Vyapam: How a Munnabhai-style Exam Scam Turned Into a Macabre Thriller

With 24, and perhaps 46, dead and counting, Vyapam is one of the most complex, multi-layered scandals affecting public life in India. It is also the least understood. The Wire brings you up to speed.

Bhopal: The key facts are so disturbing as to be without parallel: a scam that covered higher education admissions and government recruitments in one of India’s largest states for several years, with cash worth hundreds of crores of rupees changing hands; 24 officially confirmed ‘unnatural deaths’ of accused persons and suspects including senior officials and the state Governor’s son. Unofficial estimates of deaths vary from 44 to 156, depending on who is making the claim; for every dead suspect, a 100 are either in custody (over 1800 arrests) or on the run (some 600); nearly 200 suspects have filed petitions requesting protection as they fear for their life; bigwigs whose names have been dragged into the spotlight so far include the state Governor, Chief Minister, a national spokesperson of the ruling BJP, and two of the senior most RSS leaders.

No wonder that the Professional Examination Board (PEB) or Vyapam, short for Vyavasik Pariksha Mandal, scam that came to light in July 2013 – one of the most blatant and extensive rigging exercises of its kind ever uncovered in India – is fast acquiring the shades of a macabre crime thriller.

The ‘unnatural’ deaths

In its status report to the Madhya Pradesh High Court on June 26, the Special Task Force (STF) probing the scam stated that 23 accused have died ‘unnatural deaths’. Two days later, one more accused, Narendra Singh Tomar, died mysteriously at Indore Central jail, making it 24 suspicious deaths from a pool of 2,400. In response, the High Court has stated that the decision about investigating these deaths will be taken in consultation with the Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by a former High Court judge, formed by the court to monitor the probe.

It’s useful to note that 24 unnatural deaths is the official figure; the unofficial figure goes up to 44 and could be even higher. Leader of opposition Satyadeo Katare of the Congress claims that as many as 156 persons connected with the scam have died so far. “These 156 dead include accused and suspects, their family members, whistleblowers and witnesses,” he says. However, he has not been able to substantiate his claims or furnish a list of those he claims are dead.

A majority of those who died are from the Chambal region straddling Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Most of the dead were in the age group of 25-30. They were either students, who had fraudulently secured admission to medical colleges after paying hefty sums to touts of the PEB’s bosses, or job aspirants who benefited from the manipulation of recruitment tests.

For quite some time, only four unnatural deaths relating to the scam had been reported in the media. The most high-profile of these was that of Shailesh Yadav, son of Madhya Pradesh Governor Ram Naresh Yadav. The Governor was also named as an accused in a recruitment rigging matter in February this year but the High Court gave him relief a month later, saying that he enjoys constitutional immunity as long as he is in office.

File photo of MP Governor Ram Naresh Yadav and Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan. PTI photo.

File photo of MP Governor Ram Naresh Yadav and Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan. PTI photo.

Home minister Babulal Gaur has rejected the demand for an independent probe into the unexplained deaths linked to the scam. “It is for the High Court, which is monitoring the probe, to take a call in this matter. I cannot do anything about the deaths which, in my view were natural,” he told The Wire.

Meanwhile, Digvijaya Singh, AICC general secretary and a former chief minister of the state, says that the SIT has still to act on the information provided to it by him about Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s alleged involvement in the scam.“The STF is untrustworthy as it works under the direct control of the state government and the SIT cannot be relied upon because its chief admits to having no control over the probe,” says Digvijaya Singh, who moved the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Unearthing the scam

The chronology of deaths in the case is significant. They started occurring two months ago, when STF sleuths speeded up their investigation to meet the Supreme Court deadline of June 15 for filing charge sheets in all the cases related to the scam. The sleuths discovered that a large number of the accused during interrogations pleaded innocence, putting the blame on ‘others’ who were found to be dead. This was read as an obvious ploy to mislead the probe.

The STF reported this trick to the SIT chairman, Justice (retired) Chandresh Bhushan, who is supervising the probe on the order of the MP High Court. Justice Bhushan, in turn, asked the STF to compile a list of the dead. In its previous status report to the High Court on May 27, 2015, the STF had reported 32 deaths but, after further investigation, the number was brought down to 23.

The two whistleblowers who blew the lid off the scam – Dr Anand Rai of Indore and Ashish Chaturvedi of Gwalior – say that several suspicious deaths relating to the scam have gone unreported in the media. For instance, the death of another accused in Gwalior on June 28 – Dr Rajendra Arya, accused of helping two students clear the pre-medical tests (PMTs) conducted by the PEB in 2007 and 2008 – is not being considered unnatural as he had been suffering a kidney ailment for over a year. Arya had been out on bail for year.

