Around 1,100 candidates who showed up to sit for their army recruitment exam in Bihar's Muzzafarpur on Sunday were in for a surprise. They were asked to strip down to their underwear and sit in an open ground by the local invigilating staff. This was apparently done so that the candidates did not resort to any unfair means in the exam.
The Press Trust of India quoted army officers in New Delhi as saying that the decision was taken by the local invigilating staff and sought to suggest that the idea was mooted by a "large number" of candidates who complained that many among them were resorting to unfair means, including using cell phones and bluetooth devices hidden in personal clothing, to cheat during the exam.
The image from the venue went viral on social media yesterday prompting the Defence Ministry to step in and ask for an explanation.
"Army headquarters has taken serious note of the incident and has directed corrective measures for ensuring fairness without causing embarrassment to the candidates," PTI said quoting army officials.
While that image resulted in ridicule and some mirth on social media, it also pointed to the desperation of authorities in the country to prevent cheating – something that has developed into an industry in itself as was captured by this photograph below that had gone viral on Twitter last year.
Images of friends and relatives climbing up the examination centre buildings to assist students had done the rounds after the BBC reported on the story from Bihar.
At least 400 students were expelled for cheating even as authorities claimed that they were trying their best to ensure free and fair examinations.
While asking students to strip down to their underwear seems to be a novel measure, last year the Central Board of Secondary Education found itself in the middle of a controversy after disallowing women from wearing hijabs to the examination centres for the All India Pre Medical Entrance Test. The dress code it laid down required students to wear “light clothes” with short sleeves, and no large buttons, badges, earrings or bangles. Caps, scarves and belts were banned.
The exam season could well be called cheating season. Consider some of the headlines from February 2014. In Bihar, 200 class 12 examinees of the Bihar School Examination Board were expelled for cheating. In Assam, 421 were caught across various centres. Odisha had a slightly better time, with only 367 caught, down from 654 in the previous year. The Odisha board attributes this to multiple-choice question papers that give them no time to cheat. Students who want to pass the exam will have to answer 50 questions in 60 minutes.
As exam schedules are announced, preparations begin to beat the cheaters. Flying squads are drafted across the country, students are frisked at the gate, policemen stand guard outside exam centres but still can't prevent chits with answers written on them from being thrown into the classrooms, and state boards install cameras and mobile jammers to nab offenders. Everybody, including school principals, teachers, parents, policemen and students, is suspected to be part of the cheating enterprise. The world's largest elections, to be held after the examination season ends, are likely to be freer and fairer than the exams.
Experts point out that the examination system in the country has developed into a security threat. For those who seek to prevent cheating, like flying squads that randomly check exam centres for malpractices, police protection is often necessary.
Students haven't taken kindly to this supervision. In January 2014, authorities in Islampur, West Bengal, installed CCTV cameras in certain sensitive centres. These cameras did not prevent students from vandalising an Islampur school after being stopped from cheating. They complained the invigilation was too strict.
The invigilators in Islampur should consider themselves lucky that the students at the school attacked only the furniture. Later in the week, unidentified individuals in Uttar Pradesh flung two crude bombs at a car containing members of a flying squad. These members had prevented mass cheating at Allahabad University. Among the suspects was a member of the college's student union.
Cheating goes high-tech
Students are also aiming for high-technology cheating strategies. There are several websites peddling dubious electronic goods that allegedly aid cheating. Action India Security, for example, has ‘Spy Bluetooth Glasses Earpiece Set’ that markets itself at users who want to “pass exams without a hassle, who want to conduct successful business negotiations overtaking competitors or simply strike others by your own knowledge…” The company has offices in Hyderabad, New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai.
A similar device available on eBay.in is a wireless earpiece for Rs 2,399 with a 6% discount if you ask nicely. Drop a tiny wireless earpiece into your auditory canal, and you can receive a signal through your cell phone for five hours, ideal for any agent lurking outside the school with a copy of the question paper. “Right now we are completely sold out, ma’am,” said the agent selling this piece who returned this writer’s call from a different number. “Maybe in ten days we’ll get some more.” He promised to courier the piece anywhere in India for Rs 50.
An old tradition
That is not to say traditional mass cheating has gone away or that students are not helped by authorities. Students at Lokmanya Tilak High School in Mumbai were permitted to bring in chits and copy from them –quietly. The invigilator reprimanded them only when they made a noise. "Copy karo lekin shor mat karo"(Copy but without making a noise)," one of the supervisors allegedly said in the examination hall. The racket was busted by two students indignant that they had wasted an entire year studying for the board exams when their classmates got away with no effort.
A group of students in Uttar Pradesh also protested after invigilators allowed certain students to cheat. Their indignation was more about not being permitted to join the exercise.
On March 5, 2014, inspectors of a flying squad intercepted staff at a Bareilly school for dictating answers and writing them on the blackboard for students to copy. When the squad arrived at the school, school staff attempted to throw cheating implements out of classroom windows. Inspectors seized this material as well. There were around 500 students in the school at the time.
In one particularly egregious case of cheating, three persons were found in the examination hall instead of the one who was supposed to appear for the exam – one was the examinee himself, the other was the one who knew the subject and the third was the one whose handwriting was good.
In some places, cheating has become so institutionalised, the rates are fixed – leading to unexpected consequences. Also, in Shikohabad, a Dalit boy set himself on fire after his family was unable to raise Rs 7,000 to pay his school principal to allow him to cheat in his class 10 exams. His mother had pawned her necklace and bangles, but only managed to gather Rs 4,000. The boy died on Monday.
A similar case could have ended as tragically. A student in Kaushambi, also a Dalit, tried to kill himself by ingesting poison after the principal in charge of his examination centre said he would not let him cheat in his class 12 exams if he did not pay. The principal’s father and grandfather were also involved in the racket.
These incidents indicate that Uttar Pradesh seems to take the lead in cheating. The situation was so bad in 1991 that Rajnath Singh, then education minister of the state, instituted the Anti-Copying Act that made cheating a non-bailable offence. While all states have legislations pertaining to examination malpractices, this is the only one specific to "copying" from another student's paper.
In an indication of how institutionalised cheating might have been in the state, the pass percentage of class 10 students in schools under the Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad plummeted from 58.1 in 1991 to 14.7 in 1992. Mulayam Singh Yadav repealed the act almost as soon as he became chief minister in 1993, but in 1998 the BJP returned to power and reinstated it, with one change. Cheating is now a bailable offence.
Exam cheating has long gone beyond the issue of personal ethics, say observers. It has become part of the system. Perhaps this is inevitable in a culture that values marks over learning. If irrelevant syllabi are meant to be regurgitated in the exam through rote learning, the student might as well find a jugaad less taxing than mugging up entire books, observers say.
But perhaps the Punjab State Education Board has the best solution. Not one case of cheating was reported when it conducted re-evaluation exams for class 12 students in September, 2013. The reason? The board decided not to send out any flying squads.
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