UPSC row: Is BJP wasting opportunity to shed image as a Hindi heartland party?

Once an agitation reaches the Jantar Mantar and leads to adjournments in parliament, it’s clear that a commonsensical solution will become that much harder to find.

The UPSC language brouhaha is doomed to that fate because it is now about language and that is a perennial tripwire in Indian politics.

The issue should really about what the civil service needs but instead the arguments have turned into the same old tired fight between English and Hindi. That’s good for frayed tempers and political mudslinging but little else.

English isn’t going anywhere. It might be colonial hangover or a colonial gift depending on your degree of Macaulayputra-hood. But it’s here to stay. Indians are practical. They shove, push, elbow for every inch of advantage they can find as anyone standing in a queue or maneuvering a traffic jam in India will testify. So not only are Indians who speak English not going to give up that advantage, Indians who do not speak English will continue to work overtime to get their children into English medium schools.

 UPSC row: Is BJP wasting opportunity to shed image as a Hindi heartland party?

The UPSC row has caused an uproar in Parliament: PTI

The Communists might have dropped English at the primary level in 1983 in West Bengal but Jyoti Basu’s grandchildren certainly didn’t go Bengali-medium.

That does not mean English must be put on an altar and worshipped. It’s a skill not a deity. Narendra Modi quite rightly signaled that while he was perfectly conversant in English he would not kowtow to it. He spoke to the SAARC leaders in Hindi, a language he is more comfortable in. When he goes to the UN he should again speak in whatever language he likes.

But just because it’s fine for the Prime Minister is it fine for the IAS officer who can be posted in any part of the country including parts that do not speak very much Hindi? Mind you even Modi would have more of an advantage if he was as fluent in English as he is in Hindi.

But the issue here is not about what language a neta gives speeches in. This is not even about the arrogance of the English mediumwalla over the Hindi Medium Types. That's a different story. This is about a CSAT aptitude test that’s part of the UPSC Examination. The agitators want it scrapped. They want the English-language paper (which assumes Class X comprehension) made less difficult. And they want the interview that follows to be allowed in other languages.

However is the issue really about English? In the Economic Times, Indrajit Hazra has an example of the English comprehension part from C-SAT 2012.

Passage 1
For fourteen and a half months I lived in my little cell or room in Dehradun jail, and I began to feel as if I was almost a part of it. I was familiar with every bit of it, I knew every mark and dent on the whitewashed walls and on the uneven floor and its ceiling with its moth-eaten rafters. In the little yard outside I greeted little tufts of grass and odd bits of stone as old friends. I was not alone in my cell, for several colonies of wasps and hornets lived there, and many lizards found a home behind the rafters, emerging in the evenings in search of prey.

66. Which of the following explains best the sentence in the passage “I was almost a part of it”?

a) I was not alone in the cell.
b) I was familiar with every bit of the cell.
c) I greeted little tufts of grass like old friends.
d) I felt quite at home in the cell.

The Telegraph carries an example from the General Studies portion of C-SAT 2013.

1. Five people, A, B, C, D and E, are seated about a round table. Every chair is placed equidistant from adjacent chairs.
(i) C is seated next to A
(ii) A is seated two seats from D
(iii) B is not seated next to A
Which of the following must be true?
(I) D is seated next to B
(II) E is seated next to A
Select the correct answers from the codes given below:
a- I only
b-II only
c-Both I and II
d-Neither I nor II

The real issue says one unnamed candidate to The Telegraph is mathematics and reasoning rather than English. “The agitators find it hard to answer the questions on mathematics, reasoning and decision-making but are embarrassed to spell this out, so they are highlighting the alleged language bias,” the candidate said. “The English-language tests are of Class X standards which any graduate should be able to handle.”

In fact, when minister Jitendra Singh announced the government’s offer to the agitating students, Pawan Pandey, convener of the Rashtriya Adhikar Manch responded by saying “This is cheating. We never demanded the government tweak the CSAT; we want it scrapped.”

Protesters have claimed that the CSAT syllabus favours those from science and engineering backgrounds and is discriminatory against those from the Humanities, particularly those from rural areas who studied in Hindi medium. That argument neatly conflates several contentious issues into one prickly touchy mess – humanities vs engineering, Hindi vs English, rural vs urban.

The government’s response has actually made things worse. It rejected the demand that the aptitude test, if not scrapped, be only treated as a qualifying paper requiring a certain minimum score. But it proposed that the English-language scores not count in drawing up the preliminary merit list. That has led to counter protests from the likes of south Indian candidates who think this will favour the Hindi heartland.

A BJP government has always struggled with the national perception that it’s a Hindi heartland party. Modi’s election and his mandate has actually given the party an unheard of opportunity to shed that parochial image. The party is optimistic about the inroads it thinks it can make in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu when those states go to the polls.

The last thing it needed right now was to again give out the impression, ala the tweeting-in-Hindi fuss, that its default stance is to favour and accomodate the Hindi-speaker. As if on cue, it’s allowed Trinamool, DMK and AIADMK to demand that students be allowed to take the exam in every Indian language. What should have been a discussion about the requirements of the civil service becomes an occasion to open the linguistic Pandora’s Box. AIADMK’s V Maitreyan complains “people from South are always given second class treatment.”

The unspoken issue here is who wants to be an IAS officer these days. “The Macaulay-putras and -putris have long abandoned UPSC examinations in favour of IIMs,” writes Lakshmi Chaudhry in Firstpost. She cites an Outlook survey that finds that compared to the 70s when two out of three civil service recruits were from cities, now less than two out of ten are born in metros or state capitals.

"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."

And when they do not want to be tested on English, a language which everyone knows is a currency for bigger and better opportunities in India, they are actually saying something else writes Indrajit Hazra. They want “simply to enter the civil services for a steady job for life, something that many of us and our kids have long moved beyond and therefore find difficult to comprehend.”

The Union Public Service Commission needs to figure out how to deal with this changing demographic. The solution is not to just do away with English because for better or worse a certain minimum proficiency is required for the bureaucracy to move along. And even if a junior civil servant might not need stellar proficiency in English it will become more important as they go up the ladder.

It does not mean they have to read Marcus Aurelius while posted in Madna like Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Agastya in English, August. Chetan Bhagat will do just fine.

"Instead of letting politicians take it into the dead-end of the politics of language and ranting about language bias there could be a perfectly sensible solution", writes Chaudhry. "For example, one idea could be “post-entrance English language courses. The UPSC exams can then become a stairway to opportunity in every sense of the day.”

But it’s much more exciting to force adjournments of parliament, cause a ruckus, get into a self-righteous lather about discrimination and in that immortal phrase of English, August be, in general “hazaar fucked”.

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Updated Date: Aug 05, 2014 18:35:46 IST