India Insight

Class divide puts English to the test in India’s civil services

August 13, 2014

Indian students in recent weeks have protested the use of English in the country’s difficult civil service examinations. The students, usually from Hindi-speaking regions of India, say that the exams reflect a class divide: if you speak and write English well, you are seen as part of the educated, urban elite. If you do not, it’s because you are one of the disadvantaged, usually from smaller towns or villages.

(Here’s a counterview by Swapan Dasgupta)

English is a tricky subject in India. A language imposed by colonists who exploited the people and resources of the land for centuries, it also was the one language that people seeking independence from the British could use to speak to one another. It remains one of two official languages across India, though many people do not speak it well or at all. I spoke to some of the civil service aspirants who have complained about the language requirement and the structure of the exams, and learned about the role that they hope the exam will play in their lives.

Ashutosh Sharma is a 25-year-old psychology graduate from Basti district of Uttar Pradesh, who has been camping in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar neighbourhood for the past two years, hoping that he will crack the examination one day.

“The entire protest is presented as a language issue. It’s much more than that. It’s about how a group of elite people in the country want to govern the things. How they cannot digest that a villager, who doesn’t match their lavish lifestyle, rises to the ranks on the basis of his knowledge and hard work,” he said.

Ashutosh said he comes from a village, and is better acquainted with the problems the country faces in these places. “When I was in the village primary school, I remember that the teacher would hardly come to take classes. There was no accountability. As a district magistrate, I would know better how the problem can be fixed and I can deal with the problem regardless of whether I speak English or not.”

One of his friends who cleared the civil services examination in 2012 and comes from Rajasthan, said he did not face bias during the selection interview, but some others who chose to take the examination in Hindi were humiliated.

“They said they were asked to give the answers in English, despite the rule that allows you to answer in the language in which you took the written exam [knows as 'mains'],” said the man, requesting anonymity because he was selected for a job and speaking publicly could hurt his prospects.

For Santosh Chaurasia, a 23-year-old man from Buxar district of Bihar, the civil services examination is more than a government job. For him, it’s a tool for social empowerment.

“I was 12 or 13 years old at that time. My family was involved in a land dispute with our neighbours. Our land was encroached by them. But the local police officers not only stood by them, they also humiliated my father. All this happened because my neighbours were rich, influential,” he said. “If I clear this examination, one day, I can become the superintendent of police of a district. I would have the power to ensure that nobody in my district has to face the things I experienced in my childhood.”

Ranjan Kumar Tewari, who came to Delhi from his village in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh in 2011, said it is important to learn English for career success, but it should not become grounds for elimination in a country where the state of English education is “pathetic” except in metropolitan towns.

“We all cannot come to big cities to study in convent schools. It is practically impossible. A lot of village youth won’t even have money for that. Are you going to punish us for a fault which is not ours?” he said. “It’s wrong to say we don’t want to learn English. We have to pass it in the mains examination to finally qualify as a civil servant, right?… More than language skills, the exam is about knowledge of country’s socio-economic problems, the laws of the land et cetera. The persons who have an understanding of these things are now eliminated on the basis of language.”

For 24-year-old Rashmi Kumari, a woman from the Koderma district of Jharkhand, it was not easy to convince her parents to allow her to come to Delhi to prepare for the exam. “For a girl student who hails from a village, it’s not easy to come to a metropolis to study. The list of people to be convinced for that is long – parents, relatives, neighbours, everyone who knows you,” she said. “Imagine a woman taking control of all the administrative affairs of her jurisdiction. It may appear to be very normal, but in our society, it’s not so easy for a girl to make it. Civil services examination gives you that authority.”

Manish Pandey, a 27-year-old with a post-graduate degree in English from Allahabad University, believes that command over English language is necessary, but at the same time, doors should not be shut for those aspirants who were forced to take up education in local languages due to lack of facilities.

Even after more than six decades of the end of British rule, a “colonial mentality” persists among top policymakers, Pandey said.

“British left the country in 1947, but their traditions, the colonial mentality didn’t. It is still widely perceived that you cannot grow without English,” Pandey said. “When China and Japan can grow without English, why can’t we?”

Ashutosh noted that the exam does not make such strong demands for knowledge of other Indian languages as it does for English, even though it sends bureaucrats all around the country. “Suppose a guy from a Hindi-speaking state is allotted Karnataka cadre [which means he will serve as a civil servant in Karnataka state], he is imparted basic knowledge of local Kannada language so that he can easily work in that state. Same can be done in case of English also.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Amit on Twitter @leosamit and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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