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A case of the longest examination

ENTRY INTO KASHMIR ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICES IS VERY STRESSFUL FOR ASPIRANTS. THE PROCESS HAS LASTED FOR MORE THAN TWO YEARS PLAGUED WITH ERRORS, CONFUSION, COURT CASES, AND DEATH OF DREAMS

“Some of my friends are on the verge of suicide,” reveals a woman aspiring to join the Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS), and preparing to sit for the exams scheduled for Thursday, February 15.

She is summing up what many of J&K’s aspirants feel because of the stress they have been going through since 2016, not on account of the exam, but on account of lapses by the Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission (JKPSC).

In 2016, close to 48,000 forms for the exam were filled out, and around 37,000 aspirants appeared for the preliminary round. The exams are conducted for 277 posts, while the preliminary round short-lists students on a 25:1 ratio, that is, 25 aspirants for one post.

Students preparing for the examination allege that the exam process, that should have ideally taken a year, has now been going on for two-and-a-half years, and that their precious time is being wasted because of administrative carelessness.

2016 to 2018: CONFUSION, CONFUSION, CONFUSION

In June 2016, the JKPSC notified students that preliminary exams for the KAS would be conducted in September. They were, however, deferred and finally took place in March 2017.

When the results were announced, some students, suspecting a correction error, approached the Public Service Commission (PSC). They filed an RTI plea seeking a copy of the answer key. When the key was finally shown to a few students, they took pictures and circulated it among their friends.

On analysing the answer key, officials and students discovered that there were gross anomalies – wrong answers were shown against 24 questions!

After persistent campaigns by the students against the errors, the PSC made public a revised list of prelims’ results in which 429 aspirants were ousted from a total of 6,925 students selected for the mains. The JKPSC said the candidates did not meet the cut-off of 277 marks, revised from the earlier 270 after applying the updated answer key.

Suddenly, those who were first declared as having failed had passed the exam and students who had begun preparing for the mains (after having cleared the prelims) discovered they had failed. The 429 aggrieved students moved court for justice.

On November 11, 2017, the JKPSC notified that the main examination was scheduled for February 15, 2018.

Advocate Arif Sikander Mir, representing the aggrieved candidates, said aspirants being cleared the first time and dropped later was against Supreme Court guidelines.

The J&K High Court directed the JKPSC to allow the 429 candidates to sit for the main examination, saying “it (JKPSC) cannot tamper with the career of thousands of aspirants who burn the midnight oil”.

Early this January, weeks before the scheduled exam, the JKPSC filed a Letters Patent Appeal (LPA) seeking to reverse the single-judge verdict. The PSC wanted that the 429 students not be allowed to write the exam because, being bound by the 25:1 ratio, including them would lead to the limit being exceeded.

On February 7, the court upheld the single judge’s verdict and said “the 429 students shall be entitled and allowed to sit and participate in the main examination”.

A day later, the commission notified that the 429 aspirants should submit their forms along with all documents within two days.

On February 9, Kashmir observed a shut-down after separatists called for a strike on the death anniversary of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. February 10 was a bank holiday; the same day the JKPSC extended the date of submitting forms to February 12. This meant a two-day extension but February 11 happened to be a Sunday. Hence, the 429 students had just one day to submit their forms.

This left the students aghast. “We thought the examination would be deferred again. How can they continue to hold the exams when the matter is sub judice?” asked one of the students.

Speaking on Monday, the last day of the Budget session, CPM leader and Kulgam MLA Muhammad Yousuf Tarigami sought personal intervention of chief minister Mehboob Mufti for deferment of the KAS 2016 main exam by a couple of weeks.

TO DEFER OR NOT TO DEFER 

Shah Faesal, the first Kashmiri to top the Indian Civil Services exam in 2009, said: “There is a group of 429 students who have been given just one week to prepare for such an important exam. This isn’t fair. The exams should be postponed by at least a fortnight or a month.”

He added that Kashmir is currently facing harsh weather conditions. “It is extremely cold. The PSC has said they will make heating arrangements but I know how these things work. It won’t be enough. The cold will no doubt affect the performance of students,” he pointed out.

Nevertheless, Faesal said, the JKPSC has been doing a good job in an attempt to remain transparent.

Latief-u-Zaman Deva, chairman of the JKPSC, told Newslaundry: “Nothing in this matter is unfair.” He said if the court takes cognisance of the LPA filed by the PSC, then the fate of the 429 students will be “subject to the court’s verdict”.

This also means that if the court decides in favour of the JKPSC, the 429 students’ papers could get disqualified.

Some of the aspirants who spoke to Newslaundry pointed out that the PSC should keep in mind that after a certain age, one cannot apply for the KAS exam.

“You don’t always get through these exams in your first attempt. Last time also they took close to three years to complete one round, now this time again. Why should I be denied the opportunity of applying for these exams multiple times because of carelessness from the side of officials?” one student asked.

The results of the 2014 KAS examination were announced late last year. The delay was caused due to court litigations and official irregularities.

A student who spoke to Newslaundry cited the example of a friend she met at a coaching centre. “My friend got married two years ago. She has spent the last five years writing the first and second attempt of these exams. By now, she could have passed in the third attempt if not the first two. Now, her family is sick and tired with the endless delays. This month, her husband has given her an ultimatum. He told her that if she doesn’t pass the exam this time, then she cannot attempt again,” she said.

The student also highlighted the fact that for Kashmiri women, attempting such exams against all odds is not easy. “There is a lot at stake for us. We are fighting all kinds of pressures to make a future for ourselves. If things go this way, many of us might just have to give up on our dreams,” she said.

Another aspirant questioned the media. “Why is the national media silent? Do you only want to talk about militancy and death when it comes to Kashmir? What about the systematic murder of our aspirations?” he asked.

On Wednesday, after a meeting, JKPSC officials announced the deferment of the first two papers of the KAS main exam, scheduled for February 15 and 17. At the meeting, chairman Deva said the decision was taken in the backdrop of reports of students stranded on the Jammu-Srinagar highway due to bad weather.

The rest of the schedule remains unchanged.