UPSC Main: Strategy for History Optional

UPSC Main: Strategy for History Optional

Preparation for Civil Services is not merely an intellectual exercise of gathering facts and thickening store-house of our knowledge about the subject. Indeed, that is an essential task. But such conclusions have inherent dangers. We know perfectly well that the process of 'knowledge - acquiring' is an unending human endeavour which has no time limit. The preparation for Civil Services, in our opinion, can not be and should not be regarded as a gradual and continuous process of knowledge gathering, as its internal philosophy is centered around two themes, i.e. limited number of attempts and secondly, the age limit. Along with these two limits, i.e., attempt-limit and age-limit, there are other variables too. One of the important variables is its competitiveness. Competitiveness demands not an "absolute" knowledge but 'relative knowledge'. It does not care for the "masters" of the subject but it emphasises to select those aspirants who can easily grasp the 'command' of the optional chosen. In any case, the best civil servants are those who can monitor and manoeuvre between the given lines. In other words, success in civil services demands a carefully drawn strategy with potential to place the aspirants suitably in the 'relative' merit list.

N.K. Vaid, the Director of Vaid's ICS and a renowned expert in this field, in this sense only talks about a Six-stage exercise before opting a subject/subjects needed for Civil Services Examination. (The Toppers' India, Vol. I, No. 1, pp 6 – 7). These are - the syllabus, content, interest, expertise, success rate, and friends' advice. Here, we must add that these instructions are meant only for preliminary exercises. When you reach or rather cross that stage by selecting required 'optionals' for Preliminary/Mains examination, you need specific guidelines regarding those optionals and hence more accurate and precise instructions. We are trying to dwell upon these specific instructions in the context of History, the most popular optional subject of Civil Services Examination.

Choice of optionals plays an important role at all the three stages of Preliminary, Main and Interview. Here, the most important question that arises is:- should we adopt an integrated approach ? Or, is it advisable to follow specific strategies at specific stages ? The most suitable and less time-consuming method, in our opinion, is the crucial mix of both types of approaches.

As far as preliminary examination of Civil Services is concerned, there exists a general myth, i.e., "collect facts, get through". But as a careful observer, as you are expected to be, it would not be very difficult to mark out those cross-sections of serious aspirants who find themselves unable to clear even the screening test (preliminary exam) despite the multitude of facts collected from various sources. This observation calls for a serious attention to probe deep into the probable factors of such a great failure. One reason is obvious and it leads us to the existing myth about preliminary test, viz., the myth of fact-gathering. In our opinion, fact gathering alone can not help. We have to be vigilant about other variables too. Before going into fact-gathering exercises, the student should be very clear about the 'nature' of facts which are going to play a crucial role in his selection. He may be advised to classify the gathered facts into 'differential' categories in their descending order of importance. Thus, he may have in the end category-A, category-B, category-C and category-D of facts. If one is preparing for Ancient India, for example, 'category-A' of facts may deal with such areas as literary evidences, archeological evidences, material-culture, numis-matics, important trade centres, important trade routes, list of classics with historical significance, nature of coinage, stages of social and state formations and so on and so forth. Such categorization of facts will help the student in the sense that he, then, could save himself from getting confused under the heavy weight of collected data.

Collecting data as much as possible is prone to another danger. In a historical work, data, i.e. facts are generally interwoven with explicit and/or salient 'frame of references' which can be termed as 'concepts' of history. 'Ancient India' of Prof. R.S. Sharma (NCERT) and another book titled 'Material Culture and Social Formation in Ancient India' by the same author, could provide an example of 'salient' and 'explicit' frames of references, respectively. While the former is an example of salient frame of reference with a very strong conceptual base, the latter could serve the example of 'explicit' one. We would like to suggest the aspirants for the collection of facts in such a manner as facts should not be de-attached from their respective frame of references. This is what we may define as "the collection of facts in their conceptual totality". It has become more important these days when questions are prepared in 'salient' but 'strong' frame of references. In other words, facts should be read along with their implicit concepts.

