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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Looking Back in Anger

Bigots and busybodies looking back in anger

Candidates for the Civil Service Aptitude Test (CSAT) conducted by the Union Public Service Commission rocked the national capital with vociferous protests for two weeks in July-August demanding changes in the test format. They said CSAT was biased in favor of students from English-medium schools and those who came from ‘technical’ streams of learning such as engineering.

In 2011, the commission introduced CSAT to test the analytical and comprehension capabilities of aspirant civil servants rather than mere ability to memorize. The test determines whether a candidate is qualified to write the main examination. Billed as the toughest in the world, the UPSC’s civil service entrance exam attracts more than 500,000 aspirants each year of whom a mere 0.01-0.03 percent make the grade and go on to join the premier civil services such as the IAS, IFS and IPS. There is no more elite corps in the world than of the Indian civil services.

The agitators’ demands were based on a simple fact: analysis and comprehension are far removed from rote learning encouraged by the school education system. As such, CSAT became a formidable obstacle for them. The ability to define, categorize and organize requires considerably greater learning than to regurgitate memorized material. In the traditional education system where the image of a Brahmin mugging slokas exerts powerful influence, cognitive testing based on reason and comprehension is a great disrupter.

Fastening on the emotive language divide in the country, the agitators cleverly argued that CSAT is loaded against Hindi-belt candidates. For decades, Hindi heartland political leaders have not pushed just Hindi as the medium of instruction and government transactions, but also the end of English usage. Some states like Gujarat and West Bengal went to ridiculous lengths to make regional medium education mandatory. Millions of young Gujaratis and Bengalis suffered over the decades. Any wonder then that these two states became harbingers of the most regressive ideologies and chauvinist worldviews?

Advocates of Hindi and regional languages harbor a misbegotten sense of victimhood, spilled over from the colonial experience. For them the language and culture of the minority of English-speaking people is alien to the values and practices of “the real India'” i.e Bharat. Simultaneously, this ‘alien’ culture still enjoys a colonial-style advantage six decades after the end of British rule. What’s left unsaid is that English language learning has not only remained alive but has morphed into an aspiration for India’s growing middle class, chasing jobs and career opportunities around the world. This established trend can only grow as India begins to engage more actively with the global economy.

Modern history is littered with victims of the India-Bharat divide promoted by language chauvinists, bigots and busybodies. After India won independence in 1947, these elements made a virtue of denying the nation’s British heritage and looking back in anger to a pre-colonial golden age. Of late, mindsets have turned atavistic and are beginning to hallucinate about a mythical Hindu age that Muslim invaders had allegedly obliterated and subverted.

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a path-breaking English stage and screen production of the 1950s. It dealt with the longing in a once-mighty Britain for its glorious past. In the newly emergent post-World War II era and the loss of its colonies, some British people experienced remorse because “everything’s changed” while others rued that “everything’s remained the same.” 

This syndrome is now sweeping india as various crackpots and extremists keep popping up with increasing frequency making absurd claims and bigoted statements about the glory of a mythical past on the one hand, and victimhood on the other. The inter-play between these emotions defines the current political agenda. Meanwhile important issues — education, healthcare, roads, water, transport, law and order — suffer neglect.

By pandering to such agitators, governments and political parties are mindlessly promoting a culture of entitlement in which no judgments can be made about individual capability and proficiency. Like its evil twin, reservation, entitlement weakens an already frayed social fabric. Governance is too much to expect in these circumstances, and policy making is held captive in the dungeons of do-nothing.

People start to believe that any achievements will result only from agitation and group solidarity, influence-peddling and corruption. What the CSAT candidates protested, political parties supported, and the government accepted the strange proposition that the entrance into the civil services is less about merit than ‘fairness’ to those who see themselves as disadvantaged.

It seems self-defeating to strike at the heart of government, its civil services, with a contradictory demand to change everything and to change nothing. As such, the future looks bleak for the ‘steel frame’ services which are already at sixes and sevens, measuring up to the demands of a modernizing state and the aspirations of an increasingly assertive citizenry.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of  Education World.