The makings of a media circus in an exam-crazy nation

The media is happy to mock Bihari students till the time they cross over to other states.

ByAnand Vardhan
The makings of a media circus in an exam-crazy nation
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Anand Kishore, the chairperson of Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB), isn’t new to the attention that toppers get in our examination-obsessed country. In fact, in his younger days, he had sought it.

In summer of 1996, as an IIT-Kanpur graduate who had secured the eighth rank in civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), Kishore went to Times of India’s Fraser road office in Patna. He complained to the editors that the coverage given to his success story was overshadowed by the story of another Patna resident, who had attained the seventh rank in the examination. Next day, the newspaper ran a story about Kishore’s success in the examination and an emotional account of his journey to become an IAS officer.

Little did Kishore know that 21 years later he would be served a show-cause notice for something that was triggered by a very different kind of media attention received by the topper of an examination conducted by the state secondary education body that he heads.

For two years in a row, toppers of Class 12 (Arts stream) have been arrested for use of fraudulent means in the examination and submitting forged documents. Kishore had been given the responsibility of heading BSEB after last year’s topper scam in which four toppers — Ruby Rai, Saurav Shrestha, Shalini Ray and Saurav Kumar — from Vishnu Rai College, Vaishali, were caught resorting to examination malpractices. A year after he took over, a man from Samastipur, Ganesh Kumar, 42, topped the same examination despite the unusually strict crackdown on examination malpractices.

Apart from undeterred examination malpractices in Bihar, the common thread in both the cases is the media scrutiny that the toppers were subjected to. In a way, it was an unintended consequence of media attention, something that was sought by Kishore almost two decades ago.

Two things should be very clear about this. First, media deserves credit for the exposé. Without media reports, it’s highly improbable that the fraud would have been exposed and even less likely that the state government would have swung into action against what appears to be a connivance of examination agents and authorities to manipulate results to favour a few, or whoever is willing to pay for it.

Second, let us be clear that this year’s humanities topper Ganesh Kumar is guilty of adopting fraudulent means. So was Ruby Rai, last year’s topper in the same stream. All evidence and their own statements leave no doubt about that. The usual tendency to take resort to system failure theories shouldn’t blind us to the plain facts of criminality and use of illegal means to achieve whatever these ‘toppers’ considered worthwhile.

Similarly, there has to be clarity about avoiding the red herring of attributing the exposé of Ganesh’s criminal conduct to his Dalit status — something that was part of Janta Dal-United spokesperson Neeraj Kumar’s initial response to the topper scam. The structural explanations for wrongdoings say crime-poverty correlations or for that matter, terrorism-deprivation equations, end up obfuscating the reality of criminal conduct and also deviates from the important exercise of fixing individual accountability for moral failures.

When television news media began scrutinising Ganesh’s knowledge about the subjects in which he had scored relatively high marks, it seemingly drifted towards a televised mocking of the ‘topper’. It ranged from Aaj Tak using the rephrased mock value of Gangs of Wasseypur’s popular number ‘Jeeye ho Bihar ke topper’ (Long live toppers of Bihar) as the title of the report to ABP News being sure about the lamb waiting to be slaughtered as it began quizzing with ‘Bihar ke topper se 40 sawal’ (40 questions for Bihar’s topper).

There was the obvious temptation of extracting enjoyable bits of cluelessness from such rapid-fire rounds of questioning. For even casual viewers of television news media in India, such material for a spectacle couldn’t be expected to be left unused.

News channels, particularly the Hindi ones, thought that the exposé could be dovetailed with the entertainment value offered by the collective lampooning of a dubious topper who was in the position of a deer caught in the headlights. Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, recent case of Haryanavis outperforming Tamilians in Tamil Nadu for postman jobs and former UP Chief Minster Mulayam Singh Yadav’s advocacy for leniency towards cheating in examination clearly indicate that there are more deer to be found in sanctuaries of examination plots beyond Bihar too.

Some commentators have suggested, including Apoorvanand’s piece in The Tribune republished by Newslaundry, that media was guilty of humiliating Bihar’s youth by shaming the toppers in such dramatic ways.  Such view, however, is a patronising way of showing empathy for young people in the state who have by now become indifferent to ridicule and stereotyping. The young in Bihar seek no sympathy for the histrionics involved in exposing examination malpractices.

As far as the mockery goes, desensitisation to it seems almost complete now. Bihar’s migrant young labour has been subjected to decades of quasi-racial abuse in different parts of the country and particularly on the streets of metropolitan cities where every attempt of overtaking a rickshaw is preceded by a default abuse with Bihari suffixed and prefixed with choicest expletives. Bihari students, on the other hand, have carried the weight of stereotypes in various institutions across the country.

The reinforcement of such regional stereotypes has been aided by how young Biharis have been projected in popular culture. Not to go far back, one may sample how the Bihari protagonist in the recently released film Half Girlfriend (which in turn is based on the eponymous novel by pop-fiction writer Chetan Bhagat) has been shown. In the movie, this protagonist barely manages to speak a few English words while being interviewed for admission to St. Steven’s College (a thinly disguised name for St Stephen’s College in Delhi).

Old-timers in Delhi University, for instance, may remember that unlike students of other school boards, Bihar board’s provisional marksheets weren’t considered for admission to colleges. They were exclusively asked to produce the final pass certificates along with the marksheets to have any chance of admission — something that they would get only when it was too late to be admitted.

