What's the 'right' answer: Is this civil service question a death knell for secularism?

Civil service exam

A question asked in the General Studies – Paper I of the civil services main examination conducted by Union Public Services Commission has thrown up a serious concern: Has the UPSC made the first move to create the 'right-minded' bureaucrat?

The UPSC stands a relevant straightforward poser on its head. What could have been expected was this: “What are the threats faced by secularism in India?” Instead, here is what the UPSC asked: “What are the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of secularism?”

According to those who had taken the test before, the first question was asked fairly frequently during the nineties, in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. Civil service mentors call this a neutral question, the kind that aspirants with any ideological bend could answer. Even those who felt exhilarated by the demolition of the 16th Century Masjid could forcefully argue that secularism had degenerated into minority appeasement.

But the question asked this year could have seemed ominous to many. “It asks the aspirants to first decide what the cultural practices are, as if India has a set of common cultural practices,” a top bureaucrat said, on the condition of anonymity. There are innumerable ways in which domestic events like marriages and funeral rites are carried out even in a single Hindu sub-caste, leave alone Hindus as a whole.

He said it was a “wrong question” designed to “instigate the devil in you”. “Since secularism in India means equal respect for all religions, does it mean that the majority Hindu, and the cultural conventions he believes should be the norm, is under threat from the religious and cultural practices of minorities,” the bureaucrat asked. “If the UPSC wants such an answer, to hell with India,” he said.

To spot the ticking bomb hidden in the question, the bureaucrat wants the same question repeated with another basic tenet of the Constitution: socialism. What are the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of socialism? “Next year, this could be a possible question for aspiring civil servants,” he said.

“This is no hypothetical scenario. Upper caste Hindus, who mostly make up the RSS, have never really been able to live with Jawaharlal Nehru's idea of socialism,” the bureaucrat said.

Kannan Gopinathan, who quit the IAS last August in protest against the ban on freedoms in Kashmir, said he would have framed the answer provocatively. “'Indian secularism is a positive concept, taking along and encouraging all the cultural practices while instilling a scientific temper against superstitions and harmful practices', would have been the first sentence of my answer!”, he tweeted.

Jacob Koshy, who takes classes in a couple of IAS coaching institutes in the capital, said that aspirants had “contextual awareness”, and therefore were “conflicted”. “They are aware of what is happening around them. They know who is in control,” Koshy said. Given that most candidates are desperate to win the civil services, Koshy said that such a question had put the fear in them.

“One of my students told me that he wrote something that he thought would please the BJP dispensation,” Koshy said. The candidate had written about triple talaq and how Muslim women were at the mercy of unscrupulous men who dump them on a whim. “He mentioned the Shah Bano case for good measure. But the guy also wanted to talk about mob lynchings in the name of religion. But he didn't for fear that he might lose marks,” Koshy said.

The question on secularism has provoked suspicion because it is widely known that the Narendra Modi government had already begun the task of rewriting the history of India. Late 2017, the Modi government had appointed a group of scholars with the brief to establish the purity of the Hindu race by digging up evidence to show that Hindus in the country had descended from the country's original descendants and had no links to Aryans who migrated from Central Asia.

(This project had already got a severe drubbing when the latest Science article - The Formation of Human Populations in South and Central Asia - has confirmed that there indeed was Aryan migration into India, and that our ancestors with whom we share a gentic code had mixed quite decisively with early hunter-gatherers of Iran and Steppe pastoralists, in short the Aryans, after the Harappan civilisation waned between 2000-1500 B.C)

It is also known that Sangh Parivar has a deep distate for secularism. In fact, 'pseudo-secualrism' was the political rod it had first used to poke holes on the bloated Congress machinery. It was in 2018 that the highly controversial right-wing group Sanatan Sanstha made a public call to remove the word 'secularism' from the India Constitution.

According to Mahesh Iyer, another IAS tutor, even the seemingly innocuous question that came right after the one on secularism was viewed with suspicion by many. Here's the question: Many voices had strengthened and enriched the nationalist movement during the Gandhian phase. Elaborate.

“It is common knowledge that the portrait of Veer Savarkar now hangs bang opposite to that of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament. Was this question a prod to speak about the contribution of Veer Savarkar, Golwalkar, Hedgewar and other right-wing leaders to the freedom movement,” Iyer said.

“My fear is that since some of these civil service aspirants are so original and inventive they might come up with some remarkable fictional contributions for these RSS stalwarts,” he added.

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