This understanding leads us to another problem, i.e., the "choice of books" which means the choice of 'facts' along with their guiding concepts. In history, we know very well that facts have always been presented and interpreted with the inherent philosophy of historians and their historiography. In other words, there exist those materials of historical work which may be termed "outdated". Books of R.C. Majumdar or Vidya Bhavan series may fall in this category along with books of L. Mukherjee. In our opinion, students should avoid these books or he should be extra-careful in the matter of collecting data as facts, their frame of references or concepts should not transmit in their notes. But in case of another category, termed as 'relevant' category of books, facts along with concepts should be gathered. Careful analysis of the preliminary examination questions can very well reveal that generally two types of questions are asked in the examination viz., the fact-oriented questions and the concept-oriented questions. For the fact-oriented questions, any script could serve the purpose. But for the concept- oriented ones, students are advised to go only by the 'relevant category of books'. In this respect, one should always remember that even the careful glance of the ‘relevant category of books' could serve the purpose of complete fact gathering as even those facts are generally mentioned in these books too, for which we sometimes opt for outdates category.

Regarding syllabus of preliminary examination, we would like to say few more words. Students should not take the risk of categorising the 'topics' of syllabus in order of their relative importance. The general philosophy of the preliminary examination is to give representation to all the topics in the order of their relative significance. But here comes the element of 'biases’ of head-examiners with probability to in fuse peculiar twists and extended meanings to the topics in syllabus. Here, it seems that even U.P.S.C. has very little alternative to offer. For example, Indus Valley Civilization has been extended to Mehergarh in 6000 B.C. while the topic should generally cover the events between 3000 and 1800 B.C. You shall have to take care of this element of uncertainty while drawing the framework of strategy for preliminary examination. Here, we are mentioning the names and authors of those books which fall in the category of relevant books.

So far as Main Examination is concerned, the Optional history has been divided into two papers : the first paper consisting of ancient India and Medieval India while the second consists of Modern India & Modern World. In this stage of examination, the preparation made in the first stage becomes crucial. Since the mode of examination is ‘subjective’, the candidates are required to present the facts in a coherent order which means the presentation of facts in a strong but acceptable conceptual frame in a precise, consistent and logical form without going into any ‘debate’ unless asked for. Debates are indeed an exclusive zone of historians; civil servants have nothing to do with it. They are only concerned with 'acceptable' conclusions needed in their bureaucratic discourse. In other words, you are advised to write your answer in a very precise and compact manner with a very strong conceptual frame but not of 'explicit' type but of 'salient' type in methodology followed by NCERT texts. Obviously, NCERT text books should not be treated as neutral books; devoid of any tinge towards a particular style of historiography. In fact, these are the discourse of a particular type of historiography and historians. We have to remember this fact while answering the first as well as second paper in the exam.

In the first paper, the questions are asked in two sections with one compulsory question from each section. Students have to solve three more questions, selecting at least one from the each section. As far as compulsory questions are concerned, one of them is related to the mapping of important cities either of Ancient or Medieval history, generally in an alternative manner. For maps, students are advised to go through initial homework repeatedly which could make sure for them at least 80 to 85% marks in that particular question. The second compulsory question needs no particular home-work and preparation made in the first stage is enough to take care of this part, the only requirement is to provide its facts a logical, concise and presentative framework. In making comments, students should again follow the reasoning developed by NCERT books.

So far as three other questions are concerned, we have to analyse the case of Ancient & Medieval India separately. For Ancient India, examiners’ bias is clear. They are clearly in favour of Indus & Vedic cultures along with Rise and Growth of Patliputra, right from 6th century B.C. to Gupta period. If you have prepared these areas, you should be sure of two questions generally. To reduce the likely risk factors, students are expected to go through Buddhism, Jainism & Brahmanism in the above said period, along with historical constructions centred around Arthasastra, Ashokan edicts, and the chronicles of Ban’s Harshacharit. You are also advised to concentrate on technological changes, education and learning and the position of women in this period.

For Medieval history, you are sure of one question from the phase of Indian feudalism, i.e. 800 to 1200 A.D. Prepare this portion seriously. Again, examiners are prone to ask another question either from Balban, Alauddin, Md. Bin Tughlaq or Firuz Tughlaq. To avoid risk factors students should also take care of Bhakti movement and art & architecture in Medieval India. From Mughal portion, the questions that are asked are of general type relating to administrative, social or religious policies. One question from South India is sure. Students are, therefore, advised to prepare Chola empire, Rastrakuta empire, Vijaynagar empire and Maratha in detail. Examiners have particular bias towards Maratha & Chola empire.

