Every year, lakhs of young men and women from different parts of the country come to the national capital with one dream, a dream that sometimes take years to materialise, a dream to be part of the coveted "civil services", the steel frame of India. Civil services remain one of the most coveted jobs in the country, and is still seen as one the easiest way of social mobility. And perhaps this is the reason why it attracts many young men and women from extremely humble backgrounds with limited financial means, to try their luck in this field.
In 2011, bringing about a significant change in more than three decade old pattern, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) introduced a new civil service aptitude test (CSAT) paper in the preliminary test (PT), that serves as a screening for the civil services exam (CSE), which is conducted in three stages, with a mains exam and a personality test following the PT.
Since the introduction of the CSAT, students from non-English backgrounds have alleged discrimination. Their contention has been that the new CSAT paper favoured students from English and technical backgrounds. The basis of this allegation was that the CSAT, apart from testing the comprehension and mathematical aptitude of the students, also checked their English language skills. Though UPSC maintained that questions on English language were elementary Class X level, in many cases, it was proved that they were much tougher than what USC claimed.
This led to large scale protests in 2014 in Delhi and may parts of northern India which had large numbers of Hindi-speaking civil service aspirants. Following the protests, the then UPA government gave two additional attempts to UPSC aspirants with a relaxation in the upper age limit.
"The central government approved two additional attempts to all categories of candidates with effect from civil services examination, 2014, with consequential relaxation of maximum age for all categories of candidates, if required," said a statement by the department of personnel, public grievances and pension said.
According to various reports, it was on the intervention of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi that the decision was taken. Weeks before the decision, a group of UPSC aspirants was camping in front of Gandhi's residence at 12 Tughlaq Lane. While the decision pacified the students to a greater extent, the protests continued for the elimination of the CSAT paper altogether.
Further in August 2015, the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) ordered an extra attempt for the those aspirants who applied but did not take the preliminary examination in 2011 due to the introduction of CSAT.
In May 2015, a major change was effectuated, when without much noise, the NDA government decided to make the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) a qualifying paper in the UPSC exam. According to the new rule, CSAT was made a qualifying paper with minimum qualifying marks fixed at 33 percent. This meant that the student were now required to score a minimum of 33 percent marks in this paper and this wouldn't be added to the final results of the preliminary exam.
This was in addition the to the relaxation announced on 4 August, 2014, according to which marks in the English language comprehension skills of the UPSC aptitude test were not to be included in the merit list.
And now, aspirants have once again started protesting. According to a report in The Hindu, UPSC aspirants in Shah Jahan staged a protest on Tuesday demanding "compensation in the form of additional attempts" because according to them, they lost the chance for additional attempts due to a discriminatory Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) paper during the preliminary examination".
While there are many facts that support claims made by the non-English medium students of facing discrimination, the fact remains that there are numerous reasonable arguments that oppose any move of doing away with the English language test.
Consider this: In the last 15 years, 11 toppers were either from from an engineering or medical background. Apart from their technical background, another thing that sets them apart is their medium of instruction. In last one decade, hardly any candidate with a non-English medium background has been able to make it to the top rank.
The Nigvekar Committee, which was set up to suggest reforms in civil services, also said that the CSAT favors urban English-medium candidates and is hurting their rural counterparts.
On the other hand, there arise valid arguments that in the current age of global governance, is it possible for a bureaucrat to work efficiently without some elementary knowledge of English. While points made by the pro-CSAT and anti-CSAT groups both hold ground, what is muddling the entire debate is its politicisation.
As a large proportions of the protesting aspirants come from Hindi speaking states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the decision taken in 2014 after the intervention of Rahul Gandhi was seen as a move to appease voters in these states, especially since this is a crucial phase ahead of the general elections in May 2014.
The protests continued and so was the politicisation of the issue. In May last year, a group of civil service aspirants submitted a joint memorandum to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which was supported by around 100 MPs, who backed their demand for three fresh attempts for all civil services exam aspirants who have appeared from 2011 to 2015.
Now, with the upcoming assembly elections in five states including the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, from where lakhs of Hindi speaking students will give the exam, the aspirants have once again raked up the issue, hoping that electoral considerations might benefit their prospects.