A test for brown sahibs

Updated: Jul 27 2014, 14:04pm hrs
In 2014, of the 1,122 new recruits for the civil service, only 53 came from those who wrote papers in Indian languages.

It is a shame that it had to come to violence before attention focused on students protesting for days in Delhi against unfairness in the civil service exam. There is unfairness and unfairness of a stupid kind, which makes it worse. This is not just because the aptitude test appears to eliminate students writing tests in Indian languages, but because it could be eliminating good candidates and enlisting educated idiots. If you want proof, please remember that Indian bureaucrats are world famous for being obdurate, arrogant and obsolete. And it is often the children of bureaucrats of this genre who today take the civil service examinations in English, so they start with an unfair advantage.

In 2014, of the 1,122 new recruits for the civil service, only 53 came from those who wrote papers in Indian languages, and this is worrying. But a linguistic disadvantage is not the only problem. After Thursday nights clashes between the police and protesting students in Delhi, I decided to do a little research. I Googled the CSAT syllabus and some question papers.

As I ploughed my way through long, banal passages about creative society and inclusive governance, I realised that, even if translated into Indian languages, the questions would mystify anyone who did not come from St Stephens College. No offence to this fine institution, but as I read through the question papers, I visualised the most pompous bores of my acquaintance who always remind me that they went to Stephens. Usually they speak no Indian language (except to their servants) and have no understanding of the hopes and aspirations of the sort of people who voted to bring Narendra Modi to 7, Race Course Road. The students objecting to the CSAT aptitude test are from this new breed of middle-class, aspirational Indians who believe they have a right to participate in governing India.

They are probably intelligent, talented young men and women who would easily be able to answer the CSAT questions if they were asked more intelligibly. Example: Why are Indian forests and rivers ruined Short-term increases in some ecosystem goods and services have come at the cost of the long-term degradation of others. If you think that is a convoluted bit of writing, I recommend that you download some CSAT papers and read them. Every passage is written in this kind of long-winded prose.

You may also discover that the reason why India counts among the worst governed countries in the world is because people who become top officials, police officers and tax inspectors are usually the wrong kind. The right kind do not stand a chance of getting in even if they know Indias problems and complexities well. This is because the tests are all wrong. Speaking for myself, I would give up plans for government service if I were to sit for a CSAT question paper. They appear to have been written by brown sahibs for the progeny of brown sahibs and I would refuse on principle.

Ironically, one of the passages I came across was about inclusive growth. I am not going to bore you by quoting from it, but suffice it to say that it seemed to be written by someone who was oblivious of what the word inclusive should mean. If anything is guaranteed to enlist brown sahibs and exclude other capable Indians from becoming civil servants, it is the CSAT test. So if the Prime Minister truly wants to bring about parivartan and vikas, he is going to need to do more than appoint a three-member committee to examine the grievances of the protesting students.

The defining characteristic of the recent general election was the anger of ordinary voters against bad governance. Everywhere I went, the biggest complaints were about how basic public services did not work. This was blamed on corruption, but reality is more complicated and at the root of the problem is the kind of person who comes into government service.

The pretentious bores of yesteryear are being replaced by officials who are no longer brown sahibs, but who are trying to become brown sahibs. This is because of the nature of the examinations they take to enter government service. When protesting students tell reporters that CSAT excludes students from rural India from standing a chance, they are right. The CSAT syllabus has English comprehension skills as one of its requirements, so even the Prime Minister would probably fail.

Speaking of which, please Prime Minister speak in Hindi when you go to the United States, it makes Indians proud. And, it signals to the vast majority of Indians who speak no English that you represent their hopes and aspirations. Do not let some evil bureaucrat misguide you on this. He may only be doing it because he himself speaks no Indian language.

By Tavleen Singh

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh