The controversy over the new rules governing the UPSC civil service examination is reminiscent of the politics of language which had set the Republic afire in its first two decades, as several linguistic minorities did not want Hindi imposed on them.
There is, though, a new twist to the 21st century battle over the languages. The tide has now turned against English as well, consequently prolonging the worries over the poor skills civil servants have in that language. English, as we all know, remains the dominant lingua franca of the Union and international diplomacy.
There were essentially two rules, now put in abeyance, that prospective candidates and politicians directed their firepower at.
One, the UPSC deemed a person could write his examination papers in English or Hindi or in one of the 21 languages it recognises, subject to that language having been his or her medium of instruction during graduation.
Two, the marks obtained in English comprehension and précis were to be counted for determining the merit list, overturning the rule which required candidates to secure mere qualifying marks earlier.
It seems the UPSC sought to offset the inimical consequences of the politics of language through its stipulation that candidates must have secured their BA degree in a particular language to be able to write the examination in it.
There has always persisted a nagging suspicion in the bureaucracy that those who opt to write their examinations in one of the 21 languages on the UPSC list are marked leniently.
The lenient attitude of the examiner, it is believed, arises from his or her pride in belonging to a linguistic minority and promoting its language.
In its endeavour to neutralise lingual partiality, the UPSC, ironically, demonstrated its own bias for Hindi. This conclusion can be drawn because those wishing to write their examination in Hindi were exempt from the new rule demanding they must have graduated in the Hindi medium.
It can very well be argued that the graduation clause shouldn’t be applicable to Hindi as it is the country’s official language and, under the Official Language Act of 1963, has to be used along with English for all transactions of the Union.
This argument, however, glosses over the history of the politics of language. When the Constitution was promulgated on January 26, 1950, it was decided to continue with English, in addition with Hindi, as the official language of the Union for the transition period of 15 years.
Nevertheless, most politicians outside the Hindi heartland considered it a regional language, which they believed had been accorded an exalted status because its speakers commanded a majority in the Constituent Assembly.
DMK leader CN Annadurai once said, “If we had to accept the principle of numerical superiority while selecting our national bird, the choice would have fallen not on the peacock but on the common crow.”
The movement against Hindi gathered momentum as the expiry of 15 years neared. The ferocity of the agitation ultimately compelled then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to assure the continuation of English at the Centre. Significantly, he also rejected the demand of those who wanted the civil service examination to be conducted in Hindi alone.
Judged against this backdrop, it does seem audacious of the UPSC to have believed it could have framed rules discriminating against the other 21 languages, particularly in an era in which coalitions rule the Centre.
The motivation in framing the rule which sought to include the marks secured in English for determining the merit list of civil service examination was different. For long, Indian officialdom has been distressed at the deplorable English skills of those entering the civil service.
Their comprehension and drafting of notes in that language are abysmally poor, prompting many senior bureaucrats to complain that much of their time is wasted in rewriting them.
Presumably, the UPSC thought securing qualifying grades in English of the standard taught in Class 10 did not help identify candidates capable of shouldering the administrative tasks at the Centre.
Opposition to the measure which sought to make English count stems from the intensively competitive nature of the civil service examination — a mark or two can be the difference between a candidate’s selection or rejection, or in candidates getting the service of their choice.
The critics of the rule argued that it unduly favoured English or convent-educated candidates.
Yet, this argument has to be balanced with the political and existential argument which insists on recognising India’s linguistic plurality, privileging none. You can’t possibly have a situation in which English is the language of the Union but its officials lack a requisite command over it.
Perhaps a way out is to declare that successful candidates would not be taken into service until such time they are judged to have been adequately skilled in English in a special programme designed for them.
The imperatives of globalisation and increasingly complex laws demand we must ensure English doesn’t become a hapless victim of the politics of language.
Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist
Views expressed by the author are personal