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Thursday, May 30, 2013

English and the Civil Services

Unwittingly or wittingly, the politics of language with all its  socio-cultural associations seems to have caught up with the UPSC. When it notified a few weeks ago some major changes in the  Civil Services examination scheme giving  substantially  more weight in the main examination to  compulsory papers in general studies over optional papers in conventional academic disciplines (which earlier constituted the core of the Main Examination), introduced a qualifying paper in basic matriculation level English language  and put some constraints in the way of candidates opting to write the papers in the regional language, it treaded on a fault line which divides the country, socially, culturally and politically. It is a line which  runs very, very deep , occasionally  overlapping and intersecting  with those of caste and community and income, and while it is as complex and as laden with emotions as any of those, it is also very  different. This is the divide between English versus the Rest.

Stereotypes on both sides of the divide  are often frighteningly false even though they may appear to be true. But they deserve to be understood. The stereotype of the one on  the English side of the divide,- the infamous Macaulayputra/putri, runs something like this. He/she is born into privilege-with parents in the higher rungs of the civil services or large  multi national corporations , grows up in the metropolises, goes to expensive ‘public’ schools, is surrounded in childhood by Ayahs and other faithful retainers, his/her only brush with the subaltern being with domestic servants and sundry service providers; sails through school and college because an educational system biased towards the English language gives him/her an unfair advantage; continues to make use of that unfair advantage in securing plum jobs in the private sector or being successful in competitive examinations like the Civil Services Exam; has a natural affinity with the world of privilege and glamour and influence peddling; is oblivious to the ground realities of caste and communal conflict; looks down on the vernacular; has expensive tastes; is used to ‘western’ mores with little knowledge of ‘Indian’ cultural heritage and is thoroughly out of synch with the rough and tumble of the countryside, with ‘Bharat’.

On the other side of the divide is supposed to be the struggling vernacular; born into relative poverty in  rural and small town India, in a milieu ridden with caste and communal conflict and many other social tensions; makes his/her way through  poorly endowed, Government schools in small towns and villages, learns primarily  in the regional language, treats English as a foreign language, struggles through University or other Professional Education institutions, sees the Civil Services as a cherished aspiration and works hard and assiduously to get into the life of privilege that the Civil Services  seem to offer. His background supposedly gives him greater sensitivity to social conditions especially the conditions of the deprived.
Despite the extreme shallowness of these stereotypes and the fact that the contradictions far outnumbered the correspondences, they were accepted as the basis to review the system of the Civil Services Examination in the early eighties. Many major changes (motivated by a strong sense of social guilt) were introduced to correct a perceived bias in favour of humanities and social sciences, in favour of English as the medium in which to answer question papers and in favour of the interview or ‘personality’ test’. A two stage examination system replaced the earlier one, many technical subjects were introduced in the optional papers in the Main Examination allowing engineers and doctors and scientists more elbow room for performing well, and candidates could write in any of the scheduled languages so that facility in the English language did not confer any particular advantage. These changes, intended to ‘de eliticize’ the Civil Services and make them more egalitarian, alongside the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations brought about a substantial difference in the social composition of the Civil Services.

What is fascinating, is that these changes corresponded with the major political changes taking place in the countryside with the growing ascendancy of the regional parties, the rise of the backward classes both economically and politically and the replacement of English as the language of political power by Hindi in north and central India and parts of the East and the major regional languages in the rest of India. This is not the place to trace the growth of the political power of the vernacular accompanied  with a massive rise in his economic power and the reasons for his rapid climb, but the fact is that today English is no longer the language of political power .  Anyone from an English language background, hoping to make his way in politics has to massively ‘vernacularize’ his persona.

Paradoxically , English, however, remains the language of  economic aspiration, of social mobility and of moving into a globalized world order. It is the language a Dalit can use to transform both his self image as well as his standing in the socio cultural hierarchy. It is the language to move into the world of Call Centres, of the Services economy. There is now a clear cleavage between the language of political power, of  tumescent ‘cultural nationalism’, of the muscular, strong State which is overwhelmingly vernacular and the language of globalization led economic growth which is overwhelmingly dominated by English.

The Civil Services Examination system is now  caught smack in the middle of this tension. On the one hand, the earlier attempts to remove the bias in favour of English brought in a new, more aggressive vernacular elite. It was forgotten that  the flaw in the design was  in the idea of the elite in a democratic system not in the social composition of that elite. To think that one could actually engineer an elite force which because it was drawn from a less elitist, non English speaking background could be more easily trained into social conscientiousness and good governance and which remained immune to changes in the socio-political environment was extremely naive . The attempt now is to restore the balance and bring in  to the Civil Services a  socially more well rounded person. In the process it goes headlong against a very  politically strong  vernacular power elite. It is extremely doubtful whether it will manage to do so.