So, the institutionalised suspicion of the school examination system of Bihar precedes the latest media exposé. Such suspicion was the primary reason why the 1990s onwards Bihar witnessed mushrooming of schools affiliated to Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) or certifying bodies like Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) and its higher secondary extension, Indian School Certificate (ISC).

The problem with media scrutiny of Bihar board toppers lies somewhere else. In a country where rote learning, with due intervention of luck, defines examination system, it’s perfectly possible for even ‘clean’ toppers to go blank, after the need to reproduce the mugged up information is over. That can be seen in everyday encounters with ‘scrupulous’ examination achievers in your neighbourhood, let alone the fraudulent ones. That has never prodded media to question the relevance of such achievers for the very idea of education — a pursuit that is supposed to nurture and reward curiosity, originality and creativity along with the acquisitive repositories of knowledge that different academic disciplines have to offer.

More specifically, its scrutiny has been awfully selective, awestruck as it is with the examination gladiators. If it’s guided by probing instinct in Bihar, what stops journalists from scrutinising CBSE, ICSE, ISC toppers and those from other state boards, who secure absurdly high marks.

Raksha Gopal, for instance, topped CBSE’s Class 12 examination with an incredible score of 99.6 per cent. The credibility of the score dips further when you consider the fact that she is from humanities stream and with English, History, Political Science, Economics and Psychology as her subjects, she scored 100, 99, 100, 100 and 99, respectively. The absence of media scrutiny in disciplines like humanities, which are open to subjective assessment, raises questions.

For generations, Indians have considered it unthinkable to score anything close to 90 per cent in humanities. Hence, it’s absurd that the media has uncritically accepted such impeccable performance. Even if the answer script was so flawless, what about the element of subjective assessment? Has evaluation been reduced to a robotic process?

However, what you get are news anchors fawning at the riot of almost-obscene high marks — a spectacle no less than the rapid-fire rounds with Ruby Rais and Ganesh Kumars of Bihar, while Rajdeep Sardesai was hosting Raksha Gopal in India Today studio, ISC topper Ananya Maity was feted by Sonia Singh on NDTV 24X7’s prime time news show.

There is possibly no other country in the world where examination results and performers become front-page stories in newspapers and make their way to prime-time news shows on television. It’s a cast of characters quite unique to India.

This is perhaps rooted in Indian news media’s understanding that media consumption is largely dominated by the middle class and more so by the salaried middle class. It’s a class that, with its risk-averse ideas of insular professional life, prizes cracking various examinations as gateways to different career avenues. The media feeds such career anxieties with tidbits of information on examination scenes as well as the deification of examination achievers with exaggerated accounts of attainment.

Over the years, such annual media exercises has also been accompanied with forced attempts at intellectualisation of what one may call results commentary or alternatively, sociology of results. Such commentary is premised on seeing signs of social churning in results as they are interpreted with reference to gender, caste, region, religion and other social categories. Every year civil services’ examination results, for instance, invite such commentary, often by people who are inclined to attach greater meaning to success in an examination, without understanding that the recruitment examination is as banal and rote-based as any other in the Indian system of examinations.

Last year, such fault lines in the commentary were evident in how political commentator and senior journalist Seema Chisti profiled the topper and her Dalit family. She fell for the contrived narrative of “social change” and “individual excellence”. Any assessment that puts civil services’ exam success and individual excellence in the same sentence has a blatantly flawed assumption, to begin with. The reason being quite simple — the prime motivation for aspirants joining the civil services is quite the opposite: a lifelong ticket to escape all possibilities of excellence because the assurance of a secure job shields you from all challenges.

One can say that Chishti wouldn’t have said so if she had seen the hubs of civil services’ coaching in Delhi. Assembly lines of people mugging up the same assorted cut-and-paste study material would dispel her illusions about anything ‘individual’ or anything resembling ‘excellence’ in the examination process. The claims of being agents of ‘social change’ are also fallacious. This author has addressed media’s flawed assumptions about civil services and the recruitment examination in two different pieces earlier — one for media critique website The Hoot and the other for Newslaundry.

Coming back to Bihar, it’s always possible to explain the repetition of examination fraud and dismal results with recourse to a number of factors — compromise with quality in the mass recruitment of teachers, connivance of examination agents and authorities, marginalisation of school leaving examination in times of career-oriented studies. Even the temporary phase of low pass percentage can be attributed to stricter evaluation this year, guarding it against the danger of last year’s fiasco.

All these factors, however, will never explain why students from the same board continue to excel in various competitive and academic examinations across the country. Bihar school education continues to supply a large pool of students to reputed centres of professional education like IITs or recruits to civil services like IAS or, for that matter, researchers and academics to centres of higher education.

This form of Bihar paradox is sometimes explained by an argument that may not be off-mark, though it may be oversimplified. It’s simply premised on the contention that in the absence of other avenues and lack of industrial growth, the attraction of education for livelihood, if not intellectual explorations, is more alluring in a state where dwindling returns from agricultural income has left a large pool of anxious and unemployed youth.

It has been 25 years since Arvind N Das, one of the most eminent voices on Bihar, came up with his slim classic The Republic of Bihar (Penguin, 1992), which had identified education, government transfers and health as three key industries flourishing in Bihar.

Not much seems to have changed since then. If Ruby Rai and Ganesh Kumar can con the system to top a low-stake examination like Class 12, it shows that stakeholders in the flourishing trade of education are too many and deeply entrenched. Media can self-congratulate itself for revealing it with the glare of mocking cameras. What, however, it should introspect about is why the scrutiny morphs into a chorus of adulation once examination gladiators cross the Bihar border.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @anandvardhan26



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