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Inside the Cutthroat Culture of One of the World’s Toughest Exams



NEW DELHI, India—In the heart of the capital, less than three miles from the prime minister’s office, Rajendra Nagar is where dreams go to die. 

Tens of thousands descend upon this densely-packed neighbourhood from across the country every year to prepare for one of the world’s toughest exams. Many bring their family’s life savings. Many are themselves their family’s life savings. Hopeful families pour everything they earn and own and take loans, so their child can be coached in Rajendra Nagar, and get a chance at India’s golden ticket: becoming a powerful bureaucrat in the world’s largest democracy. 

This month, 685 Indians out of 500,000 test takers passed the civil services exam after a lifetime of preparing for it. Their chance of succeeding was close to zero. The exam’s success rate is not even 0.2 percent.

Broadly divided into three stages – the preliminary, mains and interview – the exam is roughly spread over nine months. The candidate must pass every stage, and their cumulative marks decide whether they make the list of India’s prestigious and powerful new bureaucrats.

Hopeful families pour everything they earn and own and take loans, so their child can get a chance at India’s golden ticket: becoming a powerful bureaucrat in the world’s largest democracy.

In India, passing the dozen civil services’ tests and interviews is a matter of great prestige and social mobility. Besides bureaucratic power, it increases eligibility in India’s marriage market manifold. Recently, a man fraudulently posing as a civil servant demanded a dowry of Rs 40 million ($52, 500), while a real civil servant almost fatally hit his wife because he felt her dowry didn’t do justice to his “rank and stature.”

VICE World News analysed lists of successful exam finalists in the last 15 years and uncovered a disturbing trend. Ever since the rise in India of Hindu nationalism, and the right-wing Hindu ideology of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party gained power and popularity, the number of minorities in civil services has dwindled – and are increasingly not passing the exam. 

Data analysed by VICE World News suggests this expensive and impossibly multi-layered exam has become even more impenetrable for minorities. 

Muslims who passed the exam stagnated between 3–5 percent over the past 20 years, even though Muslims make up 15.5 percent of the country’s population, and despite more Muslims sitting for the exams since 2007. The 2021 results released on May 30 revealed the most dismal results for the community in over a decade – no Muslim candidate made it to the top hundred ranks, when usually, at least two to three do. In 2020, out of a total of 761 selected candidates, only 25 were Muslims – just 4 percent – with no Muslim candidate in the top 100 ranks.

One reason is the bloated syllabus requires years of intense and expensive coaching – and non-English speaking Dalit or Muslim candidates are the most economically disenfranchised in India. According to an UN-supported report presented by the University of Oxford, every third Dalit and Muslim in India is multidimensionally poor. In contrast, only 15 percent of upper caste Hindus are poor.

“The Muslim community in India is lagging in all the socio-economic parameters and the same is reflected in the civil services exam results,” Mohammed Tarique, the director of Jamia Milia Islamia University’s Residential Coaching Academy (RCA), which also produced this year’s top-scoring candidate, told VICE World News. 

Rajendra Nagar offers coaching in geography, science, physics, law, history, international affairs, ethics – the works. Enrollment in a reputed English language coaching centre in Rajendra Nagar costs nearly $24,000 a year, and the monthly rent for a matchbox shared flat is $200 a person – a cost that poor minorities, in the current political and economic climate, are finding more and more difficult to afford. 

“The Muslim community in India is lagging in all the socio-economic parameters and the same is reflected in the civil services exam results.”

The recent rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in India also appears to have seeped through the exam itself. VICE World News reviewed a mock interview of Muslim candidate Junaid Ahmad. While he went on to secure the third rank in the 2018 exams, almost all the questions he was asked sprung from his Muslim identity: his views on Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood, whether India is becoming intolerant towards minorities, fatal police encounters, and the Arab spring.

“Even though the commission is a constitutional and autonomous body, it is always the case that a Muslim candidate will be asked questions almost solely related to their identity,” said Tanwar, a 30-year-old Muslim candidate from Delhi who preferred the use of a pseudonym for fear of safety to his life. 

Tanwar added that every single Muslim aspirant he knows who reached the interview stage had this experience. This, he said, puts them in an awkward position, almost testing their patriotism in a way other candidates are not. 

“If I become a high-ranking bureaucrat, my only allegiance is to the constitution, why must I be judged from the lenses of my faith? Why should I be asked questions about Muslim men having four wives, triple divorce and a hundred other things? How is my faith relevant to the way I work?” he said. “This completely breaks the confidence of the Muslim aspirant because we genuinely want to serve the country – this makes them awkward, stifles their body language and affects their interview scores. In an exam where the qualifying marks are less than 50 percent, every single mark matters.” 

Despite their dwindling numbers, right-wing Hindu circles pushed a conspiracy theory that Muslims are out to “infiltrate” the bureaucracy all the way to the Indian Supreme Court.

While Muslims are India’s largest religious minority group, there have been no laws guaranteeing their inclusion in everything from bureaucracy to education. The last Muslim Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari, had years ago pointed out how legally requiring affirmative action or reserved spots in bureaucracy for Muslims is the only way for any meaningful inclusion of the community in the country’s socio-political fabric.

Even though India’s caste-disadvantaged Dalits make up 16.6 percent of the country’s population, there is only one member of this community occupying a top bureaucratic secretary position in the country. 

Vidhi, a 23-year-old candidate from a less-privileged Hindu caste, asked for a pseudonym for fear of legal repercussions. In her tiny room in Rajendra Nagar, stacks of books on Indian polity, physical geography and ancient history corner the walls. Six months after Vidhi arrived in Rajendra Nagar from Mumbai, her funds ran out. The rent was exorbitant, and on top of it, she had to buy books and feed herself. 

