NEW DELHI // Following a number of recent suspicious deaths, India’s supreme court has ordered a federal investigation into a multimillion-rupee scam involving college admissions and government recruitments in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
The court on Thursday directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe the corruption scandal as well as the unexplained deaths of dozens of witnesses and suspects linked to the scam.
The scandal has rocked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Madhya Pradesh as well as prime minister Narendra Modi’s federal government. Opposition politicians have called for the resignation of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister.
But despite the dents to his government’s image, Mr Chouhan has refused to resign.
He welcomed the supreme court’s announcement of the CBI investigation.
“I appeal to the CBI to start the probe at the earliest and bring out the truth,” Mr Chouhan said.
The scam has come to be known by the Hindi acronym Vyapam, after the Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal, a state government body that holds entrance exams for state-run educational institutions as well as government jobs in Madhya Pradesh.
Although irregularities with the Vyapam exams have been reported for more than a decade, the scam formally surfaced in 2013, when Madhya Pradesh police arrested 18 people who, for a fee, had impersonated candidates in a medical college examination.
Subsequent arrests revealed that candidates had bribed politicians and state officials to procure high rankings in these exams.
As the police investigation progressed, more than 2,000 people were arrested – including parents and students, a racketeer who organised the scam, and a former state education minister, Laxmikant Sharma.
A high ranking in the entrance exam to undergraduate medical colleges cost roughly 1.5 million rupees (Dh86,900), according to media reports.
At the postgraduate level, the rate ballooned to 5 million rupees.
But the scandal has gained new momentum after a spate of deaths of people related to the police investigation over the past two months.
Politicians from the opposition Congress party have connected 49 deaths to the scam. Anand Rai, a doctor and activist in Madhya Pradesh who has emerged as the main whistle-blower from within the medical establishment, said on Tuesday that 10 deaths occurred in “suspicious circumstances” and that the remainder may be “a matter of coincidence”.
Among the most high-profile of these deaths is that of Akshay Singh, a television journalist who was found dead on July 4. He was covering the scam at the time of his death.
The next day, a dean of a Madhya Pradesh medical college was discovered dead in his hotel room in New Delhi.
Autopsy reports in most of these deaths have been inconclusive or have yet to be released.
But the police’s decision to reopen an old case – that of Namrata Damor, who was found dead near a railway line in Madhya Pradesh in 2012 – has revealed that, after an initial post-mortem indicated “homicidal … violent asphyxia” as the cause of death, a subsequent report changed the conclusion to suicide without due basis in fact.
Singh had been looking into Damor’s death when he died earlier this week.
Mr Chouhan’s government has been accused of conspiracy to cover up the scam and protect top state politicians, including Madhya Pradesh’s federally appointed governor, Ram Naresh Yadav.
Under pressure, the Madhya Pradesh government on Tuesday petitioned the state’s high court to allow the CBI to take over the investigation from the police.
On Wednesday, however, the high court deferred hearing the plea, contending that the supreme court was due to hear similar petitions on Thursday from Mr Rai and others.
The move drew sharp criticism from the supreme court.
“Instead of taking a decision, the Madhya Pradesh high court washed its hands of it and put the ball in our court,” the three-judge bench, led by India’s chief justice H L Dattu, said.
The bench also instructed the state and federal governments to respond to a plea to remove Mr Yadav, the state’s governor. According to the Indian constitution, governors enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution until the federal government removes them from their post.
The Congress used the supreme court order to pile pressure on Mr Chouhan. “The message from the supreme court is clear,” said Tom Vadakkan, a spokesman. “Shivraj Chouhan must step down for a proper investigation.”
However, Mr Rai is concerned that political forces might influence the CBI investigigation.
“It will only help if the supreme court monitored the probe, not if the CBI investigates this on its own,” he said.
“The government at both the [federal level] and the state is ruled by the BJP.”