April 05, 2020

Prof. Arjun Dev (1938–2020)

PROF. Arjun Dev, eminent historian and educationist, passed away on March 29, at the age of 82. His academic career spanning several decades at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), was marked by a deep commitment to zealously promoting secular, democratic and progressive values. Prof. Arjun Dev played a key role in initiatives to produce textbooks that enshrined these values. Not surprisingly these textbooks were targeted by rightwing and communal forces, especially during the Janata Party regime in the late 1970s, and more aggressively during the BJP-led NDA government of 1999-2004.

Arjun Dev was born in Leiah (now in Pakistan) into a Saraiki-speaking family of Punjab. He attended B.D. High School at Ambala, and then joined the University of Delhi where he studied at Kirori Mal College. It was here that he came under the influence of Marxism through his association with several prominent intellectuals and activists such as K M Ashraf and Zahoor Siddiqi. He became a member of the All India Students’ Federation, and of the Communist Party of India. He remained strongly committed ideologically to Marxism and socialism right till the end.

At NCERT, Prof. Arjun Dev worked tirelessly to develop a social sciences curriculum for schools that would encourage students to think critically, inculcate a scientific outlook and imbibe secular ideals. His area of specialisation was history, and it was in this field that his intellectual and pedagogical endeavours found the most vigorous expression. This was also a recognition of the need to prioritise producing history textbooks for school-children which would provide a strong foundation for a meaningful study of the subject, in a political situation in which the discipline was threatened by a belligerent communal offensive. A number of prominent scholars who shared this understanding became part of NCERT projects for writing history textbooks of outstanding quality. These included stalwarts such as R S Sharma, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar. Even though these books have been officially discontinued, they continue to be read widely by school and university students and are still very much in demand. Arjun Dev himself contributed to the series by authoring a two part book (classes 9 and 10) for a history course, entitled The Story of Civilization.

Following his retirement from NCERT, he was invited to take up the responsibility of coordinating the publication of the prestigious Towards Freedom volumes. Towards Freedom has been a major project of the Indian Council of Historical Research which seeks to bring together in several massive volumes documents on the freedom struggle from 1937 to 1947. He worked closely with the general editor of the volumes, Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. The publication of the volumes, of which the late Prof. S Gopal was initially the general editor, had been stopped under the Vajpayee government, and was resumed in 2005. Together with Prof. Bhattacharya, Prof. Arjun Dev ensured the successful completion of this monumental project. Unfortunately, some of the volumes remain unpublished (including one of the volumes covering the period 1941 edited by Arjun Dev) due to the shelving of the project by the present BJP regime.

Arjun Dev was closely associated with SAHMAT, and was actively involved in its campaign against the communalisation of education. He is survived by his wife, Indira Arjun Dev, a historian, his close companion and intellectual collaborator. Prof. Arjun Dev will continue to inspire all those engaged in the struggle for the cause of secularism and socialism.