Widespread criticism of the changes notified recently by the Union Public Service Commission involving the language component in the Civil Services examination has forced the Union government to put those plans on hold pending review. The “language bias” allegation that has been made by almost all the detractors is centred on the perception that English has been given a more prominent place in the scheme of things compared to regional languages, including Hindi. Some of them point out that a paper that carries 100 marks in English comprehension and précis will now affect the merit ranking of candidates where earlier her or his facility in English was tested only at the qualifying stage. This, it is argued, favours urban, English-medium educated candidates, at the cost of those from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds. Other controversial changes, though predictably less of a red rag for our usual English-baiters, involve the subtle downgrading of India’s regional languages in the UPSC exam. For example, students who study in any language other than English or Hindi will no longer be able to write a crucial paper in that language unless their undergraduate degree also happened to be in that medium of instruction.

The thrust since Independence has been on giving the Indian Administrative Service and allied cadres the stamp of an inclusive and representative stream, effacing the elitism that was the predominant feature of the Indian Civil Service that preceded it. It is this rationale that led to a selection process where candidates belonging to poorer and deprived classes or from hitherto under-represented regions are also able to make their mark. This approach is crucial to ensuring that officers who lead the bureaucracy have the right orientation to give primacy to the principles of equity in decision-making. Any debate that posits the “language bias” argument to downplay the need for verbal and written fluency in English is fraught with danger. In today’s India, administrators have to be able to communicate effectively in English. To that extent, the UPSC exam must ensure that a successful candidate has a minimum level of proficiency in the language. That said, using English as a merit-ranking device may not produce an optimum outcome. While candidates who study in English-medium schools are likely to know the language better than others, there is no reason to assume their overall knowledge base or skill set is better than those who have studied in other languages. Allowing candidates to answer a common set of questions in the language they are most comfortable in is the best way to assess their suitability. Of course, the post-entrance training process can and must be used to improve standards of English.