A nation administered by civil servants who feel victimized when asked to demonstrate the aptitude of schoolgoing 15-year-olds has a lot to be worried about. Equally worrying is a government that gives in to the demands of these ‘victims’, taking the risk of seriously compromising its standards of governance. The Centre has now made clear its position on the English language aptitude test in the civil services preliminary examinations. It agrees with the protesters that the marks on the comprehension of English should not count in the selection of candidates for the next round. The protests were against alleged discrimination against candidates whose English was not strong enough compared to their Hindi, and against humanities candidates as opposed to those who have studied science or engineering. The government had been dithering and deferring, waiting for a committee report to make its recommendations. It has spoken now, and its position is not entirely compatible with what its own experts feel about the issue. The aptitude test will remain, contrary to the protesters’ demand that the whole thing be scrapped. But the candidates do not have to prove any more that they have Class-X-level English; those who had failed last year on this count will get another chance.
This is, symbolically and otherwise, a serious compromise to risk. The civil services are aspirational posts, and it is difficult to see how expecting aspirants to show high-school-level skills in thinking and communicating when they aspire to serve the country for the rest of their lives could constitute unjustly discriminatory qualifying criteria. English is an essential medium of communication that unifies, far more than Hindi does, the whole of a linguistically chaotic country; besides, civil servants often have to work on behalf of their country in different parts of the world. This combination of anti-English chauvinism and risk-averse politics in the government’s position could result in a lowering of standards in a field where excellence and merit are particularly to be desired. Removing English comprehension from the selection criteria cannot be the right way to address the problems that the protesters want to draw the government’s attention to. The disadvantages of poor English require rigorous pedagogical thinking and political will, not a damaging recourse to the path of least resistance.