What an exam scandal says about Modi's regime
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What an exam scandal says about Modi's regime

Boys practise yoga inside their school ahead of the International Day of Yoga, in Ahmedabad, India in June 2015. REUTERS
Boys practise yoga inside their school ahead of the International Day of Yoga, in Ahmedabad, India in June 2015. REUTERS

A scandal involving allegedly leaked papers and irregular scoring in a government-run Indian medical entrance exam has exposed a deeper fault line. By controlling the choice of the nation's doctors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration is pushing its hard-right Hindu agenda into the heart of the nation's health and education systems.

The nationwide test conducted in May had 2.4 million aspirants jostling for 100,000 seats in the country's medical colleges. The results, when they were announced this month, were nothing less than shocking. As many as 67 students had scored perfect marks, which not more than two or three candidates achieve usually.

It doesn't end there. As Maheshwer Peri, the founder of Careers360, an information provider on higher education, said, the number of students who have scored enough for admission to a decent college has jumped threefold this year. With this kind of grade inflation, good institutions will be out of reach of many deserving candidates.

The sanctity of the examination has been hit, says the Indian Supreme Court. "We need answers for that," the judges told the lawyers for the National Testing Agency last week, after students and parents alleged that the paper had been leaked. The federal government has promised to look into any malpractices, though it insists there was no scam. Opposition parties claim that it was exactly that.

The public outrage is helping to shine a spotlight on what progressive states like Tamil Nadu have been saying since before the nationwide test was imposed on them as the sole criterion for admission into medical schools by a judicial decision in 2016. This centralised method of selecting future doctors discriminates against pupils whose parents are undereducated or can't afford expensive tutoring. The pro-rich bias works against students from rural areas, robbing them of physicians who would want to live among them.

Tamil Nadu has 11% of the country's doctors with 6% of its population, thanks to the medical colleges it directly funds. Why should it accept a dodgy test from New Delhi that drives its own underprivileged students to despair, or worse? Repeated shots at the annual exam, which is how seven out of 10 seats get filled nowadays, is a one-million-rupee (439,000 baht) investment in test-prep services, not counting the opportunity cost of sitting at home. Low-income families just can't compete.

The common test may have been designed to address the demand-supply mismatch caused by limited opportunities for professional education and the teeming multitudes of hopefuls wanting to get trained. But it is fundamentally a political project. High-schoolers in India, if they go to a private or federally controlled institution, follow a national curriculum. (The very affluent are increasingly choosing the international baccalaureate course.) However, the less well-to-do youth in state-aided schools are doing what they always have: study from books written for local students -- often in the region's language.

An exam that overlooks the differences in schooling offered by the boards of 28 states emaciates local education. It does so by creating an incentive for parents to move away from state curriculums. Which, in turn, helps the Modi government push its own narratives of the past into the classroom as history. Under his Bharatiya Janata Party, India's Islamic rulers have almost vanished from books of the central board. As have the details around the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 -- by a Hindu nationalist. The 1992 destruction of a 16th-century mosque, now the site of a Hindu temple, has been dropped from political science textbooks of high-school seniors.

Several states follow the lead of the central board and use these texts, while others don't. Some BJP leaders have even tried to float the trial balloon of "one nation, one syllabus." In other words, the jostling over who should control the supply of doctors -- New Delhi or individual states -- isn't a contest about physics, biology or chemistry, but history.

This poses a challenge to India's south. Being in charge of local textbooks has allowed the economically more prosperous Tamil Nadu to organise its politics around a linguistic identity, shared by minorities such as Muslims and Christians, and present it as a more authentic alternative to the pro-Hindu ideology raining down from the impoverished north. So far, the experiment has been successful. The BJP didn't win a single parliamentary seat from Tamil Nadu in the recently concluded elections, which brought Mr Modi back as prime minister for a third term.

A national test is a threat to this political autonomy. Since the introduction of the competition, the graduating cohort at Tamil Nadu's state-run and government-aided schools has shrunk by 14%. Tamil-medium schools have also experienced a decline. Federal encroachment worries other southern states, too. Kerala's recently introduced gender-neutral textbooks are trying to smash ingrained ideas around patriarchy. Modernisation of attitudes could be stopped, even reversed, by homogenising education.

The world view of previous generations of Indians was shaped by texts actively promoted by a secular republic. Competition for college was always fierce. But at least the government did not require students to gloss over Gandhi's assassination to have a shot at a career.

Engineering amnesia about the past is what a nationwide medial entrance exam will achieve -- by downgrading state education boards and nudging families toward the national curriculum. That's the reason it needs to go, and not just because of allegedly leaked papers. This year's testing fiasco will no doubt crush many dreams. But if states regain the power to set their own entrance criteria, it might save many more others. ©2024 Bloomberg

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia.

Andy Mukherjee

Opinion columnist

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services.

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