This must be the lowest moment in the 55-year-old existence of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). The leak of a public examination question paper is a nightmare scenario and the CBSE is now up against it.

As a student in a CBSE school in Chennai more than three decades ago, I used to wonder how the institution managed to keep its exams fair considering that the question papers would always come from Delhi and reach the school just in time for the examination. Managing the logistics must not have been easy especially in those pre-internet-mobile-telephony days — apart from schools in India, CBSE’s reach extended abroad even in those days, mainly to the Gulf countries. As of today, as many as 19,316 schools in India and 211 schools in 25 other countries follow the CBSE curriculum. That the logistics is not any easier now is proven by the events of the last two days — in fact, technology, internet and social media have only made the job that much more difficult. It’s easier to circulate a leaked paper through WhatsApp than to photocopy it or to copy by hand.

No excuse

That said, it is difficult to understand how an organisation with such long experience in this business could falter on such a crucial matter, and falter so badly. Remember, it is not just the 10th standard mathematics and 12th standard economics exams that are now under a shadow; there were rumours of similar leaks of the accountancy and chemistry papers as well.

The CBSE denied the news, passing it off as rumour. But in light of what has now happened, who knows? Indeed, who knows whether this was the first time ever that there has been a question paper leak in the CBSE public exams? What if there were instances earlier that did not come to light? These are relevant doubts that may be in the minds of every parent and student. And that is precisely why the CBSE has to act — and be seen to be acting — rather than sitting back and letting the police take over.

What can the CBSE do? Lots. Nobody can know the question paper distribution logistics and its strengths and weaknesses better than the CBSE, not even the police. Such knowledge should be put to work in identifying the source of the leak. There obviously was an internal source or accomplice in the entire sordid episode. That source has to be identified by the CBSE using its own internal resources. Considering that the leak seems to have happened in Delhi, locating the source should not be difficult. The irony is that while the question papers reached remote corners of the country safely, the leak happened in the CBSE’s backyard!

The Delhi police claim a breakthrough with the arrest of a coaching centre owner in Rajinder Nagar. However, this is questionable, with students of the coaching centre asserting that the owner is honest and not into circulating leaked question papers. Even assuming that he’s indeed culpable, the fact is that he’s not the source of the leak. He’s only the beneficiary.

The real criminal

The real criminal is the one who leaked the paper to the coaching centre owner and other students. This individual cannot but be someone within the CBSE or its partners in the logistics chain, which seems to include banks. Identifying this source should not be difficult for the CBSE. You don’t need the police to do this.

But is the CBSE on the job? Maybe it is, but to an outsider, it does not seem so. At this point in time, the agency appears to be focussing its energies on the re-examination , which is important and tricky given that a whole host of college entrance exams are scheduled over the next two months. The re-examination dates cannot clash with those entrance exams and the resources — centres, invigilators,etc — have to be marshalled too.

Yet, even as it focuses on the next step, the agency should not lose sight of the equally important task of fixing accountability. At stake is its hoary reputation as a premier educational body. The CBSE cannot afford to lose the confidence of its students who have trusted their careers with the body. Sadly, that is precisely what is happening now with students protesting in public and questioning the CBSE’s ability to conduct free and fair examinations.

Clearly, the CBSE has to quickly contain the damage and the students’ anger and the best way of doing that is to find the source of the leak as fast as it can. Who abetted the crime from within is the most important question that needs to be answered. That will hopefully restore confidence in the system and apply salve on the wounds of lakhs of students who now find themselves paying for no crime of theirs.

As for the politicians, it would be nice if they stopped converting this into another political tamasha. We’ve already seen some silly tweets politicising an issue that is more important than politics itself. This concerns the lives of students who are the future of this country. Nobody, absolutely nobody, should be allowed to trivialise this.

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