Kolkata: On Friday evening, when West Bengal education minister Bratya Basu came to address a press meet regarding the publication of results of the Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET) 2022, which he claimed was a watertight process, he was carrying a written response to a particular question that he knew he would be asked.
Barely a few of hours before, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay of the Calcutta high court – who has been hearing a batch of petitions regarding the school recruitment scam since September 2021 – had ordered cancellation of 1,911 jobs in group D positions in state-run and -aided schools after finding manipulation in their Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheets.
“Whether there was corruption (in the recruitment process) is a sub judice matter. We cannot have anything to say on this matter. Court orders have to be obeyed. The School Service Commission has to act carefully,” Basu read out from the paper he was carrying the moment journalists asked for his response on the court order.
Basu had little to say, as an extraordinary level of irregularities are being unearthed in the school recruitment scam that happened during 2016-18. It shook the Mamata Banerjee party and the government a few months after the Trinamool Congress (TMC) returned to power with a resounding victory in May 2021. Since then, it has gone on to be exposed to a greater extent – a chain of events The Wire chronicled in a three-part series (Part I, Part II, Part III) – and looks all set to be etched in the public memory as one of the biggest scams this state has stood witness to.
“Every single person who bagged their jobs by illegal means will have to lose it,” CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP and advocate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, who is the main lawyer fighting for the aggrieved job aspirants, said after the court’s Friday order. “The investigation will surely lead to bigger fishes.”
In addition, the termination of another 803 jobs of teachers in classes IX and X is in process. These 803 were part of the 952 candidates who got appointments. Comparison of the OMR sheets from the NYSA hard disc and the SSC documents revealed their marks were manipulated to a great extent – those who actually got 0-5 had their marks shown as above 50 in the SSC server. Notifications cancelling their job recommendations will be issued soon, the SSC has said.
Similar steps are expected for group C employees and assistant teachers for classes XI and XII.
The Friday order cancelling the 1,911 group D jobs came after the CBI unearthed manipulation in the OMR sheets of several thousand candidates.
Investigating at the court’s order, the CBI had recovered three hard discs and the mother disc for marks in OMR tabulated sheets of all candidates of class IX-X teaching staff, class XI-XII teaching staff and Group C and Group D employees from Ghaziabad in the national capital region last September. They were recovered from the possession of an employee of NYSA Communications, which had scanned the OMR sheets.
Subsequently, the central agency informed the court that they had found manipulation in the OMR sheets of 3,481 group C candidates, 2,823 group D candidates, 952 class IX-X assistant teacher candidates and 907 class XI-XII assistant teacher candidates. This included empanelled and waitlisted candidates and those who were neither empanelled nor waitlisted.
During the September 28 hearing, after going through the CBI’s status report, Justice Gangopadhyay said, “I have found to my utter surprise a large number of blank OMR sheets and some OMR sheets with (only) six or seven filled up circles.” He noted that the CBI suspected these people with blank OMR sheets “in all probability have been recommended by the School Service Commission and have got appointments”.
During another hearing in December, the court noted that the OMR sheets were recorded only in the hard discs recovered from Ghaziabad, whereas the SSC’s server had no record of those OMR sheets. Original OMR sheets have also been destroyed by the SSC.
“It has been found that the marks obtained by the candidates against the OMR sheets in Ghaziabad hard disc while, for example, are 3, 4, 5 etc. (and also some blank OMR sheets) but the marks obtained by the same candidates in the Salt Lake hard disc are, say, have been increased to 53, 54 and 55 etc. This is the result of organised crime of School Service Commission sellers,” Justice Gangopadhyay had written in a December 14 order dealing with irregularities in assistant teacher recruitment.
On the court’s order, the SSC compared these marks with those on the SSC’s server and found that they did not tally. On February 9, the SCC’s lawyer told the court that the marks found from the NYSA hard discs are correct and the marks recorded in the commission’s server are wrong.
“The marks in the OMR sheets from NYSA hard disc correspond to the answer string which does not match with the server data of the Commission,” he said.
The SCC also informed the court that out of the 2,823 group D candidates whose OMR sheets were found manipulated, as many as 1,911 had received the SSC’s ‘recommendation’, based on which the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education issued appointment letters.
Justice Gangopadhyay had in a September 2022 order called upon appointed persons involved in illegal means to voluntarily resign to avoid stricter punishment.
“Those persons know it very well that they have got service as a result of illegality and corruption… This court will expect that these persons will resign by 9th November, 2022 and if they do resign their matter will come to an end… This is an opportunity which is being given to those candidates who have got appointments illegally and those who will think rightly and resign will be treated as persons who are regretful for their acts but the persons who would not resign will be treated by this court very strictly,” Justice Gangopadhyay had written.
However, there was no news of any such voluntary resignation.
On Friday, he ordered all 1,911 persons to also return everything that they received as salary while on the job. Subsequently, the WBSSC issued a fresh notification, cancelling the recommendations.
The court has ordered fresh counselling for recruitment in the vacant positions. While those in the waitlist will be called for such counselling, the waitlisted candidates whose OMR sheets have been found to be manipulated are not eligible.
While the school recruitment scam started to embarrass the TMC from the end of 2021, it became a massive issue after the arrest of Partha Chatterjee, one of the party’s top leaders who served as the education minister when these irregularities took place, in July 2022. Over Rs 50 crore in cash was recovered from several residences of Chatterjee’s close female associate Arpita Mukherjee and the two have been in jail since then.
The TMC promptly removed Chatterjee from the cabinet and all party posts and suspended him from primary membership of the party, in a bid to distance the party from the scam. However, more TMC leaders’ involvement came to the fore. Manik Bhattacharya, a former chairman of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education and a sitting TMC MLA, was arrested last October and continues to be in jail. Subiresh Bhattacharya, former chairman of the SSC and vice-chancellor of North Bengal University, is also in jail and known to have been close to the ruling party.
The court has also asked the Enforcement Directorate to unearth the money trail and gave it the liberty to interrogate anyone the agency suspected.
Edited by Jahnavi Sen.