Delhi University: Faulty Foundations

Aparna Balachandran, Pankaj Jha and Anubhuti Maurya are teachers in University of Delhi.

The University of Delhi (DU) has, over the last few months, seen strong protests from teachers and students against the hasty and authoritarian implementation of the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP). The FYUP seeks to bring about a structural change to the undergraduate programme without adequate discussion, consultation or, it would seem, thought. One of the concerns raised in the critique of the proposed programme is that the syllabi have been shabbily cobbled together in a hurry, bypassing due procedure. This is particularly true of the much-vaunted ‘Foundation Courses’ that every single student will have to study in the first two years of the undergraduate programme. Designed to prepare students for the “grand challenges facing India”, these courses seem to crumble under this ambitious burden.

Let’s just examine the history syllabus. Large portions of the paper titled “Indian History and Culture” have been lifted from a Class XI CBSE textbook entitled Knowledge, Traditions and Practices of India (See in particular, Module 5, “Indian Traditional Knowledge and Environmental Conservation”, authored by a team led by Prof Kapil Kapoor). The identity of those who ‘prepared’ this syllabus, like so much else in DU these days, is confidential. The History Department of the university does not know, and the Vice Chancellor and his team would not tell. It is a shame that the Academic Council of India’s ‘premium’ university, presided over by its learned Vice Chancellor, should be in such hurry that they could not detect this. In any case, should not undergraduate teaching be an advance on the school curriculum?

Even more troubling is what history is understood to be by the makers of this syllabus. Its aims are apparently to “identify the roots and details of some of the contemporary problems faced by our nation and try to locate possible solutions to these challenges by digging deep into our past.” As historians, we are deeply alarmed at the form and content of this course as also by the “toolkit approach” [‘History as a Utility Toolkit’, TOI, 19 May 2013] towards the discipline of history. History is understood as heritage, which is seen entirely through the unproblematised and regressive lens of cultural pride on the one hand, and utility value on the other. For example, a key term that keeps popping up in the syllabus is “composite culture”. This phrase is deployed without any sense that this is a complicated, and often fraught phenomenon. Or that the Indian past may be diverse and not “composite” or “homogenous”. Composite culture appears in the syllabus as classical dance forms or largely Hindu festivals and fairs (the Kumbhmela, the Pushkarmela, and the Rathyatra are three examples cited) or as embodied in monuments. The course is visualised around “historical themes and not laying emphasis only on chronology of the events” [p. 112]. The focus on themes rather than on chronology appears to be progressive at first glance. But what it does is to project a picture of an undifferentiated past where the Indo-Islamicate and colonial periods are almost completely ignored. And there is absolutely no economic or political history.

On the “subtheme” of social inequality, the only issue the course allows to explore is gender. Clearly, class, caste or communalism are not a part of the “grand challenges before the nation”,  it would seem. It is almost as if the syllabus wants to put blinkers on the students, defining what are acceptable and palatable discussions, even as it claims to engage with real-world problems. Again, while the focus on the environment seems welcome, its discussion centres around the notion of a glorious, environment friendly ancient past that can be accessed, presumably in all its glory, through hands-on engagement with the tribal people and visits to sacred groves. The problem here does not lie in the emphasis on the local, or the contemporary; rather the problem is an approach that casts the students as recorders of a pristine past surviving in our present as monuments, dance forms and ‘tribal’ traditions.

The shoddiness of the course is particularly glaring in the section peculiarly entitled “suggestive” projects. The first six of these are lifted from the aforementioned text, word for word. The shame is further compounded by the fact that the portions that have not been plagiarised either make no sense at all or are so broad and ambitious that it is completely unclear how students would be able to deal with them methodologically or in any meaningful way. The course does not seem to reflect some of the sophisticated scholarship that appears in the reading list; indeed, many of the authors mentioned would be considerably alarmed that their names are being associated with this syllabus. Shockingly, the bibliography also includes URLs for Wikipedia articles that we as teachers have expressly disallowed our students from using, given the unverifiability and the variable quality of its information. Meanwhile, Delhi University has arbitrarily selected a few teachers in various history departments to teach this course for the orientation sessions, bypassing suggestions made by the colleges themselves.

It is nobody’s case that the insights of history are not pertinent to understanding present day issues. Yet, it would sound the death knell for the humanities and social sciences if all research was judged by its “utility value”. Unfortunately, along with an alarming disregard for academic rigour,  this is what seems to define Delhi University’s attitude towards the discipline of history.

First published in Outlook