How the Supreme Court Became Our Last Hope for Justice in the Vyapam Scam

Lead counsel representing the whistleblowers explains why the case had to be taken out of the hands of the Madhya Pradesh government

Police cane charge Youth Congress activists during a protest at the residence of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, over Vyapam Scam in Bhopal on Thursday. PTI Photo

Police cane charge Youth Congress activists during a protest at the residence of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, over Vyapam Scam in Bhopal on Thursday. PTI Photo

Madhya Pradesh continues to be rattled by the revelations of Vyapam, a non-ending saga of the state’s connivance with corruption on a scale hitherto unthinkable. Vyapam has come to be known as a multi-billion rupee homegrown illicit business engineered with state support and patronage. It is the largest scam engulfing the highest and the mightiest of the state. The word stands for Hindi shorthand of the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board but it is now an acronym for the practice of procuring illegal admissions in government and private medical and dental colleges and jobs in government services on a magnitude never seen before. Vyapam also involved selection of candidates for various departments in the state of Madhya Pradesh including in Police, Forest, Excise, Weight & Measures and Revenue, patwaris, teachers, the Dairy Federation etc. during the period 2007-2013 in an estimated 1,40,000 posts.

Over the past 30 days, I have come to believe there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. On June 3, I was screaming that something was going wrong but nobody was listening. Hindustan Times carried my article, ‘Vyapam Scam: A theatre of the absurd in Madhya Pradesh’. By that time, nearly 40 deaths related to or connected with Vyapam had been reported. In Madhya Pradesh, the mood was melancholic, with people helplessly watching the last embers of hope extinguishing. Time was running out for the final challenge before the last date fixed for closure of investigations by the Supreme Court. We were gearing up to take on the Vyapam Goliath. The only partners in this last lap of our crusade were the four whistleblowers namely, Anand Rai, Ashish Chaturvedi, Prashant Pandey and Ajay Dubey. We were also ably assisted by a young team of selfless lawyers spear headed by Vaibhav Srivastava.

Supreme Court steps in

For us, the last hope was the Supreme Court of India.  July 15th was the deadline fixed for filing charge-sheets in the Vyapam cases for the STF (Special Task Force). So we collated all relevant facts by the end of June 2015 on behalf of the whistleblowers and Congress leader Digvijaya Singh. The Apex Court reopened on July 1. Amazingly, the reopening of the court coincided with the sad and unfortunate deaths of more young people including journalist Akshay Singh. In the first week of July, Vyapam occupied national attention and laid bare the state’s involvement in this macabre tragedy.

Vyapam was no more a distant story of misery of 7.5 crore people of Madhya Pradesh. It was now perceived as a public shame, a sordid state-sponsored scam next to which Bollywood pot-boilders paled into insignificance. It had mystery, the involvement of high functionaries, financial gains running into billions, and a line of deaths in most suspicious circumstances leaving the nation benumbed. Young people were dying of sudden heart attacks, liver failure, road accidents, suicides, hanging and multifarious other ways for which nobody seemed to have an answer.

The state of Madhya Pradesh through its mouthpiece, the STF, found nothing unusual in these deaths. The matter reached the High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Jabalpur; but here we found the proceedings bereft of empathetic contemplation. In these circumstances, petitions were filed before the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. The petitions were mentioned for urgent listing before the Chief Justice of India on July 7 and here it evoked instant response. The apex court ordered listed all Petitions relating to Vyapam scam and deaths on July 9, 2015. A significant statement by Chief Justice H. L. Dattu at the time of accepting the mentioning request, was “Let there be no more deaths, we will address the issue.” The storyline of a death a day changed with these soothing words of compassion and empathy. Providentially, since July 7, there has been no report of the death of anyone associated with Vyapam.

The pressure on the state government to order a fair probe was enormous. Only two days earlier, the Chief Minister of the state and the Home Minister of India had outrightly refused to countenance any demand to hand over Vyapam investigation to the CBI. They found no wrong or unfairness in the investigation of the STF. But within 48 hours there was a change of heart; what brought this change was the Supreme Court’s direction to hear the matter on July 9. Within hours of the Supreme Court’s statement on July 7, the Chief Minister decided to move the High Court at Jabalpur for transfer of the investigation to the CBI, forgetting that the matter was directed to be listed by the apex court  for hearing within 48 hours. Naturally, the decision of the state government to approach the High Court received flak from all quarters.

Finally, hope of justice

‘July the 9th’ will remain etched in the memory of the 7.5 crore people of Madhya Pradesh as a day of hope resurrected. This day not only heralded justice for the whistleblowers and counsels representing them, but it was and will always be remembered as the day of the victory of the people of of the state who were starving for justice to be done, and done visibly. “Justice may be delayed but not denied” emerged as a founding truth. There was immense relief and satisfaction in the country when the Supreme Court directed a CBI enquiry in Vyapam-related cases. It also sent shockwaves amongst the rank and file of the ruling clique of the state, which so far had enjoyed the comfort of control and immunity from any investigation.

The STF’s investigation was known more for its cover-up rather than any pro-active effort to garner truth. On that day, the apex court also issued notice on a petition filed by Sanjay Shukla and some public-spirited lawyers from Gwalior who were not willing to countenance a Governor linked to the scam. The Union government, which in the past had on the flimsiest of pretexts, dismissed or forced the resignation of a long line of Governors saw no sin in continuing with a Governor in Madhya Pradesh against whom an FIR was registered by STF on February 24, 2015. The least I can say is that our founding fathers led by  Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution, may have never anticipated a Governor continuing as head of the state with a criminal FIR under Sections 120(b), 420, 467, 468 and provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act against him.

Madhya Pradesh at this stage is at its lowest ebb. It has never seen a moral decline of this magnitude. The state’s growth story, superficially created through advertisements and clever marketing stands exposed. A collective rot has set in. It may take years to repair the damage but the first step for any such repair is to hold those who symbolise or have contributed to this rot to judicial account.

Vivek K. Tankha is a Senior Advocate, a Former Additional Solicitor General of India and a former Advocate General of Madhya Pradesh

Featured image by Meena Kadri, CC 2.0