ITANAGAR: It’s around 3:45 in the afternoon on the last Tuesday of November. At the disused and dilapidated tennis courts of the Indira Gandhi Park here are a couple of young men, mufflers around their necks and sweaters on their backs, ready for the chill of night. Five of them have positioned themselves across a carpeted raised platform encased with a shamiana, and peer into their mobile phones save for one who is face down and fast asleep.

“More people will come in some time after they’ve finished their day’s errands,” says Tanong Tapak.

The 31-year-old is one of the many who had hoped to crack the prestigious examinations of the Arunachal Pradesh Public Service Commission (APPSC) and secure a government job. Like several others, he is now seeking that the examinations that were held earlier be nullified.

Around this time last year 22,599 candidates sat for the preliminary examinations of the Commission, for around 106 posts. Following the examination, it was alleged that large swaths of questions for one of the subjects had been blatantly copied from a previous examination by Pakistan’s civil services recruiting body.

The Commission had to form an inquiry and reconduct the examination in July this year.

The rescheduled exam brought with it another set of controversies.

Soon as it was held, sections of candidates claimed that many questions from several optional papers for the examination were not from the syllabus prescribed by the APPSC. More protests followed, and as the Commission proceeded with declaring the results of the preliminary exam, the angst of the protesting aspirants grew.

With the protests seemingly not affecting the Commission or the set schedule of the Main examination, 97 candidates who had opted for Commerce as their optional paper filed a suit against the APPSC in the end of August, at the Itanagar bench of the Gauhati High Court. A month later they were joined by another set of 221 aspirants claiming that there were several anomalies in the examination papers.

Petitions and counter-petitions ensued, and things came to a head on November 10 when the APPSC proceeded to conduct the examination as scheduled.

The night before the exam was to be held, a section of candidates began to gather at the tennis courts – the designated and government approved protest site in the capital.

A fresh round of protest was set to begin, on the evening of the same day that the court ordered the Commission to proceed with the examination but withhold the results until further notice.

On the morning of the examination next day, hundreds of young aspirants turned up outside the two examination centres in the state capital to voice their protest against the conducting of the exam, while a section of candidates turned up on time and sat for the exam under heavy security cover.

What followed were scenes of unprecedented nature, with police taking to firing water cannons and lathi charging the protesting candidates, many of whom were seen crying as they pleaded with the police to allow them to sit peacefully.

Videos and photos of the protests and police action soon went viral. More and more people came out in sympathy with the protestors.

Several of the candidates had sat for the first paper on the first day, such as Kanya (name changed on request) who has been turning up at the protest site despite her office schedule. Witnessing the protests and the police excesses meted out to her fellow aspirants as she sat inside the examination hall, however, moved her enough to quit and sit out the rest of the examination.

She said her decision was motivated by a combination of emotions, complaints about the Commission, and the need to bring a change in the system.

“Abhi nahi toh kab (If not now, then when),” she said.

As the protests and examinations continued in parallel, on November 14 the High Court directed Rajiv Gandhi University Vice-Chancellor Saket Kushwaha to constitute a five-member expert committee to look into the alleged anomalies, and to submit a report within 45 days.

The next day, 28 year old Tater Gao began a hunger strike that lasted a week. His ‘indefinite’ hunger strike ended following an assurance from Chief Minister Pema Khandu that the state government would pursue the matter in the next session of the legislative assembly.

A week since the hunger strike ended, the protests have dwindled but are being sustained steadily. The number of protestors had already fallen somewhat, as some went off to chance a glimpse of Bollywood superstar Salman Khan as he cycled around the Himalayan hills in Mechukha with the chief minister and Kiren Rijiju, the union minister of state for home affairs.

The glare of the news media lens has moved away too.

Tanong Tapak informed The Citizen that Tuesday’s sit-in is likely to be the last day of the protest until the submission of the inquiry report and the subsequent hearing on January 7 next year.

But those who have sustained the agitation remain optimistic and joyful, even.

By around 4.30 as the sun turned orange and began its descent into the horizon, a handful of other protestors begin showing up. One of them is playing with a basketball, attempting to turn tricks with little success, while others discuss possible theories as to why the state government hasn’t come out clearly with a statement on the issue.

“If the government admits a mistake was made and conducts a renewed examination it will mean the Commission’s authority to conduct all examinations for government jobs will be called into question,” one of them says.

A chirpy Tumyir Badak who came to join her friends as afternoon became evening, gleefully recounts how she and 104 other protestors were detained by the police.

“We had lunch there and were told by the police to not show up the next day. We all agreed and landed up there anyway,” she said.

Sitting on a plastic chair and dressed in grey hoodie, a pair of chinos and slippers, the lanky Gao doesn’t necessarily seem like anyone’s first choice to sit for a hunger strike.

“It was a collective decision, including by myself, that I sit for the hunger strike alone,” he says, adding that “if everyone was lying down here, then who would do the running around that’s needed?”

He smiles coyly and doesn’t appear to say much, but his fellow protestors assure me that he can leave his audience floored when the need arises.

“As Gandhi said,” one of his compatriots cuts in, “strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”