Among those who died in unexplained circumstances were three others: In January 2012, the body of Indore medical college student Namrata Damor, 23, was recovered on the railway tracks in Ujjain. Despite the post mortem report confirming she had been murdered, no inquiry was initiated into her death. Ujjain police dismissed the case as suicide. Damor had passed the pre-medical test in 2009, allegedly with help of a racketeer who worked for scam kingpin Jagdish Sagar.

On July 4, 2014, Jabalpur Medical College Dean DK Sakalle, 58, allegedly committed suicide at his official residence. He was engaged in the scrutiny of bogus candidates admitted to the college between 2008 and 2013. Home Minister Babulal Gaur had assured the state assembly that Sakalle’s alleged self-immolation would be investigated but his statement was not followed up by any action.

File photo of Narendra Singh Tomar, an accused in the high-profile MPPEB (Vyapam) scam, has died under mysterious circumstances in an Indore jail. PTI Photo

File photo of Narendra Singh Tomar, an accused in the high-profile MPPEB (Vyapam) scam, has died under mysterious circumstances in an Indore jail. PTI Photo

On March 25 this year, the Governor’s son, Shailesh (50), was found dead at his father’s residence in Mall Avenue area of Lucknow. Shailesh was accused of taking money to help 10 candidates from Bhind district clear the examination for the post of contractual teachers conducted by the board. The exchange of money allegedly took place in Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s official Bhopal residence.

Then again, on April 28, pharmacist Vijay Singh Patel, 35, was found dead in a hotel owned by a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA in Kanker (Chhattisgarh). Vijay was an accused in three cases relating to the scam and was likely to be booked in three more cases. He went missing a day before a scheduled hearing at a Bhopal court on April 17. Ten days later, his body surfaced.

However, the death of Tomar, the latest accused to die, is not going uncontested. A government veterinary surgeon, Tomar was facing charges of having arranged proxies to write the PMT for two registered candidates in 2009. Tomar’s younger brother Vikram, a government school teacher at Makdone Village in Ujjain District, has alleged that his brother was murdered inside Indore prison, where he had been lodged since February 2015, to cover up the crimes committed by others. Saying that the jail authorities informed him at 2.30 am that his brother was in a critical condition when he had died at 12.30 am, Vikram is asking for a CBI probe into his brother’s death.

Munnabhai, without the humour

The Vyapam scam surfaced in July 2013 when eight impersonators were arrested as they attempted to take a pre-medical test as proxies for registered candidates in Indore. These arrests were made possible by a tip-off from whistleblower Anand Rai. During the interrogations of the arrested individuals, the name of Dr Jagdish Sagar as the supposed kingpin of the racket surfaced.

Madhya Pradesh police knew about an admission racket for years as several medical colleges in the state had prepared lists of suspected ‘Munnabhais’ – students who had someone fill in for them by proxy, as depicted in the Bollywood film Munnabhai MBBS. But the police had nothing definite to go by. Sagar’s arrest in July, however, opened a can of worms, leading to the arrest of PEB examination controller Pankaj Trivedi in September 2013.

Exposing the enormity of the racket, Pankaj revealed that it was not confined to manipulation of the PMT exam alone; it also involved rigging the dozen-odd recruitment exams conducted by the board. This was done mostly by manipulating the computer system, allegedly the handiwork of chief system analyst Nitin Mahindra and his subordinates.

The PEB officials allegedly colluded with middlemen, racketeers, politicians and bureaucrats to subvert the functioning of the exam and recruitment system in three ways:

  • Impersonation: Brilliant students would write the exam for aspirants, with the examination board officers replacing their photographs with that of the original candidate after the exam.  The student would end up passing an exam which he or she never appeared for with flying colours, and the impersonators would be paid a hefty amount as fee.
  • Engine and bogie system: a person – the ‘engine’ — would be strategically placed between two ‘bogies’ or aspiring candidates so that both could copy from his or her answer sheet. The examiners would be usually bribed to fix the seating arrangements.
  • OMR (Optical Mark Recognition) sheets:  Candidates would be asked to leave their answer sheets blank for which they would be randomly given high percentages after the exam. Board officials would then file an RTI demanding to view those exact answer sheets. They would then fill in the answers in the OMR booklet according to the marks the candidates had already been given. This would be done so that if someone were to ever check those answer sheets, there would not be any loopholes that could give them away.

Another consummate fraud, this one mounted by college owners, was to get bright ‘scorers’ to appear for the tests. On clearing the test they would withdraw on the last date so that the promoters could sell the now vacant seats for a hefty price.

Exams as gold mine

The Professional Examination Board or Vyapam is the acronym of a self-financed autonomous board under the directorate of technical education of the MP government. Set up in 1970 to conduct entrance tests for the MBBS course, its ambit has grown over the years.

