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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 16 New Delhi, April 4, 2020

Professor Arjun Dev, The Historian of ‘Contemporary World’

Saturday 4 April 2020



by Pritish Acharya

Professor Arjun Dev, a renowned Historian of our time, passed away on 29th March 2020 in Delhi. Born on 12 November 1938 at Leiah in West Punjab (present Pakistan) young Arjun with his parents had to migrate to India in 1948 after partition. He did his schooling in Ambala and graduation in History from Kirori Mal College, and Masters from Delhi University, Delhi. He joined NCERT in 1963 and worked there till his retirement in 2000.

As a Professor of History, Head of the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Dean-Academic, Arjun Dev had been instrumental in the standardization of NCERT text books which millions of students read.

It was Arjun Dev who had involved great academicians such as Moonis Raza, Romila Thapar, Yogendra Singh, Tapas Majumdar, Satish Chandra and Bipan Chandra in the writing of NCERT’s school textbooks, an area which had been ignored by known academics until then.

Thus, Professor Romila Thapar wrote the History textbooks for Class VI and Class VII, and other doyens of the discipline, R.S Sharma, Satish Chandra and Bipan Chandra, wrote for higher secondary classes. Very soon these books became the hallmark of NCERT and set the standard of textbooks in the country. The NCERT textbooks with their analytical and authentic factual base made the general public, especially the civil service aspirants their avid readers.

Arjun Dev himself wrote the World History in two volumes for Class IX and Class X. Published under the title "The Story of Civilization", these books are much acclaimed everywhere and have also been used in the schools of Japan and elsewhere. His "History of Contemporary World" used at the higher secondary stage gives an encyclopedic and panoramic view of world developments of the time. Subsequently, the book has been published by Orient BlackSwan in a revised form. The lucidity and simple language of these books not only makes the ‘dry facts’ comprehensible, but evokes many new and newer questions in the mind of the readers of all age.

After retiring from NCERT in 2000, Arjun Dev consistently wrote and spoke in the media against attempts of saffronisation of education. He was also associated with the “Towards Freedom” project of the Indian Council of Historical Research and edited a volume related to the developments in the freedom struggle in the year 1941.

Arjun Dev was a co-editor of NCERT’s monumental work ‘India’s Struggle for Independence: Documents and Visuals’. He has edited a volume on the Correspondences between Gandhi and Nehru for the National Book Trust. His other pedagogical works for school teachers and young readers include ‘Human Rights, A Source Book’, (NCERT, 1996), ‘Some Aspects of Upper Primary Education in India: A Status Study of 1998, ( NCERT, 2000), ‘Young People’s Understanding of Human Rights: A Four Country Study, (NCERT, 1997), and Human Rights Education in Indian Schools’ (Academic Excellence, New Delhi, 2007). Though he used to take the lead in the making of these books, he would always give due credit to his co-authors which included academic-colleagues like Indira Arjun Dev, Supta Das, D.K. Lahiri, Dinesh Sharma and G.L. Adhya.

Arjun Dev was unique as a colleague in the NCERT. Teachers and staff from all streams would be drawn to him for discussing pedagogical and other issues. As an active member of the teachers’ association he always tried to give an academic orientation against mundane discussions. He always tried to see NCERT as a center of academic and intellectual fervor discussing and deliberating issues related to content and pedagogy in the larger interest of the country’s young children. Accepting anything as unquestionable was unacceptable to him. In NCERT as a work place even the contractual canteen workers would queue up for his suggestions to their issues. He made everyone comfortable in his company. As a tea-taker he was as comfortable in the make shift dhaba of ‘Chhedilal’ opposite to the gate of NCERT, as he was in the IIC (India International Center) of Delhi.

Arjun Dev had many fond memories of Saraiki, the region in West Punjab (present Pakistan) from where his family had migrated during the Partition. In a reaction to the hate speeches asking the minorities ‘to go back to Pakistan’ he would often quip, “I would like to go back to visit, send me please” and remark that “If both the countries are communal, one would better like to live in his birth place”. His commitment to secularism was as irrevocable as his firm conviction to scientific and unbiased study of history. He dreamt of engaging the young school students in analytical and critical study of the subject. “This is only way to save the discipline from further dilution and falsification” he would quip. When a National Steering Committee on Textbook evaluation, consisting of a number of eminent academics from all over the country, was constituted, Arjun Dev worked as its Member Secretary. Under his leadership, a report was produced and placed before the Committee in 1993 and 1994. The report was explosive as it detailed through long extracts the trivialization of the subject and attempts at communalization of the school textbooks in many places, including several state boards.

Though he was a bit shy of public speaking, Arjun Dev’s wit and sense of humour in close gatherings were unparallel. With a deep understanding of literature, especially Urdu, Hindi and English literature, his observations were always incisive and analytical. Often he would quote from Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mirza Ghalib in small social gatherings and surprise many, who presumed him only to be a history academic.
His world of friends would go beyond the discipline of History and NCERT.

Pritish Acharya is a colleague of Arjun Dev and presently a Professor at Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar. He could be contacted at pritishacharya63[at]

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