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Saffron tinge in UPSC exams?

Mid-Day logo Mid-Day 30-08-2021 Mid-day
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I was recently forwarded an examination paper from a person, in his 20s, with two queries: Do I find some of the questions ideologically motivated? Do I think the Indian state’s surreptitious agenda is to filter out examinees who, from their answers, seemed opposed to the Modi government’s policies?

I was stunned, for the examination paper was for recruiting 159 Assistant Commandants (Group A) to the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), which includes the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and such like. The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) conducted the CAPF examination on August 8.

The person who forwarded me the paper, available on the UPSC website, got me in touch with a few examinees. They said the test paper had them reeling in disbelief. Never before did the previous CAPF papers ask so many questions on recent political events, almost all contentious. Never before did CAPF questions echo the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position on a variety of issues.

Question 1 of the CAPF paper on General Studies required examinees to write essays, in about 300 words, on four out of six topics. One of these topics was: “Party politics in India is a flourishing business family.” This has always been the BJP’s shrill pitch against the Opposition. Were examinees expected to lavish praise on the BJP, which too has a high percentage of MPs who are dynasts – but where the top party leadership and executive posts, unlike in most Opposition parties, are not reserved for prominent families in the saffron brigade?

Another topic read: “Infiltrators are a threat to India’s security.” In BJP’s parlance, infiltrators are synonymous with illegal immigrants. For many, the topic raised the spectre of the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC), which the Modi government, until recently, was adamant on preparing. Were examinees expected to trumpet the NRIC as a solution to the problem of infiltrators?

Question No 2 asked examinees to write “for” and “against” on two topics. One said: “Elections in States should be held simultaneously.” This has been, for long, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mantra. The second topic was: “Farmer protests are politically motivated.” Political partisanship was also palpable in Question No 3, which required examinees to prepare a 200-word report each on “oxygen cylinders crisis in Delhi” and “poll violence in West Bengal”. 

One examinee, whose acuity is breathtaking for his age, pointed out that oxygen shortages occurred across India. Was Delhi singled out because an Opposition party is in power in the city-state? Or was the question designed to devalue the Delhi government’s much-acclaimed health programme? He said the poll violence in West Bengal is a matter pending in the High Court. The UPSC is guilty of prejudging the issue, presumably why Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fumed at the question on poll violence.

Perplexed, I read out the CAPF questions to a former UPSC official. He said the questions cannot be “faulted per se” and what is of importance is the Uniongovernment’s intent. “But the apprehension of examinees cannot be dismissed,” he said.

Indeed, the dismay among examinees over the CAPF paper testifies to the psychological impact the politics of polarisation has begun to have on the young. They have become paranoid. They suspect the state is mapping their ideological predilections. However, a retired senior police officer, widely respected in Uttar Pradesh, said UPSC examinees are supposed to tread the middle path, neither hostile nor blindly in support of state policies.

The examinees I spoke to have mastered the art of camouflaging their beliefs. One of them said his answer emphasised “for” rather than “against” on the question that farmer protests are politically motivated. “My last sentence was that the time for the three farm laws has come,” he said, chuckling. Another examinee said all his answers had a pro-government tilt. The middle path is not always truthful.

CAPF papers of 2020 and 2019, too, had a couple of questions on political events. But their tone was neutral. In 2020, examinees were asked to prepare a report on the “impact of the new agricultural laws on farmers”. In 2019, examinees were asked to write “for” and “against” on the topic: “Note-ban, effective tool against black money”. Although the question’s political undertone was clear, it can be argued that three years had already passed since demonetisation was implemented—and a rich vein of data was available for examinees to weigh in on the issue.

I also looked up the past questions papers of the elite Civil Services Examination. The 2020 Prelims paper did not have a question on what is referred to as the “Muslim period”. In the 2019 Prelims paper, there were four questions on that era, but none in the 2019 Civil Services (Mains) paper, which, hold your breath, asked examinees to write on “what are the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of secularism?” What marks would examinees get for rubbishing the question?

Hope the UPSC upholds what Rabindranath Tagore wrote: When the mind is without fear/and the head is held high/Where knowledge is free…” Hope UPSC examinations do not turn into a charade for pleasing political masters.

The writer is a senior journalist. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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