Blocking at the Entrance: Need of Reform in Viva-voce Examination of JNU

Nitheesh Narayanan December 22, 2016

Heated debates and discussions are going on in JNU on the reduction of marks in the Viva-voce of the M.phil entrance examination for a few years. A committee has been formed to look into the merit of the matter at the demand of students’ union to reduce the marks from 30 to 15. Since the committee has not submitted its final report, the last academic council meeting, where the decisions regarding any academic reform will be taken, has decided to hold a special academic council meeting only to discuss this matter before the end of ongoing semester. This special meeting is scheduled to be held on 23rd of December. It is unprecedented and can be seen as an exhibition of the intensity the matter has gained. Students are raising some other demands also related to the Viva-voce along with the reduction of the marks, such as proper division of marks, permitting SFC (student-faculty committee) members to sit in the Viva as observers, ensure SC/ST/OBC faculties in the Viva board etc. This is an attempt to see the way discrimination takes place in JNU with referring to a particular case.

Reaching at the stage of higher education itself is a struggle for the marginalized groups in India. Various kinds of discrimination and different forms of obstacles await them in every stage. What happens if they make to higher education system will also expose some other stories of caste based discrimination. This article focus on how discrimination attains its space in the process of ‘entrance’ itself. A lot has already been said about how caste plays a regressive role prior to it and also after to it.

What is Viva-voce?

Viva-voce is an examination in interview form as part of the entrance examination to the research programmes in JNU. It consists of 30% of the total marks of the entrance examination. Only those who satisfy the eligibility criteria in the written examination will be called for Viva-voce. The same faculties who prepared the question paper for the written examination is more or less the same group which consists Viva panel. The final result of the students selected for admission will be prepared by compiling both written and Viva marks.

All the empirical data, related to Viva-voce, used for this article are received through different RTI applications filled in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

When Caste is being Evaluated

This happened in the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Programme of the School of International Studies in JNU at the time of M.phil admission for the academic year 2015-16. 92 students out of 101 who qualified in written examination participated in the VIVA (Interview). Those who did not attend the VIVA will not be considered for the admission even in the case they have scored top marks in written. The list of the students eligible for admission will be prepared by calculating the marks scored in 70 which is of the Written examination plus 30 of Viva. There were 37 students from OBC category, 21 students from SC category and 12 students from ST category in the 92 applicants attended the VIVA. There were only 22 students belongs to the unreserved category, which is of course the higher caste. 40.21% of them are OBC, 22.82% SC, 13%ST and 23.9% Unreserved. SC, ST and OBC students consists 76% of the total selected students those who attended Viva-voce. In a very disturbing development, 92.39% of the candidates eliminated after the Viva is belonging to these categories. How do the students belonging to some particular backgrounds, who are selected for the Viva after qualifying in the written exam which is conducted in more than 50 centres across the nation, are being eliminated as a bunch after the Viva which lasts maximum 10 to 15 minutes.? Do we have to say it again to find out what this interview is meant for?

20 students were given only 1 mark (in 30) in the VIVA. It means the mark goes for their physical presence or attendance not for their intelligence or merit. Even the demanded research proposal are being neglected with zero mark.! Are these the same students who succeed the firm competition in the written examination in which the questions are prepared by these same faculty members ? The answer for why this has happened is also the answer for the query that who these students are. Out of this twenty, 7 students are SC, 8 are OBC and 4 are ST. Now let us look at the proportion in the 17 students who were given only 2 marks in Viva. Again 7 are Dalit, 7 are OBC and 3 ST. In sum, 36 out of 37 students who were subjected under an attempt to eliminate through the Viva, by giving a mere one or two marks are coming from the sections historically oppressed and marginalized. They are tribal, Dalits and other backward classes. Do we have to go anywhere else to find the example for institutionalized discrimination? The 7 students in the 9 who did not make to attend Viva also belongs to these deprived sections. It is difficult to believe that all of them did not attend the Viva over the decisions taken only by them. They are people having obstacles to reach for the Viva even after scoring high marks in written exam. Here, we are looking at only what happens at Viva if they manage to make it.