The Bhopal building of Vyapam. Credit: vyapam.nic.in

The Bhopal building of Vyapam. Credit: vyapam.nic.in

The proliferation of private medical and engineering colleges from 2004 onwards paved the way for the PEB to start conducting examinations for 50 percent of their seats. With the commercialisation of professional education in 2002, insiders obligingly played the role of Trojans, to breach the system from within for a price.

In 2007, the BJP government mandated the PEB to conduct all recruitment tests for an entire spectrum of government jobs – from constables to nurses, teachers, police sub-inspectors and all non-gazetted jobs. With this, the scope for graft also multiplied. Such was the deluge of candidates seeking favours in various exams that the scamsters maintained excel sheets to be on the ball.

Recruitment to 40 departments is controlled by the board.  Opportunities to manipulate the system for filling government departments with bogus candidates are immense. The recruitment of contract teachers and police personnel proved particularly more lucrative because the number of aspirants in those two areas was quite high. No wonder that most of the accused, including bureaucrats arrested for recruitment fraud, were largely linked to these two tests.

Earlier, these recruitments took place through the respective departments. Corrupt officials in the departments would strike deals with racketeers to get chosen candidates cleared. The clandestine operations would run smoothly, barring occasional rumblings from the candidates who thought they had been cheated of a job. But such complaints were too few and far between to warrant serious media attention.

The clockwork nature of the admission-recruitment racket emboldened the nexus to tweak the system more audaciously. For instance, when the ‘recruitment mafia’ realised that though they could help candidates pass the theory test for police recruitments but could not help them clear the physical test, they got fitness norms diluted. In some cases they even managed to get the fitness test abolished. The bureaucracy was only too willing to help the mafia – for the right price.

An all-star cast

Vyapam scam accused Sudhir Sharma

Vyapam scam accused Sudhir Sharma

With the racket growing into almost an industry, a top power broker in Madhya Pradesh, Sudhir Sharma, decided to take control of the PEB’s corrupt empire. Sharma’s rise during the 10 years of the BJP regime had been stupendous. He was a teacher in an RSS-run Saraswati Shishu Mandir. When his close friend, Laxmikant Sharma became mining minister, Sudhir quit his job and joined the mining business. Within years, he emerged as a top notch mining baron.

Leveraging his friendship with Laxmikant Sharma, Sudhir got an associate of his, Pankaj Trivedi appointed as examination controller in the PEB. Trivedi was a lecturer in an Indore college, so his elevation in the PEB raised many eyebrows in bureaucratic circles. One of Pankaj’s brothers, Piyush Trivedi, is the vice chancellor of the state’s only technical university. Their cousin, Sudhanshu Trivedi, is BJP’s national spokesperson, and has been accused of being one of the behind-the-scenes players in the scam.

As has been reported by the media, Sudhir Sharma was also close to RSS leaders such as late KS Sudarshan and Suresh Soni. Both the RSS stalwarts are said to have recommended candidates in job tests, although this has since been denied by the STF.

According to investigators, Pankaj Trivedi turned out to be more adept at manipulating the system than Sudhir had ever imagined. He allegedly managed to suborn all the key functionaries in the board, notably chief system analyst Nitin Mahindra, assistant programmer C K Mishra, Ajay Sen and Santosh Gupta.

For years, Pankaj Trivedi and company got away with cheating thousands of deserving medical students and job aspirants, primarily because they were secure in the belief that Laxmikant Sharma, who was also technical education minister and former key aide to chief minister Chouhan, was protecting them. Although the PEB is supposed to be a self-financed, autonomous body with a senior IAS officer as chairman, it was Trivedi and company who called the shots.

By the time, the scam was unearthed in July 2013, the mafia had managed to admit over 1,000 undeserving students in the state’s medical colleges. All those admissions have since been revoked. In addition, several hundred had entered government jobs after paying a hefty cut to middlemen, who in turn shared the spoils with PEB members. Their fate now hangs in the balance.

Given the ever widening ramifications of the PEB scam, the CM announced the formation of a special task force (STF) for investigation. The Congress alleged that the STF was formed in a hurry to preclude a CBI probe as the CM was well aware of the involvement of BJP leaders, including himself.

However, the STF’s prompt actions managed to convince many about its earnestness and, as a result, the Congress failed to make the scam a potent election plank in the assembly polls held in November 2013. The BJP romped home with a bigger majority than before.

Once the election was over, the embarrassment for the new government began as Pankaj Trivedi started naming influential individuals who had benefited at the expense of thousands of deserving candidates for jobs and admissions. Pankaj named his mentors, and technical education minister Laxmikant Sharma and mining baron Sudhir Sharma as key recommenders for the fake appointments and admissions racket. Laxmikant Sharma, who had lost the 2013 elections and Sudhir Sharma, who went into hiding, were eventually arrested. They continue to be in jail.