Second Paper is also divided into two sections with similar arrangement as in the first paper. There are two compulsory questions asked from each section. For Modern India section, you need not make any specific preparation. The preparation made in the first stage is sufficient to take care of this question. But students are advised to go through previous years' questions as these are invariably repeated, though, in different forms. The same is true for the second compulsory question, too.

For optional questions, there exists a pattern. You are in any case sure of one question from tribal, peasant, caste and working class movements (the previous year’s paper is however exception to this rule). One question is asked from another area comprising of Educational Development, Civil Service, and Christian Missionaries along with the debates involved in therein. Another question is from economic history revolving around 'various stages' of colonial exploitation starting from 'Drain of Wealth' & Revenue Administration to Industrialization, De-industrialization, Commercialization of Agriculture and Rise and Growth of the Capitalist Class. If you have concentrated your attention properly on these issues during your preparation, you should not have any difficulty in examination hall.

Even for the section of modern world, there exists a trend. From Modern-West section, there is necessarily a question. You may have one question from any of the revolutions starting from American & French revolution to Russian, Chinese, English, Industrial and third world's nationalist revolutions. If you have also prepared Italian and German unification, Fascism and Nazism, the great depression, and the second world war along with western penetration in China and Militarism in Japan, you need not study any more.

The strategy outlined above is more than enough to take care of your Main examination. So far as interview is concerned, 'they' are supposed to ask 'general' questions about history. Sometimes, these general questions are tougher than the specific questions asked in Main examination. For this purpose, you are advised to go through at least following three books :

1. What is History E.H. Carr
2. Historian's Craft Marc Block
3. The Past and the present Lawrence Stone
Having read these books, you can confidently move for Interview.

Ancient India

1. Ancient India (NCERT) Prof. R.S. Sharma
2. The Wonder That was India A.L. Basham
3. Ancient India - An Introductory Outline D.N. Jha
4. History of India, Vol. I Romila Thapar
5. Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India
R.S. Sharma (only Conclusion)
6. Material culture & Social Formation in Ancient India R.S. Sharma
7. Indian Feudalism R.S. Sharma
8. Ashoka & Decline of the Maurya Romila Thapar
9. A History of South India K.A. Nilkantha Sastri
10Ancient India and Indian Archaeology Archaeological Survey of India

Medieval India

1. Medieval India (NCERT) Satish Chandra
2. Medieval India (Macmillan) Satish Chandra
3.The Wonder That was India (Vol.2) S.A.A. Rizvi
4.The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707 Irfan Habib
5.The Mughal Empire J.F. Richards
6.Urban Dynamics H.C. Verma
7.The Marathas Gordon

Modern India

1.Modern India (NCERT) Bipan Chandra
2.Modern India (Macmillan) Sumit Sarkar
3.Anatomy of the Raj (PPH) Suhash Chakravarty
4.The Raj Syndrome (Penguins) Suhash Chakravarty
5.VAID's Fundamentals of History Series
a.Administrative History Pravin Kumar
b.Constitutional History Pravin Kumar
c.Social History Pravin Kumar
d.Freedom Struggle Pravin Kumar
6.Peasant Movements in India D.N. Dhanagare
7.India's Struggle for Independence Bipan Chandra and others
8.Gandhi B.R. Nanda
9.Gandhi Judith Brown
10. Freedom Struggle (NbT) Bipan Chandra & others

World History

1.The story of Civilization, Vol. 2 (NCERT) Arjun Dev
2.Contemporary World History (NCERT) Arjun Dev & others
3.The Mainstream of Civilization Strayer, Gatzke & Harbison
4.Western Civilizations Burns & others
5.Industry & Empire E.J. Hobsbawm
6.Age of Revolution E.J. Hobsbawm
7.Age of Capital E.J. Hobsbawm
8.Age of Empires E.J. Hobsbawm
9.Social basis of Democracy & Dictatorship B.J. Moore
10.Europe Since Napoleon David Thompson
11.Europe Since 1815 W.C. Craig
12.Europe Since 1870 James Joll.

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