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English Vinglish

For the want of 22 marks, an all-India civil service examination must be recast. This, in essence, is why candidates from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar took to the streets in protest. Their grievance: that the 22 marks, out of a total of 400, awarded for English comprehension in the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) discriminate against Hindi-speaking students. Thus, they contend, the paper is biased towards candidates from urban-educated English-medium schools (and with engineering and science backgrounds).

Aside from the disquieting image of India’s potential future administrators participating in lawless street protests, their argument also suggests a narrow perspective that bodes ill for India. By giving in to the demands of this small cohort and removing English comprehension from gradation and merit, the government has done India signal disservice for several reasons. First, the CSAT is an examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission to select future administrators for India’s 29 states, with their myriad languages and dialects with diverse linguistic roots. For better or for worse, English is and has been the only link language for most Indian states. That is why it remains the official language of communication in many states, even though it is not included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which lists India’s 22 official languages. This has been a practical, accepted practice since Independence and has worked as a unifying bulwark for a country – especially of the southern and eastern regions perennially suspicious of Hindi-belt hegemony. Indeed the fact that the examination is conducted only in English and Hindi only reinforces those misgivings.

Second, the CSAT is not compulsory in, say, the same manner as a school final examination. It is an entrance examination for an optional career in the civil services. The government is hardly unjustified in demanding that its future administrators prepare themselves for the duties they must perform by learning beforehand to communicate in a global language. This is not elitist; it is a practical imperative. Protesting against a requirement of English comprehension – that too at its most basic – is like objecting to our feted Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology rejecting students who are weak at, say, mathematics (incidentally, they too demand a minimum standard of English comprehension). Third, the protestors have also displayed a worrying ignorance of both global and Indian developments. English has become, for better or for worse, the world’s lingua franca – even the French and the Germans are overcoming their historic aversion and making it compulsory in schools. And the average Indian’s knowledge of English has been the cornerstone of India’s information technology-enabled services revolution that attracted so much global cynosure. True, a language requirement militates against candidates who have less access to English-medium schooling. But to address that unfairness, instead of putting pressure for adjustments in a civil service examination, political parties should be agitating for English to be compulsory in all government schools. That’s the fundamental weakness in the country’s education system that these protests have unwittingly revealed. For a government that purports to address India’s aspirational youth, this is the challenge it should urgently be addressing.

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