By: Alok Ra
Predictably, the politicians have won — the UPSC has backed down on the matter of the minimal English requirement for the prelims, the CSAT. Politicians, after all, presume to rule the country with no minimum qualifications at all — evidently, even a criminal record is merely desirable, not compulsory. Indeed, from the point of view of popular (and populist) politicians, the best examination is the one in which everyone makes it. But, of course, the whole point of an examination is to set up gates and filters of different competencies, so that everyone does not get through. Only a limited number of candidates — and, indeed, candidates of a certain minimum quality — reach the next round. Examinations, by definition, discriminate. The only question that may legitimately be raised is whether they are discriminating on valid and relevant grounds.
There is a misleading discussion surrounding the CSAT controversy that should be disposed of at the outset. This has to do with whether or not English is required in order to run the administration of this great country. From the available evidence, of course, there is pretty little required of the average bureaucrat — beyond greed, that is — and that requires no language at all. Most of the business of administration is carried on in the local language — and, in any case, file notings are hardly a literary genre requiring high linguistic competence. All of this is true — as also the fact that the Constitution and the laws of the country are primarily in English — for historical, if also regrettable, reasons. But, contrary to currently dominant fashions, regret cannot undo history. And putative bureaucrats should have a passing familiarity with the Constitution, at least.
However, the main argument in favour of retaining the linguistic (and so, English) component in the CSAT examination is that, traditionally, linguistic ability has been considered one index of intellectual ability — along with mathematical and analytic ability. The argument that the English component favours — confers an advantage on — candidates of a certain class and social background is, in my opinion, entirely valid.
Yogendra Yadav’s claim (‘And the winner is English’, IE, August 4) regarding the linguistic apartheid that is prevalent in our country is undeniable. There is an entire class, whose claim to the disproportionate attention they get derives from a certain fluency, an ability to gabble, in English. And I can certainly imagine designing an English examination that filters these fluent semi-literates out. Even though it would leave the deep injustice of the larger social conjuncture undisturbed.
However, the immediate problem before the UPSC is to somehow equalise the difficulty felt by the English-unknowing in comparison with the gabblers — to level the playing field. This problem can be addressed in two diametrically opposite ways. The first, predictably preferred by the politicians, is to do away with the linguistic requirement altogether, simply lower the bar in order to accommodate the vociferous demand from an electorally significant Hindi-belt demographic.
The educationally more appropriate response, in my view, would be not to lower the bar but to raise it still higher — by adding another compulsory “vernacular” language component to the CSAT. The urban Anglophone would be required to demonstrate competence in any one Indian language of her choice — other than English. This would, at one stroke, eliminate the advantage of the urban English-monolingual. Indeed, the “vernacular” component — Hindi or Bangla or Tamil — can also be so devised that it eliminates those whose vernacular competence goes little beyond ordering their servants. After all, linguistic competence, at least in aspirants to the higher civil services, must include skills like analysing discursive prose, summarising arguments and analysing complex issues. And the candidates who succeed in this modified — already a loaded word? — CSAT would therefore be competent bilinguals, and so much better equipped to deal with the challenges of administration.
The writer used to teach English at Delhi University