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Tracing the Duality of Caste in Competitive Exams via Experimental Evidence

A study shows how merely bearing a high caste name can significantly increase an applicant's chances for selection.

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No one can deny that the caste system has penetrated so deeply into Indian society that it almost forms the foundation of the whole society. The role of caste politics is so much that its penetration is often invisiblized by the societal structures and the ones maintaining them. This post aims to shed light on one such caste-wrapped perspective of society towards the competitive exams, particularly emphasizing the much-esteemed Union Public Services Commission (UPSC) Civil Services Examination (CSE).

In light of the recently released UPSC results, this post throws light on the duality of caste in competitive exams. This duality is essentially the dual role of caste in such exams, which the daily media very much ignores. It is a common presumption that the role of caste in competitive exams is only limited to reservation or the process of completing the exam itself. However, it doesn't end there; any competitive exam creates a second identity for the appearing candidates based on their caste identity. I will try to illuminate this duality of caste throughout the post.

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The Upper Caste Privilege in Competitive Exams

Although it seems so, all competitive exams in India aren't genuinely competitive to the extent of being completely impartial and value-neutral.

I would first like to highlight this point with the help of research undertaken by S.K. Thorat and Paul Attewell for the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). The authors researched to inspect the prevalence of rampant discrimination in the job application process of various private-sector enterprises in India. In the paper, Thorat and Attewell conducted an experiment wherein they sent three job applications to the newspaper advertisement in the name of upper-caste Hindu, Muslim and Dalit applicants.

The authors collected advertisements announcing private-sector job openings from various national and regional English-language newspapers for the experiment. The authors then prepared three matching job applications with the only difference of name in the applications. One application was of a high caste Hindu family name, the other bearing a Muslim name and the third having a stereotypical Dalit name.

The final results were in accordance with the aim of the research. The experiment found that the application bearing the Dalit and the Muslim name was significantly less likely to qualify than a matching application having an upper caste Hindu name. Furthermore, even an overqualified Dalit applicant had a lesser chance of being called for an interview for jobs requiring higher-level jobs than a qualified upper-caste Hindu. The results illuminated that even an underqualified Hindu candidate had more chances than a qualified Dalit of being called for the interview.
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Recruiters are not Devoid of Caste Biases

The purpose of highlighting this experiment is to establish empiricism to the abstract notion of caste discrimination that leaves its mark on competitive exams. The experiment strikes on the general assumption of people that job applications being a value-neutral process, cannot involve the caste biases of the recruiters. The findings clarify how merely bearing a high caste name can significantly increase an applicant's chances for selection. The research shows the stigma attached to particular castes, which even offsets the criterion of merit and ability to qualify for applicants.

Another similar example comes from the data of CSE 2020. The data shows that none of the reserved candidates in the top 10 rankings scored more than 200 marks in interviews, while upper-caste candidates even got 210+ in the same interviews. Now in case the readers tag this statistic with blunt notions of coincidence and merit, there's another point to make here. The average written examination marks of reserved and unreserved candidates were somewhat close; it was the interview that pushed back the ranks of the reserved candidates; you can find the complete data here.

We can locate the reasons for such biases in Max Weber's sociological writings who highlights how communities with different social groups enjoy distinct social honour.

A social group is constituted by a particular religion, caste, class, etc. He highlights that communities with a particular social group enjoy a certain lifestyle, solidarity, tastes, and social activities, and the society then treats the group according to its established norms.

These sociological and psychological reasons for stereotypical behaviour and following the caste-established norms contribute to this sad state of affairs. The CSE example highlights how the idea of casteist merit (caste-based merit) has not even left the much-acclaimed and impartial exams. All of this highlighted above shows a critical yet ignored facet of competitive exams, the caste competition within them. However, the sad part is that no hard work can guarantee an applicant's success in this sub-competition.

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Does Caste's Role End With the Exam Process?

After looking into the unnoticed role of caste in creating multiple barriers for candidates from diverse backgrounds to clear the exams, I shall now elucidate upon the unending role of caste. The answer to the question mentioned above is a big No! and in this section of the post, I will elaborate on the reasons behind this answer.

In his book American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal discusses the "theory of cumulative causation". The theory is centred on the process of self-reinforcement wherein an impulse in a particular direction triggers a dynamo effect and repeatedly creates further changes in the same direction, resulting in a vicious cycle of unending change. This theory seems to throw light on the working of caste here, wherein a person discriminated from the level of primary education gets treated the same way in higher and secondary education, and even further in finding job prospects. This reinforcement cycle makes things worse and unending for the lower caste candidates to move past the barriers of their identity.

Data from some of the most prestigious Indian Institutions of Technology (IITs) show that nearly 80% of suicides in IITs till 2011 were done by Dalit students due to the distress and discrimination they faced in the institutions.

Furthermore, in some interviews conducted by Harvard-based anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian with former IIT students, the students believed that the unreserved students got terrible grades for partying. In contrast, the reserved students failed because they lacked the intellect to pass the exams. This biased mindset, coupled with the hollow idea of casteist merit and predispositions of the masses, works to marginalize the successful candidates and their efforts in clearing the exams.

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The Equality Triangle in the Constitution

Another recent illuminating example that can further this point comes from the recent UPSC CSE results. While we can appreciate the results for their representativeness in the top four ranks begged by women, the casteist perceptions of the society show the other side of the coin. The topper of the CSE 2022 examination was Ishita Kishore, and now she has earned the top rank; there's an ongoing debate amongst people about her caste. The so-called representatives of different castes are now associating the topper’s identity with their caste, trying to establish the intellectual supremacy of their caste over others. This debate manifests how Indian society leaves no stone unturned while trying to show the domination of their identity.

The law can help little in moving past this eternal nature of caste affiliations. Although the equity triangle of Articles 1415, and 16 of the Indian constitution strives to achieve equality before the law and strikes on discrimination feted on any individual based on their identity, it only does the job superficially.

The sword of justice cannot wholly correct the much deeper-rooted evils of caste. It needs constant efforts on behalf of everyone in society to overcome the barriers of a casteist mindset, and the first effort on this front is to recognize the extent of such impediments.

This article was an attempt to showcase one such crucial barrier.

(Shikhar Chauhan is a second-year law student at Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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