“I had to literally build a new life for myself and I couldn’t even get jobs right away,” she said. “There would be days where I literally didn’t know how I was going to survive the next day.” 

Those like Vidhi are forced into a cycle of poverty unless they find other means to earn money to continue pursuing the exams. 

She shared her financial predicament with a friend who presented Vidhi with an offer: she could earn money on the side through OnlyFans, with her face either masked or blurred. “There was a rate chart,” she said explaining that rates range from lowest, if it’s a braless video where there is no sex, to highest if there is sex without a condom. “When you add up all this, it’s a lot of money for someone like me.” 

Despite the extreme efforts minorities like Vidhi undertake, data shows that of the 761 candidates from 2020, only one from a “scheduled” caste scored above 200 in the interview stage – a crucial benchmark for making it to the final merit list for a higher post. Scheduled castes are the most disadvantaged socio-economic caste groups in India, and there are many old laws meant to protect them against biases in situations like this exam, such as reserved seats for them for government jobs and admission into educational institutions, but those protections appear to be eroding. 

For instance, when a less privileged Hindu candidate does make it to the services, caste-based scrutiny and harassment are rampant. After Tina Dabi, a Dalit, topped the civil services exam in 2015, right-wing news outfits suggested she got “bonus marks” because she’s from an underprivileged caste. In 2019, a former government official told the media, “casteism still plagues our society and the civil services are just a micro-picture.”

Such discrimination has become so commonplace that a minister from the government of Delhi recently requested the chairman of the civil services commission not to disclose a candidate’s caste to the exam’s interview board to ensure they get a fair chance. 

“I had to literally build a new life for myself and I couldn’t even get jobs right away. There would be days where I literally didn’t know how I was going to survive the next day.”

Akhil Kang, a Ph.D. candidate from the anthropology department of Cornell University, said that even getting to the personality interview stage of the civil services exam is a big deal for many Dalit candidates. 

“This is a common feature in such cases – if you make it to the interview stage, you will mostly be the only one from your village. Even in the history of Cornell, I am the first and only Dalit candidate in the anthropology department. So, with upper-caste candidates, most of them already have their parents or relatives in the civil services. The intergenerational privilege and the experience that comes with it will always benefit them.” 

Kang said that this sort of embedded bias is not solvable by simply having a Dalit bureaucrat on the interview panel. “It’s like assuming that having a lone woman judge in a court will result in a better conviction rate for perpetrators of rape and sexual assault. Caste supremacy works in such a way that even a Dalit bureaucrat will go out of his way to show the upper caste members on the panel that he is not biased towards the candidate.” 

Shyam Meera Singh, who is from a small town in Uttar Pradesh state, thought the civil services exam was going to be a ticket out of the many woes of his family. 

“My father had a lifetime savings of $1,000 in his pension fund that he gave me when I moved to Delhi,” he told VICE World News. “I lived so frugally that I remember not even having literally a single penny in my pocket on some days. All my life, my education has been financed through loans, and the civil services exam was no different. The only difference with civil services is that you don’t want to stop.” 

Any taste of success, also ironically comes with additional challenges. “If you clear even one of the three stages [of the civil services exam], you get the confidence to start all over again but simultaneously, you also keep falling into the cycle of debts.” 

But Singh is one of the fortunate ones. He falls into the newly formed Economically Weaker Section (EWS). The EWS reservation is meant for low-income upper-caste Hindus like him. It’s a kind of safeguard for upper-caste Hindus at the expense of spots reserved for Dalits and less privileged castes. The government claims that this separate category had to be carved out because, according to them, upper-caste, poor Hindus were not adequately represented in government jobs and educational institutions. However, there is no adequate data to back this claim

A VICE World News analysis of the most recent annual report of the Union Public Service Commission (a constitutional body that conducts the exams) showed that out of the 1,115 candidates recommended for various posts in 2020–21, seven candidates were from the newly formed EWS reserved criteria. 

Still, many other students and their families continue to pile up debt for India’s impossible dream, VICE World News learned, after speaking to a dozen Indians preparing for the exam. Many candidates spend five to seven years reviewing, all the while being unemployed and not developing skills for other careers. Some, like Reetika Bansal, persist because the weight of the dreams they hold is simply too heavy to quit. 

“At this point, clearing the civil services exam is not for me, it is only for my Dad,” the 28-year-old candidate said. “He has sacrificed so much for me that I cannot give up.”

Much like Singh who is burdened by the use of his father’s $1,000 life savings, the aspirant Reetika Bansal’s father kept funding her exam coaching by taking loans from informal lenders because he simply didn’t own any property to give as collateral to the banks. “The house he lives in is almost half a century old, so there are no wirings to even install hot water. If I think about it, I am a 28-year-old woman who has not been able to do anything for my father because I’ve been trapped in the black hole of the civil services exam,” Bansal said.

For some of those who have made it out of the endless loop of Rajendra Nagar, there may be no triumphant sense of achievement either. 

Sharma, who asked to only be referred to by his last name due to government rules prohibiting civil servants from criticising the government, secured a high rank in his state’s civil services exam recently after nearly seven years of failed attempts. 

“Despite the private sector and capitalism creeping into the bureaucracy, the glorification of the Indian civil services still continues,” he said. 

But isn’t it all worth it?

“The system will go on even without officers like me,” he said. “The realisation comes quite early on that you are just another cog in the wheel. You are no hero and you are absolutely disposable. When we entered Rajendra Nagar, we were told by family and by society that getting into the services was a big deal. So we delude ourselves into proving that point for the rest of our lives.”

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