Back in engineering college, a close friend was caught copying in a semester exam from his smartphone which had an entire textbook downloaded in it.
But, he was unrepentant even after being suspended from appearing in the remaining papers.
"I know the stuff," he had said. "But just that I wanted an easy way out."
In another instance, in high school a friend had brought finely written chits into the exam hall concealed in his empty water flask. It was on the day of the maths paper and he was caught red-handed. Later, crying, he had explained to his parents that maths was not his cup of tea.
These incidences, of course, do not justify the use of unfair means but do reflect on the universality of it all. At least once, most of us have hidden chits in socks, copied from the adjacent student's answers or whispered to him or scribbled notes on the hard-board.
And, perhaps, we all had different reasons for doing it. So shaming the Bihar children, who copied in their boards without understanding why they did it, is unfair.
Photographs of the mass cheating in Bihar – parents climbing the wall of a school building trying to pass on chits to their wards in the exam hall — did grab eyeballs because of the spectacle it was.
But the reactions it elicited were mostly pretentious – "all this" happens only in Bihar or "What kind of parents are these… They want their wards to cheat?" or, lastly, "What will these kids grow up to?"
Let us take them up, one at a time.
Fixation with Bihar bashing
Needless to say, the state of Bihar often finds itself at the receiving end of elitist ridicules. The cheating incident, too, attracted considerable attention in similar taste.
It could be that such incidents are reported quite often in the state, but to turn to a fixated Bihar-bashing is definitely not in the right spirit—in fact it would be a great disservice to the hundreds of meritorious Bihari students, who crack the toughest exams of the country (not necessarily the best yardstick of academic brilliance) on a regular basis.
In fact, large scale cheating was reported in Madhya Pradesh's Bhind town only a few days before the Bihar incident. There too relatives of candidates gathered at examination centres to help them submit a perfect answer-script.
A detailed story by the Los Angeles Times, documents how, in states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal cheating in school exams is a very common phenomenon. The report showcases practices of writing formula on classroom walls, teachers being bribed to allow copying in exams, students breaking CCTV cameras to avoid being caught on camera cheating, and even parents tossing chits wrapped around small stones through windows into the exam halls.
Parents and their responsibilities
Bihar's Vaishali district, where this cheating incident was reported, is among the poorest districts of the country and in 2006 was counted among the 250 most backward districts by the ministry of panchayati raj.
"If I were one among those parents, I too would have climbed up to the top floor for a better future for my child," wrote Jitendra Kumar, a student of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, who hails from Bihar, in a recent opinion piece on the cheating incident.
But why did the parents do this? Was it the hope for their ward's success? Or was it because they think their teenaged wards are such bad students that without chits they will never pass? Or was it because for them this matriculation exam was something too important to go wrong?
How one parent, who was involved in the incident, explained his action might give us an idea. Speaking to NDTV, he said, "These government teachers do not teach anything in schools. Most of the times they are absent. That's why we have to resort to such things to help our children."
What will the kids grow up to?
There is no denying the fact that cheating in any exam is a serious breach of ethics and children who are acclimatised with such behaviour might take to committing graver offences when they grow up.
At the same time, however, it is not necessary that such incidents of cheating imply a permanent damage to the children's academic upbringing. Neither does it pass a judgement on their academic potential.
Moreover, the entire concept of Indian exams—mugging and then reproducing—has been challenged all over the world by experts who have come up with options such as the open-book exams, in which you can keep your textbooks with you in the exam hall.
The system of 'learning-by-heart' and then spewing it out in few hours is no longer the only measure of academic merit, and more so, when in a changing world the application of the acquired knowledge is stressed. For example, more than the formula itself a student is expected to solve analytical numerical problems using that formula.
The Bihar cheating incident is a symptom, but not the malaise itself. A number of factors, social and political, have accumulated together for this to take place and the parents and children involved must not be criminalised.