The authorities may say that they are assessing only the merit. Let us come across to the average mark the students from different sections scored in the 70 marks of written examination. Those are SC 23.38, ST 25.25, OBC 27.13 and Unreserved 30.63. Now let us look at the average marks in 30 of Viva. SC 3.38, ST 5.91, OBC 6.94 and Unreserved 13.18.! Only those belongs to the higher castes has managed to get more marks than their average mark in the written examination. The percentage of distribution of average marks in written and Viva for different categories are given in the table below.

14 of the 21 Dalit students were given either 1 or 2 in the Viva. None other than one student among them were given more than 10 marks in the Viva. At the other side, 16 of the 22 students from the higher castes were “gifted” with above than 10 marks out of 30. Is there anything else needed to make it more clear that it is not the merit but the privileges of birth and caste they have considered? For those who still hang-up with the quarrel of ‘merit’, the student who topped in the course work one year after got admission is a student who was given ‘1’ mark in the Viva-voce!! They may defend with the argument that they have fulfilled the quota when we come up with these facts which itself speaks loud about the discrimination. It is true the reservation seats were filled in this centre. But, if it is not to subjugating the object of social justice placed with the implementation of reservation, why the students who would have made it in general category were attempted to be included only in the quota by consciously given less marks? General category is open to all. It means mark is the only criteria to get in to that category. The students from every section have the right to be included in the general category. Do the authorities practice the new form of institutional untouchability by blocking the eligible students belonging to deprived communities from occupying their place with the upper caste and upper class? It is in no doubt opposite to the principles of reservation policy.

This particular centre stated that candidates are given marks on the basis of their performance in Viva to a query on what is the basis of deciding the Viva marks. A question was asked again through an RTI application that what was the mark split up (like proposal, performance etc) of the 2 marks which was given to a particular student. Making it clear that there is no such proper data being made or kept, the centre replied with a general statement saying consolidated marks are given to candidates which includes evaluation of proposal and performance in the Viva. Their failure to answer specifically on the performance of a particular student itself shows no minutes are made or no proper document is kept on the all process of Viva-voce. It makes any afterward enquiry or re-examination of the whole process absolutely impossible. To a question regarding the marks given by each and every member of the Viva panel, the reply was that as standard practice a consensus is evolved after discussion among members of the Viva panel. Do we need any other proof to pronounce this is a ‘consensus’ against the students coming from vulnerable backgrounds?

There is a section, majorly among the faculties in JNU who stands in favour of Viva-voce remaining with its high proportion. The argument they make is that the research aptitude must be tested before providing admission and for that Viva-voce is important with high priority. But many of them keep a conscious silence on the question how are they going to test the research aptitude and decide the mark. There is no official mechanism to be followed towards division of marks in the Viva. There is no norm that the questions must be based on the research proposal or be aimed at checking the research skills. For many, Viva-voce is an opportunity to identify the candidate’s social background and treat them accordingly, obviously not positively. Many candidates have faced cruel jocks and comments on their weak English speaking skill or their previous studies in non-elite institutions such as state universities. What does the ‘performance’ in Viva-voce means? Is it a speech competition? Even in the case of not being able to perform well in Viva-voce, can a student be judged as not competent enough to proceed with a research work? Is it the capacity of articulation in flowing English or critical engagement with a research subject be evaluated? Those faculties may agree upon the latter one, but they will definitely fail to cite the institutional mechanism for that. Prof. Sukhdev Thorat committee, constituted by JNU to look into the matter of discrimination in Viva-voce, submitted its report few years back. It demands to restructure the way Viva-voce conducts to a more friendly manner in which students, especially those belonging to marginalized sections will feel comfortable and confident. No action has been made even after this report was submitted.

