Gender, caste, personal determination, language — the recently published results of the civil services examination 2016, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), tell powerful stories of triumph.
One of the most coveted competitive examinations in the country, UPSC is the pathway to a better life for thousands of aspiring candidates. People spend years preparing for it, writing it, re-taking it in the hope of getting through. Life's savings are poured into it, adverse circumstances are embraced, sacrifices are made to get into the elite Indian Administrative Services (IAS). Only those who occupy the top ranks in the UPSC merit list are considered eligible for these plum positions.
Cracking the UPSC examinations is certainly a mark of personal success, but more often than not it is also a validation of true merit that trumps caste, class, gender, community, regionalism — every obstacle that is considered inimical to a fairer and equitable social order in India.
Like the previous few instances, the UPSC 2016 results uphold several victories this year too.
Women on top
For the third time in a row, a woman has topped the merit list of the examinations.
Nandini KR, an Indian Revenue Service (customs and Central excise department) cadre, undergoing training at the National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics in Faridabad at the moment, came ahead of all the 1,099 candidates who managed to clear the examinations this year.
Of the successful candidates only about 180 will be appointed in the IAS — 45 in the Indian Foreign Service, 150 in the Indian Police Service and the rest 834 in other central groups A and B services. It was in her fourth attempt that Nandini finally cracked the test — and how! — having failed to clear the preliminary rounds in her first and third takes, while getting through the IRS in her second chance.
The civil engineering graduate from MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bengaluru had always wanted to work in the "grassroots". She told The Times of India that she managed about 6 hours of preparation for the examinations while training at the academy. She believes prudent "time management", more than anything else, worked in her favour.
Last year another woman, 22-year-old Tina Dabi, had topped the examinations. The overall trend this year, in terms of women's performance, also appears promising: of the 253 women who qualified, 7 appear in the top 25 of the merit list. With more women entering the civil services, Indian bureaucracy is headed slowly, though surely, towards a course correction in terms of gender balance.
The narrative of overcoming the burden of caste is intertwined with some of the stories of excellence. Last year's topper Dabi was a Dalit, while this year's star Nandini belongs to the other backward classes (OBC).
For a country like India, where untouchability and caste violence still remain the norm in certain parts, it's problematic to make a general statement about caste equations based on the successes of these women. But their achievements will undoubtedly act as a beacon of hope for many who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Hard work, determination and perseverance can go a long way — and the testimonies of these successful civil service candidates should help put people's faith in such a belief.
Even more admirable than their achievement is the humility with which the women owned their origins. As Dabi said in an interview last year, "I don't think I can be an icon [for Dalit aspirants] yet because I am yet to do something concrete," even as she acknowledged that her success may be tremendous encouragement for many others who come from a social background similar to hers.
In a country with a long history of interested parties eager to impose Hindi as the national language, the success of candidates like Nandini and Gopalkrishna Ronanki (who came third) in UPSC 2016 also signal linguistic diversity.
While Nandini opted for Kannada literature as her optional subject, Ronanki chose to write the examination in his mother tongue, Telugu, in which he had been educated in school. Not only do these choices reflect a refreshing shift from the supremacy of English but also a refusal to bow down to the imposition of Hindi as the only common language of communication across the country.
Several other success stories stand out as well.
A Kashmiri Indian Forest Officer, Bilal Mohiuddin Bhat, from Handwara was placed tenth in the merit list, while Namrata Jain from Dantewada, a hub of Maoist activities in Chhattisgarh, occupied the 99th position. Last year, another Kashmiri man, Athar Aamir-ul-Shafi Khan, had come second, who later went on to marry topper Tina Dabi, creating quite a stir on the Internet.
While it may be difficult to read the decades-old message of 'Unity in Diversity' in the contemporary social and political fabric of India, the results of one of the country's premier examinations convey a sense of the scope and possibilities inherent in that phrase.
Also on HuffPost