Democracy is a funny thing. At least in India it is truly peculiar. It has a tendency to break out in strange ways as though in order to establish that equality and the aspiration to improve standards cannot go together. Just in case anybody ever dreamt of something better, smarter, more tuned in to the world. Predictably, therefore, the Union Public Service Commission has dropped its controversy-generating English paper for 100 marks in the civil services mains examination. Parliament has been ringing with its members’ protests that such a paper was targeted against rural candidates; it was meant to dash their hopes to make it to the civil services. No government can proceed with an action perceived to be politically incorrect, especially if it is seen as a betrayal of young people from outside the cities, so the outcome was inevitable.
There are certain assumptions behind the protests, assumptions that the government obviously accepts since it has bowed to the MPs’ pressure. One is that children in the villages are not taught English well enough for them to compete in the big bad world. The inherent contradiction is glossed over: India’s education policy is meant to bridge such gaps. There is evidently no shame in admitting indirectly that all is not right with teaching in the villages. So, instead of trying to put things right in rural and suburban schools and colleges, the government is willing to take the line of least resistance. That is what democracy means for India. It is not a question of trying to improve things so that others can exert themselves and try to reach higher levels, but of pulling everything down. There is also a second assumption in the crude logic of the protests. That young people in cities learn better English. But things are not so simple. There are various kinds of schools in the cities, and private English-medium schools would certainly be stronger in English-teaching. The picture would be very different in corporation and government schools. So is no one going to look into the poor teaching in city schools?
The only difference between city and country here is likely to be in the quality of teachers. The government — or state governments — must therefore ask themselves what they are doing to attract and keep good teachers in the villages. Decent living quarters, schools for their children, hospitals, medical care, smooth transport? If candidates fail to get a job just because they are weak in English, then it may seem alright to withdraw such a paper for a time, but the real action should be directed towards breaking down the class-division between rural and urban education. It is most damaging to the young people who feel they cannot compete because they do not have good English. Yet all that is needed is proper teaching. Sacrificing English, the language of work and play all over the world — however unacceptable that seems — is not democracy; it is defeatism.