“Is it possible for me to hide an electronic device on the tiny metal hook of my underwear. Should women invigilators be aware of this?”

This was the question raised by a girl who was forced to take off her bra before appearing for the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test – a highly competitive examination for admission to medical and dental colleges for the undergraduate MBBS and BDS courses – in Kerala’s Kannur district on Sunday.

Across exams centres in the state as well as in neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, girls complained of being made to cut the sleeves of their outfits, buy new clothes, take off their earrings, even change their underwear before being allowed to take the test.

The incidents were a direct fallout of the Central Board of Secondary Education’s dress code for exam-takers, which was introduced in 2015 and reiterated through a circular on April 25. The board – which conducts the exam for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare – has banned certain types of clothes and shoes along with metallic objects such as brooches, all in an attempt to prevent cheating. It has also ordered mandatory frisking of candidates at test centres.

The board blamed the incident at the TISK English Medium School in Kovvapuram in Kannur on the “overzealous” female frisking staff and said in a press release, “The CBSE has advised the school principal to tender an unconditional apology to the candidate.” It also said that frisking staff would be cautioned to avoid such incidents in future. On Tuesday, media reports said four teachers of the school had been suspended pending inquiry.

But even in the face of complaints and outrage, the board defended the dress code, saying it was needed to “secure the sanctity” of the exam. Among those critical of the incidents on Sunday was Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “These kinds of incidents should not happen in a civilised society,” he posted on his Facebook page. “If these complaints were true, it amounted to severe human rights violation.”

The Kerala Human Rights Commission and Child Rights Commission have sought an explanation from the board.

The guidelines

According to the guidelines issued by the Central Board of Secondary Education, candidates are barred from carrying text material, bits of paper, geometry sets, pencil boxes, plastic pouches, calculators, pens, scales, writing pads, pen drives, erasers, log tables and electronic pens into exam centres.

Communication devices such as mobile phones, bluetooth devices, earphones and microphones are also banned. Accessories and personal effects such as wallets, sunglasses, handbags, belts, caps, ornaments and watches along with eatables are not allowed too.

But some of the guidelines are ambiguous, leading to what transpired on Sunday with candidates being harassed over the colour of their clothes and metal hooks in their underwear.

‘The incident shook me’

Recalling the harrowing experience she went through, the candidate from Kannur said she was frisked in a tent outside the school. “There were four women – two teachers and two policewomen – inside the tent,” she told Scroll.in.

She was first pulled up for wearing dark trousers. “I read the dress code and decided to wear black trousers,” she said, adding that the guidelines advised candidates to wear “light clothes with half sleeves not having big buttons, brooch/badge, flowers” but made no mention of colour.

“But the officials told me to change my pants as the guidelines banned black coloured dress,” she said. “I did not challenge them. Instead, I, along with my mother and brother, went out to buy new trousers. Most of the shops were closed as it was a Sunday. So we traveled more than 2 km in an autorickshaw to buy a new dress.”

Her ordeal did not end with a change of clothes. As she went through the metal detectors, there was a beep. “They [officials] asked me whether I was hiding a mobile phone inside my dress,” she said.

She explained to them that the beep was probably caused by the metal hook of her bra. “The women did not trust me,” she said. “They told me I could enter the hall only after removing it.” She added that they also turned down her request to be allowed to use the washroom.

Pressed for time, she gave in to their demand. “As the examination would begin in 15 minutes, I gathered all my courage and removed my bra and handed it to my mother,” she said. “Many students were standing next to me.”

She revealed that she was so shaken that it affected her performance in the exam. “The incident completely shook me, I could not fathom what was happening,” she said. “It took some time to regain my composure, but by then I had already lost a valuable 30 minutes. I could answer only the biology questions.”