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Kolkata: The high-voltage political battle between Narendra Modi’s government and Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal government seems to have made it to question papers for civil service examinations.
In a move that appeared to many students and academics as an act of ‘tit for tat’, following a question in the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam’s paper asking to write about West Bengal poll violence, the West Bengal Civil Service exam on Sunday asked which freedom fighter made mercy petitions to the British administrations from jail.
The right answer is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the ideological gurus of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The question paper also asked about the status of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and “toolkit”, two issues that recently dragged the Narendra Modi government into global controversy.
After the UPSC question paper asked about the Bengal poll violence – an issue sensitive to the state’s ruling party and a major campaign issue for the BJP – chief minister Mamata Banerjee had taken sharp digs at the institution, alleging that the UPSC was asking “BJP’s questions”.
“UPSC used to be an impartial body but now the BJP is giving it questions to ask. Even the question on the farmers’ protest was politically motivated. The BJP is destroying institutions like the UPSC,” she told reporters in Kolkata.
The UPSC question paper had also asked candidates to “write arguments for or against each of the following: a) elections in states should be held simultaneously, b) farmers protests are politically motivated.”
In Sunday’s WBCS exam, one of the questions read, “Which revolutionary leader made mercy petitions from jail?” and gave four options, V.D. Savarkar, B.G. Tilak, Sukhdev Thapar and Chandra Sekhar Azad.
While several Indian freedom fighters had made mercy petitions during the British Raj, among the famous names it is only Savarkar who made such a petition multiple times while being interned in the Cellular jail in Andaman.
His 1923 book, Hindutva, is considered to have played one of the most important roles in shaping the eponymous ideology. There has been ample evidence of Savarkar’s disassociation with the freedom struggle since his release when he focussed solely on the cause of the Hindus.
This reference to Sarvarkar’s mercy petition has been a sensitive issue for India’s Hindutva camp, as the saffron brigade has been trying hard to highlight Savarkar as a firebrand and uncompromising revolutionary and suppress the incidents related to mercy petitions.
On social media, several of those who took the test commented that they considered it Mamata Banerjee’s ‘revenge’ against the Narendra Modi-led Union government for bringing West Bengal’s poll violence issue in the UPSC exam.
The TMC leadership, however, ruled out any political intervention, saying the people who set the question papers worked independently, without any relation to the party or the government.
But this was not the only question in the paper that could be termed political in nature. Another question asked, “NRC is now in form of a — a) draft, b) Bill, c) Act, d) none of the above.”
The National Register of Citizens (NRC), which the Modi government has mulled implementing at the national level after it was finalised in Assam, has been an issue of a major political controversy that has earned headlines even in the international media. Most opposition parties, including Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), have vehemently opposed it.
The other major controversy that seems to have found a reference in the question paper is the “toolkit”. The controversy involved a “toolkit” on farm law protests that Bengaluru college student and climate activist Disha Ravi allegedly shared with globally renowned environment activist Greta Thunberg. Ravi’s was arrest had been reported in several major global media outlets in a negative light.
The question paper asks: “The recently much-talked-about toolkit is basically: a) an e-commerce platform for online transaction, b) a social media site meant for hackers, c) a digital equivalent of pamphlets and fliers that helped mobilise protesters, d) an assemblage of sophisticated electronic gadgets.”
According to Kolkata-based academic and social activist Saswati Ghosh, such occurrences no longer surprise her. “Political ideology has long been seeping in through exam papers. Even during the Left Front rule in West Bengal, questions for entrances in premier institutes like the Jadavpur University had ideological influence. It has become a pattern for a long time that questions papers are made in such a way that the examinees need to be aware of the ideology of the ruling party to crack the tests,” she said.
Another aspect of the WBSC question paper that has triggered a controversy is that it asked about some of the government schemes that the chief minister likes to highlight.
“What is the maximum government subsidy that can be availed by a beneficiary under the Gatidhara scheme?” asks one question, with Rs 50,000, one lakh, two lakh and five lakh as the four options. The right answer is Rs 1 lakh.
Another question asks: “What proportion of the payable premium for the Swasthya Sathi scheme is borne by the state government: a) 50%, b) 75%, c) 100% d) none of the above.”
The right answer is 100% and the state government and the ruling party love to highlight this project contrasting it with the scope of the Union government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme.