The new IAS babu: Does he need to speak English?

The proposed UPSC requirement for English proficiency has sparked a political furore centred around regional language pride. And it misses both the changing demographics of UPSC applicants, and their aspirations.

Lakshmi Chaudhry March 18, 2013 14:43:54 IST
The new IAS babu: Does he need to speak English?

"I've a feeling, August, you're going to get hazaar fucked in Madna," Dhrubo tells Agastya Sen, the young bureaucrat who is protagonist of The Great IAS Novel, Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August : An Indian story.

Agastya, or August to friends, is the ultimate Macaulay putra, an upper middle class, A-list public school educated son of a high level IAS officer, who spends most of his time in the novel smoking pot, masturbating and reading Marcus Aurelius and the Gita — the latter undoubtedly in English. He is amused by Dhrubo's prediction not at its substance but its style: "Amazing mix, the English we speak. Hazaar fucked. Urdu and American.. a thousand fucked, really fucked. I'm sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease."

Twenty-plus years after its publication, 'the English we speak' — how much and how well — has sparked a political furore over a proposal to make the English comprehension and précis section part of the total score in civil service exams, as opposed to a mere pass/fail requirement at the qualifying stage.

"By no means am I underestimating any regional language. But in the present-day scenario, global boundaries have disappeared and language has become the unit of currency," says ex-UGC head Arun Nigavekar who headed the committee charged with making recommendations, "It is the light and sound of communication.We cannot close our windows to the winds of change and at the same time, we should not get swept off our feet. This is what Gandhiji had in his vision."

The new IAS babu Does he need to speak English

Representational Image of students studying outside in Mumbai. AFP

Critics, however, describe the new move as elitist, imperial and discriminatory against the vast numbers of Indians who have been educated in non-English medium schools. As IAS officer Kankipati Rajesh argues :

This provision is anti-rural and anti-poor... In the preliminary examination, the screening process for the Mains, the aspirant is tested for English language skills. So, it is understood that a candidate appearing for the Mains has already proved his English language abilities in the preliminary examination. While the marks in preliminary examination do not affect the overall ranking of the candidate, the mains marks will. This will place many a rural and vernacular language aspirant at a disadvantage.

He goes on to offer the example of his colleague Mohammed Ali Shihab, "an orphan who worked as peon, pump operator and later as a teacher, made it into the civil services examination with Malayalam as an optional subject and with Malayalam as the language medium. Under the new rules, this man of humble origins from Kerala would never have become a civil servant unless he knew English."

The heated debate however skirts a larger truth, ie the typical IAS man today is a very different creature from Agastya Sen. The Macaulay-putras and -putris have long abandoned UPSC examinations in favour of IIMs. And the new bureaucrat is a more humble soul. According to data reported by a 2007 Outlook magazine story ,

"[L]ess than two out of 10 entrants into the civil services were born in metros and state capitals. Three out of 10 were born in villages—and as many as half were born and schooled in district and tehsil towns. Compare that with the '70s, when two out of three civil service recruits were from cities, and the '80s, when one out of four still was."

"The children of IAS officers do not want their fathers' jobs," ex IAS officer Wajahat Habibullah, tells Outlook, "But there is an influx of the children of those who worked in the lower ranks of government service—like head constables, private secretaries and clerks—for whom the IAS was the ultimate."

The trend has likely accelerated in the years since. And in this sense, the changing demographics makes moot the question of English language skills. It is silly to make a language that is at best a second or third language for most UPSC applicants a measure of their merit. What is required is a minimum proficiency to be able to communicate with other bureaucrats, and English, for better or worse, remains the default national language as opposed to Hindi. And it is likely that this new bureaucrat is better in touch with the realities of the villages and tehsils he or she is supposed to administer — as opposed to the urban, convent-educated babu of yore.

But it is equally silly to dismiss Nigavekar's argument in defence of English as the language of global communication. His so-called 'elitist' assessment is shared by the vast many Indians who view it as "a language that opens doors; for those outside the magic portals, it is an absence that builds impregnable walls,” as Ashok Malik observed in a Tehelka essay tracing the long arc of Thomas Macaulay’s experiment that ends in English as the lingua franca of technology, jobs, and a better life, for taxi drivers and garbage collectors, Kashmiris and Maharashtrians, Sikhs, Muslims, Dalits and Hindus, all united in a common effort to take “the stairway to heaven.”

The problem with the debate over UPSC requirements is that it is framed by the politics of language — with the likes of Jayalalithaa and Shiv Sena jumping on it as an excuse for chest-thumping regional pride. There is a perfectly sensible solution that both requires English proficiency without making it a measure of an applicant's merit: post-entrance English language courses. The UPSC exams can then become a stairway to opportunity in every sense of the day.

Updated Date:

Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro at ₹499 for the first year. Use code PRO499. Limited period offer. *T&C apply