as the chairperson. After retiring from NCERT in 2000, he devoted himself to the Towards Freedom project volumes and would stay up till late evening at the ICHR, after which, colleagues who worked with him recalled, he would drop the typists and other junior staff home. He also authored a book on the correspondence between Gandhi and Nehru published by National Book Trust.

His place of birth Leiah was part of his email address and he would with great mirth relish the confusion that it caused among people who would mistake it to be the name of a person. “It’s not the name of a woman but of the place where I was born. I am a refugee,” he said once with unconcealed mirth and explaining the origins. He was a refugee in that sense but grew up without any bitterness about Partition, believing as he did in the internationalism of humanity and mankind. Indira, his wife who was his academic fellow traveller and collaborator in many works, said that Arjun Dev held a candle for the working class at all times. “He practised what he preached, more than anyone else I know,” she said. He was very fond of the poems of Subramania Bharati, or Bharathiyar, the legendary Tamil poet and writer. Arjun Dev wanted North Indian children to read and know about Bharati. It was through Indira, a Tamilian, that his interest in Bharathiyar grew. Both of them edited a volume in English and Hindi, of a selection of Bharati’s poems, published by NCERT. They also brought out jointly a visual collection of the freedom struggle titled India’s struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents, the text of which was written by Arjun Dev. In 2018, Orient Blackswan republished History of the World: From the Late 19th to the Early 21st Century” jointly authored by Arjun Dev and Indira, which was originally a textbook titled Story of Civilization, written for students of class 9 and 10.

Arjun Dev was a humanist, a communist and a historian. He never once wavered in his conviction in his entire lifetime and remained committed to fighting communalisation of education and society.

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