The guards patrolling the gates of Modern School, Dungarpur, held scissors on 23 July, the day of the 2022 REET exam, Rajasthan’s primary and upper primary teacher’s eligibility test. As the women candidates lined up for a security check, the guards began snipping off jewellery, long sleeves of kurtas, even band-aids. As dupattas were removed, some women began sobbing. It seemed a replay of the scene in Kollam, Kerala, a week earlier on 17 July, when women candidates taking the pre-medical entrance exam, NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test), were forced to remove their bras with metal hooks before entering the exam hall.
Both news reports reminded Sagra Joshi, a 24-year-old postgraduate student in Haldwani, Uttarakhand, of her own experience during the CTET (Central Teacher Eligibility Test) in Delhi in December 2021. She was told she could not write the exam unless she removed her sweatshirt—in the peak of winter. “Such harassment of women students is increasingly common and it gets no attention. In that moment, the guards have power over us. We can’t protest, even if we disagree with their treatment,” says Joshi.
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India has over 60 million candidates every year sitting for competitive exams, including 164 government recruitment exams. Coveted engineering and medical seats in government colleges require taking the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) and NEET, respectively. This year, over 18 lakh students sat for NEET, the highest ever. It’s not unusual for government recruitment exams to be overwhelmed by the number of applications, with 1.25 crore aspirants applying for 35,000 jobs in the Railway Recruitment Board’s non-technical popular category (NTPC) exam earlier this year. As the desperation for jobs or seats increases, so does the screening to prevent cheating.
In Kollam, after the harassment of students taking the NEET, three police complaints have been filed, and the National Testing Agency, in charge of screening during NEET exams, has set up a fact-finding committee to investigate the incident.
The National Testing Agency, or NTA, was established in 2017, to conduct key entrance exams such as JEE, NEET and UGC NET. Before NTA, exams such as NEET were conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Untoward incidents during the security checks before candidates are allowed into the hall have been reported during different exams it conducts every year.
Meenal, who does not want to disclose her second name, is a 32-year-old gynaecologist. She took the exam more than five years ago. She says the Kerala incident might have been an outlier in terms of the number of people involved, but harassment is not uncommon while checking is on. “I clearly remember how one guard tried to pull my menstrual pad out of my underwear. I had to stop her saying that’s not a chit, I’m on my period. That memory won’t fade,” she says.
Anvika Ahuja, 23, who took the NEET exam in Delhi last year, says many of her peers, seniors and juniors have been harassed though nothing untoward happened to her. “I don’t think it has anything to do with checking for chits. At that moment, those people feel a certain power over the students. You inevitably end up complying with whatever they say since this is about your future, your next 50 years and your career. The stakes are too high.”
Rules for competitive exams clearly say no metal is allowed in the exam hall, including jewellery and metal scales. The idea behind a blanket ban on metal is to prevent any electronic devices that could aid cheating from entering the campus. Ahuja points out that the rules for the NEET exam do not mention bra hooks among the items banned. She makes a pertinent point: “If no metal is allowed, why ask us to bring pens? Those have metal nibs. Or what about jeans worn by the boys? These rules don’t make sense.”
Nikunj Agarwal, 32, an independent education consultant, who has worked with the Teach for India Foundation and the education ministry, says, “Schools are mirrors of society, and inevitably there is some power dynamics at play here.” In his opinion, cheating isn’t justification for removing people’s clothes. There are smarter ways to prevent cheating: algorithms can be implemented to prevent or detect cheating en masse. These have been used successfully in civil service exams in South Korea.
Madhumita, who goes by one name, an economics teacher with over 30 years of experience in a school in Udaipur, Rajasthan, has supervised many competitive exams over the years. She says such extreme measures to prevent cheating in exams is recent. She says the school now has little say when the observer or superintendent sent by the NTA presides over the exam. “Even if we see behaviour we do not approve of and mention it, we have no power to stop it,” she says.
Nitin Menaria, 40, a teacher in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, who has supervised many competitive exams says screening is stricter because techniques for cheating have become more sophisticated. Buttons are cut out as they could be cameras, pens need to be transparent, and metal jewellery is covered by the blanket ban on metal to keep out electronic devices. He has never caught a case of cheating or a paper leak on his watch. “These are things you read in the papers,” he says, justifying the harsh measures sometimes taken while frisking students. “The guards or the teachers in charge are just trying to do their job. Sometimes state or central government agencies impose certain rules that the checkers must comply with. In any case, supervisors and observers are in charge of the examination, and the school is just providing the space, with limited liability.”
But where do students go when such incidents occur? While the police is the obvious answer, many shy away from reporting because competitive exams are the window to their future. Agarwal says the rules should take into account the needs of students, parents and teachers, making the exam centre a less hostile space for students who are already stressed during exams. “The mental health of the aspirants and cultural practices should be kept in mind when rules are being formulated,” he says and then makes a point about underlying discrimination. “The question to ask is: Why are such incidents are not being reported from the affluent schools in Mumbai and Delhi, and why this is happening more to girls than to boys?”
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Payel M. Upreti is an independent journalist.