In an unprecedented manner, JNU did not make the marks of Viva-voce public till almost the end of the first semester in this year, 2017-17. Normally the University used to publish the marks of all the candidates, written and Viva-voce separately, after few weeks of whole admission process got over. No clarification was given by the University for doing so. Even though it is unspoken, the logic behind this act is nonetheless a crooked attempt to keep the facts of high level of mismatch in secrete from the public domain. The students are denied their right to know how they are evaluated and how much they scored in the different processes of entrance examination.

There may be an argument that a general statement cannot be made on discrimination with analyzing data from one out of around seventy streams. I reject this argument mainly on two grounds. For the sake of argument let us agree with those who say this one case is a genuine matter of caste discrimination and this may not be the case for other centres. If that is the case, can they assure punishment for those who are behind this act of blatant caste discrimination which must come under legal action? If the answer is ‘no’, then this is in no ground an exceptional case and also normalized to the level of not being a matter of concern. Secondly, we do not actually have to look into the data of each department and see whether there is discrimination. That is the responsibility of the institution, which is the policy maker, to scrutiny it properly. What do we have to check is whether there is any loophole in favor of the perpetuators of caste discrimination. The case we study thoroughly announces it loudly, yes there is. So, it is possible, in the same or even more aggressive form, for such discrimination to happen easily in any other centre also. Though the University level data, collected through RTI, also shows the filtering of a particular section is not an exceptional case. Democracy can be appreciated with analyzing the positive outcomes. But it should not be defined in that way. If so, that will be late. It must be checked with its structure itself. Whatever I tried to produce here is nothing less than a structural/policy level gap. It needs to be dealt in that level itself. Democracy attains its height when it leaves no stone for those who want to subjugate it. So, what the time demands is nevertheless a structural change in policy level. This change needs to work out in multiple levels including timely and properly filling up of faculty posts reserved for under-privileged groups.

In an unprecedented manner, JNU did not make the marks of Viva-voce public till almost the end of the first semester in this year, 2017-17. Normally the University used to publish the marks of all the candidates, written and Viva-voce separately, after few weeks of whole admission process got over. No clarification was given by the University for doing so. Even though it is unspoken, the logic behind this act is nonetheless a crooked attempt to keep the facts of high level of mismatch in secrete from the public domain. The students are denied their right to know how they are evaluated and how much they scored in the different processes of entrance examination. Reflecting upon the past experiences of discrimination in the entrance it can only be understood as a twisted attempt to hide the act of overturning the 70% marks of written examination with the 30% of Viva-voce marks. This is what a university does, instead of going to public with the confidence gained through the completion of selection process without any wrongdoing. Unfortunately our universities are lacking that confidence. This single act is enough to understand what is there in the minds of university to address the questions of discrimination in Viva-voce. One of the important characteristics of democracy must be its ability to take public into confidence, keep them away from suspicion and answer the questions with logic. When caste acts as sense, logic goes in rest.

Before concluding, let me just draw a personal narrative. I joined for M.phil programme this year in JNU after a gap of two years since I completed my MA in 2014 from the same university. I attended 6 Viva-voce after clearing the written examinations to three different centres of two schools in consecutively three years. Since here I do not intend to make any subjective statements i stay away from explaining what I faced in different interviews. But in three times I was given either 1 or 2 marks in Viva-voce. At least JNU will have to seriously take note on how they prepare their students enrolled in MA for further academic excellence. Dinesh (name changed at the best interest of the candidate) enrolled for M.phil programme in a centre in School of Social Science this year. He appeared 9 times in Viva-voce in JNU in five different centres in last couple of years. Once he was given ‘Zero’ marks from one of the centres in school of international studies. He had scored 36 marks in the written examination. The cut off for the admission that time was 37..!! We both are coming from socially deprived backgrounds and this is what we faced in one of the premier educational institutions in the country. I’m convinced that these are not isolated stories and we are not exceptional cases. But no escape from the thought that how many can keep waiting till their consensus gets satisfied? How many might have gone back thinking, “are they worth enough to continue in academics?, and how many might have thought that it is their problem and their problem and they are always wrong..!!

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