By Swapan Dasgupta
It is more than likely that the overwhelming majority of those ‘students’ that have been agitating to scrap the CSAT paper in the civil services examination won’t end up as tenured babus. However, the vocal minority appear to have succeeded in one part of their mission. They have convinced the political class that fair competition involves the acceptance of the lowest common denominator. Under the guise of anti-elitism, the agitators have tried—and may yet succeed—in collapsing the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving.
This is not to suggest that the civil services examinations, as they are presently structured, are faultless. From all accounts, there is a scope for improving the translations from English into Indian languages in the question papers. There are also grounds for believing that the present system is loaded in favour of science and engineering graduates—just as earlier versions favoured those steeped in the liberal arts. Yet, the misgivings are over the UPSC’s shoddy attention to detail. What was never questioned was the fundamental philosophy of the selection process: to ensure that the most intellectually alert were selected for the premier services. The ongoing agitation challenges that basic premise. It threatens to turn a 150-year-old system on its head.
It may be politically incorrect to invoke the legacy of the Indian Civil Service—the legendary ‘steel frame’—in today’s debates. The ICS, at least till the late-1920s, was heavily weighed against Indians. Apart from the costs of travelling to England to write the examination, even the curriculum was tailored to select those who had been groomed in the public schools and Oxbridge. In particular the language skills of candidates was rigorously probed—in service all ICS officers had to learn one or more Indian languages. Going by the pedagogic assumptions then prevalent, this meant being tested in the classics—the assumption being that those who mastered Latin and Greek had the mental agility to learn other languages and imbibe cultures.
There were other systems of recruitment to colonial bureaucracies that also existed. The East India Company secured administrators who were trained in Haileybury on the strength of recommendations, a system that perpetuated family continuity; and the Sudan Political Service shunned examinations altogether, preferring interviews to select sporty types best suited to outdoor lives. However, in the hierarchy of importance, the ICS ranked above all others, including the civil services in Britain.
The reason was obvious: the ICS officers were chosen for their intellectual rigour and not on account of class and social graces. In his seminal study of the ICS, historian Clive Dewey juxtaposed the skills demanded and the job requirements: “If they were going to reduce complex socio-economic situations to their essentials and compare the probable effects of alternative policies…they needed a firm grasp of the forms of social analysis currently in vogue, the stamina to marshal masses of miscellaneous data, the dexterity to sustain a case through a forest of objections, and a flair for lucid exposition. The most elaborate minutes, hundreds of pages long, were intellectual tours de force.”
Looking back, the Empire can be debunked for its exclusionary approach and political insensitivity. But judged within the framework of imperial control, the ICS sought to give India the best talent Britain was capable of nurturing. It was the larger nobility of purpose that prompted the founding fathers of the Republic—and Sardar Patel in particular—to retain the ICS and bequeath its inheritance to the successor IAS.
In the six decades since Independence, the requirements of administration have changed, as have the skill sets for effective governance. The lucidity of file notings are no longer at a premium, but problem-solving approaches are; the lofty detachment of the old district officer has to make way for a more connected officer; and the Oxbridge-St Stephen’s camaraderie of assumptions have yielded way to demands for babudom being more socially representative. The civil services must change with the times and be fit for purpose.
Yet, the larger principle of mental alertness and intellectual rigour remains, as do linguistic skills. If candidates complain of simple passages being too difficult, the answer lies doesn’t lie in diluting standards but in looking for better candidates to write the test.
Sunday Times of India, August 10, 2014