The exam is considered the toughest in the country – around a million people take it each year and compete for just a thousand vacancies in India’s sacred civil service. Now a report suggests that it would be much fairer if all candidates’ surnames were kept secret throughout the application process, as roughly 90% of Indian surnames reveal a person’s caste.
The names of the candidates are currently withheld, along with their religion, when they appear for the written tests. But after the exam, the names of those who qualify for the final stage of the interview are used. And this, according to the report, ruins the chances of the Dalits, the lowest Hindu caste that was once called “untouchables,” due to the innate bias of the interviewers.
The recommendation to hide surnames throughout the process came up in a report from the investigative wing of the Dalit India Chamber of Commerce and Industry after the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment asked it to assess the position of Dalits in the Indian society.
Urging the government to keep the candidates’ last names hidden, the researcher who worked on the study, PSN Murti in Hyderabad, said he was surprised to see how the recruitment process was organized.
Jobs in public administration, ranging from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Foreign Service to the police, are highly coveted for their security and social prestige. Only about 180 candidates out of the roughly 1.1 million candidates who take the civil service exam get a job, a success rate of just 0.01%.
The government recruitment agency, the Union Public Service Commission, has all the details of the candidates (name, religion and socio-economic background) because it needs the data to comply with India’s affirmative action policy for Dalits, for whom 15% of places in the civil service are reserved, along with quotas for other disadvantaged groups.
This information is not accessible to the examiners of the written tests to avoid any bias, but the names are revealed for the interview.
“The same anonymity must prevail throughout the process to give everyone the same opportunities, because India is not a society where they are taken on merit. It is riddled with discrimination. More than 90% of surnames reveal their caste, and once it is known, a chain reaction begins. Objectivity goes out the window, ”Murti said.
Each year, about a million Indians undergo the grueling and wildly competitive annual exam, sometimes year after year, often enrolling for months in special classes designed in advance to help them solve it. Training for the all-important exam and interview is an industry unto itself, but few Dalits can afford it. Some state governments have started offering help with coach fees to try to achieve some equality in the process, but how upper caste candidates prepare for the exam and how Dalits prepare is simply one difference among many.
Swaran Ram Darapuri, a retired senior police officer in Lucknow, North India, knows that Dalits are at a great disadvantage in the interview. Most come from rural backgrounds and may be the first generation in their family to receive an education.
As one of the few Dalits who came to the Indian Police Service through the exam, Darapuri says he has first-hand knowledge about discrimination. It is impossible, he says, for invariably high caste interviewers to be “caste neutral” because the moment they hear a Dalit surname, their whole attitude changes, subtly but significantly.
Dalit candidates will never have spoken English at home or with their friends. They struggle to speak fluently. They lack social trust due to generations of oppression and exclusion. Then there are the interviewers who, the moment they hear the caste by last name, they are going to be prejudiced against them, ”Darapuri said.
Of the 89 secretaries, the highest-ranking bureaucratic post, at the federal level in the Indian capital Delhi, in 2019, only one was Dalit, according to parliamentary data. Even at the lowest echelons, representation is abysmal, nowhere near the 200 million dalits in India, 16% of India’s 1.3 billion people.
The caste continues to persist in every little crevice of Indian society. Last month it emerged that jobs in prisons in the northern state of Rajasthan – barbers, street sweepers, cooks and gardeners – were assigned based on caste.
In December, the state of Maharashtra, in the west of the country that includes Mumbai, changed the names of the neighborhoods that reflected the caste of the majority community. He said he felt it was a “regressive” habit.
For Darapuri, hiding surnames would help more people from a rural, poor, marginalized and excluded background to have a fair chance. He said: “For the state to take care of all its citizens, a fair representation of every community is needed. The civil service must be a reflection of society because only then can India be a truly representative democracy. “
The ministry has yet to decide whether to implement the recommendation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism