An incomplete school building in Bihar has given the full picture about the state. Hanging on to its naked red brick walls, at great peril to life and limb, are a hoard of desperate men, young and old. They have a noble mission: to help the girls inside taking their matriculation exams, by providing them with crib sheets.

The photograph, which has cracked the Internet if not broken it, was taken at a school near Vaishali, the site of Bihar’s oldest republic, a place of great learning ruled by its city council. Men decided what was best for the city, and the will of the people prevailed. Modern day Vaishali works on those ancient principles. The men hanging by the wall of the building that was to become a school one day but never quite got there—much like Bihar’s own delayed tryst with development—were merely following their collective will.

Matriculation is of some importance in negotiating life: it fetches the girls with first division a stipend from the government, and improves their chances in the marriage market. What’s wrong in helping someone achieve these goals, anyway? What is the alternative if they don’t?

In the larger scheme of things, it was just one more way of negotiating the system, the scaling of the wall another small triumph, another occasion when citizens found a way around a state that stopped functioning decades ago.

It is an act of desperation that privileges and debases learning at the same time. Biharis of a certain generation asked even today about their education will specify whether chori took place the year they graduated.

There is a great semantic truth hidden in all this, a comment on more things than one. While the English media has termed the incident and hundreds like that across the state as cases of “cheating”, in Bihar the act of using “unfair means” in an examination has always been referred to as chori or stealing. It’s a way of getting the degree that the government has the right to grant but hasn’t created suitable conditions for everyone to have a fair shot at it.

There is no con here, no conspiracy. It is carried out in full public view, everyone knows and everyone understands if not approves. It is just one of the many ways of clearing an exam. In parts of Bihar where schools don’t run, where “para teachers” in charge of education are barely literate, where all the policy and meaningless statistics of enrollment percentages and pupil teacher ratios come undone—chori is the only way of passing the exam.

It is an act of desperation that privileges and debases learning at the same time. Biharis of a certain generation even today when asked about their education will specify whether chori took place the year they graduated. It is the extra, vital, defining bit of information missing from the certificates.

The photograph has travelled around the world. The BBC reproduced it, The New York Times reported it, and wire agencies took it across continents where it now serves as a commentary on India or Bharat, if that’s the more fashionable term. The incident forced Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to address a press conference where he said “jaghasayie ho rahi hai”, or the “the world is laughing at us”. For good measure, and to show what a long tradition this has been, Kumar also mentioned how acts of cheating took place even when he was taking his school leaving exams.

Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi advocated a switch to the open book system of examinations, showing a stunning ignorance about both cheating and the open book system. Five-term MP Pappu Yadav called for the resignation of P. K. Shahi, Bihar’s education minister, because the incident had sullied the state’s image. He should know something about sullied images as he has made the round of the major political parties, and been convicted of murder by a sessions court (later acquitted in a higher court). His last win came on a Rashtriya Janata Dal ticket, and he is accused in a further 25 criminal cases including murder and cheating.

Shahi’s response to the mass cheating episode was honest and pathetic. He said it was simply impossible to stop it unless parents of 14.26 lakh students appearing for the exams “cooperated”. He has a point. 

There is no way the government can police something that has such public endorsement. Not in an election year, too many votes are at stake.

Bihar’s education system nosedived after 1967 when Mahamaya Prasad Sinha became the chief minister of a ragtag coalition—socialists, Swatantra party elements and whoever else listened to Ram Manohar Lohia’s anti-Congress sentiment—called the Jan Kranti Dal. Sinha replaced Congress’ K. B. Sahay who had made some efforts to stop mass scale cheating in examinations and in the process unleashed massive student unrest in the state.

In the late Sixties, college examinations were the single biggest reason for violence involving students. On January 5, 1967, nine people were killed and 46 injured in police firing in Patna, most of them students. They were protesting the death of a student and a professor in Muzaffarpur in police firing. The killings in Patna sparked a massive protest against Sahay the next day. Mobs of students ransacked parts of the city, destroying public and private property. Ten were killed and more than 50 injured at the firing that took place in Patna’s iconic Gandhi Maidan. This, along with the famine of 1966, was the major reason for Sahay’s ouster.

