What is the agitation against the Union Public Service Commission’s Civil Services Aptitude Test really about? And why is the Central government taking its time to resolve the issue, allowing both the agitation and the politicking around it among the parties to intensify? Ever since the new aptitude test was introduced in 2011, there has been escalating protest against what is seen to be a bias in favour of aspirants coming from a privileged background. Privilege, in this case, is defined primarily in relation to language: the new test is deemed to be unfair to those who have not been through an ‘English-medium’ education, which, in India, implies a whole range of inequalities and discriminations. The test is also perceived to be more difficult for humanities students than it is for those coming from science and engineering backgrounds. So, what the protestors want is a return to the older, and ‘easier’, format. For the government, the current one as well as its predecessor, the politics of privilege and exclusion, implicated in the politics of language (English versus Hindi) is precariously close to politics in general, in the sense that matters most to governments, especially when the Narendra Modi government appears to be taking a pro-Hindi position in most other matters. Hence, evasion and deferral, couched as waiting for a specially commissioned report, although Opposition members, regional heads (from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s own student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, are getting restless — in some cases, almost unmanageably so.
The government should not forget that all public examinations are supposed to test merit. In this case, it can be no injustice to expect from all aspiring civil servants the ability to think, reason and communicate lucidly in a language that is common to not only the entire country but also the rest of the world. English is not a language of privilege but of administration and governance, and although this might sound like an ideal rather than the actuality in a country like India, a test like this one cannot afford to compromise its commitment to merit. Having said that, this is also perhaps a chance to address, rather than look away from, the real sense of disadvantage articulated by the protestors, and to think about larger issues of education, especially English language teaching, at all levels in the country. To lower the standard of the test, or to politicize the issue, cannot be the way to resolve the current impasse.