With the arrest of these two key figures, the scam unravelled at breakneck speed. By December 2013, the STF had identified 129 accused. These included Dhanraj Yadav, officer on special duty (OSD) to the governor, IAS officer KK Jain, deputy commissioner RK Mishra, DIG RK Shivhare, IG Sonali Mishra’s brother Bharat Mishra, two state police officers from Gwalior, OSD to Laxmikant Sharma, OP Shukla, and OSD to the chief minister Prem Prasad. Some of them had paid money to touts for securing admission of their wards. Others had acted as touts themselves. Later, over a dozen more IAS, IPS and state service officers were nabbed. All of them are behind bars.

The following months saw the STF arresting suspects dozen-a-day. Medicos would be picked up from their homes and brought to the STF office for interrogation. Some would be accompanied by their parents. Poignant stories appeared in the media as to how some parents had obtained loans after pawning assets to pay the middlemen. Photographs of boys and girls being herded into police stations evoked pity towards the accused and anger against the system which brought them to this sorry pass. Although the arrests did not cease, their pace definitely slackened after public sentiment turned hostile against the government.

“It is a pity that poor students suffer the ignominy of arrests while the real culprits are still out of the law’s reach,” says leader of opposition Satyadeo Katare.

Political ramifications

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan admitted during the inaugural session of the assembly after the formation of the new government in January last year that the STF had detected 1000 bogus appointments made possible through the nexus of the education mafia and PEB officials.

He, however, refused to accede to the Congress’s demand for a CBI probe. An infuriated Congress hit the streets in protest.  For months, the scam rocked the state. But the stir could not be sustained.

The near-decimation of the Congress in the Lok Sabha election in May last year had a profound bearing on the STF probe.  A confident BJP, which won 27 out of 29 Lok Sabha seats in the state, maintained that the STF was doing a fine job.

The Congress was too demoralised to revive the stir against the government. In November 2014, the MP High Court rejected Digvijaya Singh’s plea for a CBI probe, with the Chief Justice AM Khanwilkar ordering the formation of the SIT to monitor the probe instead.

Although for a while it seemed that the Congress had given up the fight, on February 16 this year, senior Congress leaders Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh, PCC chief Arun Yadav and leader of opposition Katare addressed a joint press conference on the issue in Bhopal. They accused Chouhan of having deleted the original spreadsheet bearing his name in 40 places as a recommender for candidates. They alleged that the CM inserted union minister Uma Bharti and ‘Raj Bhawan’ wherever his own name figured in the Excel sheet.

The spreadsheet was allegedly procured from the hard disk of the then PEB system analyst, Nitin Mahindra, who is now in jail.  Mahindra would methodically maintain the names of all those who had recommended admissions and appointments for various tests through the PEB in spreadsheets. The High Court, however, rejected the information submitted by Digvijaya Singh as forged and gave a clean chit to the CM.

In fact, when Mahindra mentioned ‘Raj Bhawan’, he meant some one close to the Governor – either his OSD Dhanraj Yadav or son Shailesh Yadav. Where Ram Naresh Yadav himself had recommended a candidate, the Excel sheet maintained by the system analyst would mention him as ‘Governor’.

Digvijaya Singh maintains that the proof he gave is incontrovertible and that he had procured the excel sheet from whistleblower Prashant Pandey, who had once collaborated with the STF to crack PEB system analyst Nitin Mahindra’s computer data. Pandey photocopied the data and passed it on to the Congress leader.

When the police learnt about this, Pandey was arrested. He, however, fled to New Delhi after being released on bail in August 2014. Since then he is living under the protection of Delhi police on the order of the Delhi High Court.

Ball now in Supreme Court

The Madhya Pradesh government has dismissed reports of more than 40 unnatural deaths as “totally baseless”, but nationwide outrage over the scam-related deaths has revived hopes for a Supreme Court intervention in the matter.

On Tuesday, Digvijaya Singh moved the Supreme Court for a CBI probe into the scam. Senior Supreme Court lawyer Vivek Tankha too has announced that he will take up the case on behalf of the dead. “This is a most horrifying scandal where so many suspects have died mysteriously. I will try to ensure they get justice,” says Tankha, who had earlier unsuccessfully pleaded Digvijaya Singh’s case for a CBI probe in the MP high court and the Supreme Court.

In a scandal that is inextricably tied with the political fortunes of the ruling party, it remains to be seen how far the case goes or how long it takes to bring it to its conclusion. Considering the nature of the revelations so far, however, it is clear that this genie is not going back into the bottle meekly.

Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based journalist with more than 35 years’ experience in the field