Sinha, who succeeded him, called students his “jigar ke tukde”, a piece of his heart, and in public pronouncements asked the administration to ease up.

The student community was perpetually on the boil, always at odds and disappointed with the government, a phenomenon harnessed by Jayaprakash Narayan.

Those three words unleashed student lumpenism in an unprecedented way across the state as the administration faded into the background. That magic phrase facilitated everything from mass copying to travelling ticketless in trains and buses, tendencies that exist to this day. Though Sinha was the chief minister for barely a year, there was no going back on his “jigar ke tukde” policy any time soon.

The late Sixties and early Seventies were a period of great political turmoil in the state, as it dealt with the fallout of the Kamaraj Plan, the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, and the accession of Indira Gandhi. Between 1967 and the Emergency in 1975, Bihar had 11 governments, of which nine were Congress. In between there were three periods of president’s rule as well. The clash between students of various caste and political affiliations and the government of the day were the norm in this period. This was also the time that ruptured the teacher-student relationship in Bihar for good.

Administrative and disciplinary action, grades, and other aspects of academic life came to be seen through the spectacles of caste and politics. The student community was perpetually on the boil, always at odds and disappointed with the government, a phenomenon harnessed by Jayaprakash Narayan. JP’s call of “total revolution”, aimed at uprooting the Congress, brought the students together. However, his demand that students boycott classrooms and go to the villages to strengthen grassroots democracy met with limited success, with many students not agreeing to completely bunk college.

Unfortunately, the lawlessness and caste violence that has gripped college campuses in Bihar can be traced to the JP movement or the Bihar revolution. Defying the government, the police, was an act of resistance then, but later morphed into a culture that wiped out academic excellence from the state. The leaders that the movement birthed, with some notable exceptions, are also complicit in this state of affairs.

An era of lawlessness that started post the JP movement—it coincided with the shrinking credibility of the state government—lasted for nearly three decades. The period saw the total collapse of the education system, universities and colleges remain a pale shadow of their older days, and anyone who can goes out of the state for higher education.

Sessions were delayed, sometimes for more than two years, students and teachers went on frequent strikes, on occasion at the same time, and the certificates handed out by Bihar’s education boards were so discredited that universities outside the state refused to even look at them. Eventually, primary education crumbled, teacher appointment got corrupted, and Bihar became one of the saddest places in the country: a state with depressingly low literacy levels strewn with dilapidated and abandoned school buildings where every now and then a teacher would turn up to keep the paperwork in order. It is one of the fundamental truths about India that no one can argue with a form in triplicate.

Mass copying during exams was the norm; even massive deployment of police including central forces and flying squads of magistrates couldn’t do much. There were far too many schools and colleges, far too many students, and far too many people interested in helping them cheat.  

The decay was arrested when Nitish Kumar became chief minister in 2005. Bihar by then was in a state of almost permanent decline. Kumar’s government, in coalition with BJP, was the first in decades to assert its moral and constitutional authority. One of his major achievements has been to increase the enrollment of girls in schools, at near universal levels right now. Schemes like a cycle to a school going girls and ₹10,000 as stipend for those getting a first division in Class 10 exams have helped.

The quality of teaching in Bihar has been dismal for a long time. The Annual Status of Education Report 2014 (ASER) findings—based on the largest survey of its kind in the country—place the state in the bottom on most counts. The para teachers, more than 1.46 lakh of them appointed on just the production of certificates, form the backbone of the education system. Their qualifications and abilities are in doubt. Their appointment had created a wave of goodwill for the government, as most applicants expected to be regularised. That does not seem likely, and the para teachers are now Kumar’s biggest critics.

The thirst for educations runs deep, though. ASER finds that Bihar is a state with high private tuition, this in one of the poorest states in the country. It shows what little faith parents have in the abilities of government schools, and how desperate is their desire for a better life for their children.

The photograph could have come from anywhere in Bihar. It could have been boys inside those naked brick walls, consumed by the desire to get ahead in life, tackling an exam for which the school had ill-prepared them. There would be the same friendly mob outside, bypassing the police, scaling walls, trying to pass chits, the crumpled pieces of paper that contain the promise of a better tomorrow. The picture could have been snapped during any exam season of the last 40 years. It would ring true as an undated stamp of
a stubborn reality.