By: Krishna S. Vatsa
When a group of students from backgrounds where English is not the first medium of instruction takes to the streets to protest against the unfairness of the civil services aptitude test (CSAT), it gives rise to a presumptive view that they are not “good enough” for an intensely competitive examination; that they are using the language issue to hide their mediocrity and evade the exacting standards expected of a higher civil service. While the politics of the agitation against the CSAT and its ramifications for the elections ahead cannot be denied, the opposite view — that the test is appropriately designed to ascertain the aptitude of students — demands careful analysis.
A quick survey of the CSAT question papers of previous years suggests that the design of the test, particularly of general studies II, is heavily stacked against students from an Indian-language background. It is neither about proficiency in English nor about the importance of English as a global language. Rather, the way the questions are framed tends to favour students from an English-language and -education background. This essential point about the inherent inequity and injustice in the scheme of the test has, unfortunately, been lost in the din about the desirability of proficiency in English and how it equips our administrators to engage with an increasingly globalised world. That some of our finest minds are not able to grasp this point is a sad commentary on their lack of comprehension and deep-seated prejudices.
The CSAT questions for 2013, which are posted on the UPSC website, start with a passage on democracy from Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice: “The subject of democracy has become severely muddled because of the way the rhetoric surrounding it has been used in recent years. There is, increasingly, an oddly confused dichotomy between those who want to ‘impose’ democracy on countries in the non-Western world (in these countries’ ‘own interest’, of course) and those who are opposed to such ‘imposition’ (because of the respect for the countries’ ‘own ways’). But the entire language of ‘imposition’, used by both sides, is extraordinarily inappropriate since it makes the implicit assumption that democracy belongs exclusively to the West, taking it to be a quintessentially ‘Western’ idea which has originated and flourished only in the West.” Sen’s argument would certainly be impenetrable for someone whose only chance of understanding the passage would be to turn to, say, its Hindi translation. Unfortunately, the translation is so convoluted and contrived that the student stands no chance of even a vague comprehension.
The questions that follow the passage are poorly framed and open to varying interpretations, creating a dilemma for students from all backgrounds. Translation only adds to the confusion.
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This is not an isolated example. Such problems abound in passage after passage in the test paper. To put it simply, they favour and privilege one background over another. The bias is more pronounced in technical questions. While the entire test paper appears to be speaking to students from an urban, privileged and English-educated background, it does not evince much interest in testing the knowledge of students from relatively remote and disadvantaged ones who are proficient in Indian languages and are saddled with an “unsophisticated” sensibility.
The students who are protesting on the streets understand very well that the argument about their “disrespect” for English is a smokescreen to hide the truth that the arc of the CSAT bends against and away from them. The fewer number of students from an Indian-language background among successful candidates in the last two examinations is a sure indicator of the bias and prejudice that the CSAT has come to embody. The response of the Indian government — that marks in English-language comprehension skills would not be included — does not acknowledge the basic issues the students are raising.
Further, even those English aficionados desirous of its propagation throughout the country would help their cause by identifying better passages for the test and framing questions more carefully so as to create a level playing field for those who are not very proficient in English. Much like the half-baked knowledge and the high-decibel superciliousness that is on display in television debates, the CSAT question papers are replete with an embedded bias, indiscriminate selection of passages, indeterminate questions and, above all, opacity. So much so that a passage from Swami Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga is reproduced in such an out-of-context manner in the 2013 test paper that even the father of India’s spiritual awakening must be wondering if his countrymen will ever rise from their colonial slumber.
The writer is a retired IAS officer. Views are personal