Bengal SSC Recruitment Scam: How a 'Focused' Judge Exposed the Racket

After a high court division bench upheld the single bench’s “focused fact-finding exercise”, accused persons seem to have little recourse left.

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This is the second article in a three-part series on the Bengal school recruitment scam. Also read: Part I

Kolkata: The discovery of more than 1,000 illegal recruitments – as discussed in the first part of this series – was a culmination of what started with Sandeep Prasad’s writ petition (WPA 12266 of 2021), alleging irregularities in group D recruitment, filed before Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay’s bench on August 30, 2021.

In September, seven petitioners, including Sabina Yeasmin, filed a petition (WPA/12270/2021) before the same judge, citing three irregularities in group C (clerical) recruitment, and Setab Uddin approached the high court (WPA/ 13700/ 2021) alleging irregularities in the recruitment of assistant teachers for classes IX and X.

There is a prelude to this. In August 2016, the SSC notified exams for the selection of candidates in the posts of group D, group C and assistant teachers in government-sponsored and aided schools. The exams were conducted in 2017 and the panel for group D and group C were published on November 6, 2017 and December 20, 2017, respectively. The panel for teachers was published in 2018.

However, in the list for all categories, candidates could only see only their own score and ranking by supplying their roll numbers and date of birth to the website form. This led to some of the candidates approaching the Calcutta high court (WP No. 3377 (W) of 2019) asking for the list to be published with all details – everyone’s score and ranking – for the sake of transparency. The high court ordered on March 28, 2019, for the uploading of the complete list within a week, but the SSC did not comply, resulting in a contempt petition. Finally, the lists with all details were published only on June 20, 2019.

On September 2, the SSC issued a notification, saying the panels for group D and group C had expired on May 4 and 18, 2019, respectively. Later, another notification informed that the panel for teaching staff expired in December 2019. 

The publication of the complete list in June 2019 opened a Pandora’s box. By the end of the year, candidates had started spotting people who scored fewer marks but bagged appointments. Some of them used the Right to Information (RTI) Act to gather more information regarding those appointments. Finally, cases started pouring in from August 2021.

Going by the rule, the WBSEB issued appointment letters based on recommendation letters from the SSC. However, no recommendation can be made after the expiry of a panel. Sandip Prasad’s case, starting with examples of two recommendations made on December 16, 2019 and September 18, 2020, brought to the fore 25 such recommendations by the November 16, 2021 hearing in the court.

Former West Bengal Education Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Partha Chatterjee arrives to appear before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for questioning in connection with the alleged irregularities in the SSC (School Service Commission) recruitments, in Kolkata, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Photo: PTI

On November 22, it appeared that the SSC said it did not issue those recommendations, while the WBSEB said they had in their possession all “original recommendations issued by the Commission (SSC) with District Inspector of Schools’ memo mentioned upon its recommendations,” and that the entire data was received “in hard copies and in soft copy,” of those 25 candidates in question as well as every other recommendation made by the SSC between December 2019 and February 2020.

What’s more, the lawyers of the petitioners submitted another 542 examples of recommendation made after the expiry of the panel, taking the total number of allegedly illegal appointments to 567.

“Corruption writ large in the whole process of this public employment which is required to be dealt with in a firm hand,” Justice Gangopadhyay wrote. Identifying “the  invisible hand who prepared and sent the recommendation letters to the Board (WBSEB)’s office and which are the invisible hands who issued the recommendation letters” were important, he thought, and ordered a CBI probe.

The SSC and the education department appealed against it and the division bench comprising Justices Harish Tandon and Rabindranath Samanta stayed the CBI inquiry for three weeks, but did not stay the other proceedings of the single bench regarding the matter. On December 6, the division bench quashed the order for CBI inquiry and constituted a three-member special team, to be supervised by retired Calcutta high court judge Ranjit Kumar Bag, to enquire into the allegations and submit its report within two months. Depending on the report, further order will be passed, the bench said. The judges were of the opinion that a CBI inquiry ought to be the last resort and the lawyers of the original petitioners did not object to a retired-judge monitored committee.

Meanwhile, cases started piling up before Justice Gangopadhyay’s bench. In September, Abdul Gani Ansari and others approached the high court (WPA/ 13701/2021) alleging irregularities in teacher recruitment. This was initially heard by Justice Saugata Bhattacharya but later went to the court of Justice Gangopadhyay. In October, Nasrin Khatun (WPZ 17273 of 2021) approached justice Gangupadhyay’s bench and in November 2021, Lakshmi Tunga (WPA/18585/2021) approached the same. Setab Uddin’s case (WPA/13700/2021), after being initially heard by Justice Bhattacharya’s bench, went to Justice Gangopadhyay’s bench in October.

While the group-D inquiry went to the Bag committee, startling facts regarding group C appointments started coming up before Justice Gangopadhyay’s court. By November 30, as many as 350 irregularities had been found, and he ordered a CBI inquiry into this too, on February 15.

A judicial tussle 

In the meanwhile, the mercury was rising over the Bag committee. On February 9, Justice Gangopadhyay ordered the Bag committee, which had asked for four months’ extension from the division bench, to file an interim report before the single bench by February 14. But perhaps because they got an order from the division bench on February 14 granting two months’ extension, nobody on behalf of the committee turned up before the single bench. On February 15, Justice Gangopadhyay held that noncompliance of his order meant “for last more than two months the Committee has not taken any meaningful steps in the inquiry.” He dissolved the committee from that very day and re-ordered a CBI inquiry.

Both these CBI investigation orders on February 15 were stayed by the division bench of Justices Tandon and Samanta, mostly on the ground that the Bag committee was still conducting its inquiry.

But facts regarding teachers’ recruitment started coming to the fore before Justice Gangopadhyay’s bench by then, which had been hearing Nasrin Khatun’s case (WPA/17273/ 2021) since November and started hearing Setab Uddin’s case from the beginning of February. In the first case, noticing people who did not even feature in the waitlist had bagged teaching jobs, he ordered a CBI probe on February 28 to find out “who is the mastermind in this dirty game”.

Three days later, on March 3, while hearing Setab Uddin’s case, Justice Gangopadhyay recorded 19 illegal appointments in his order. Responding to SSC’s lawyer Kishor Dutta’s arguments, Justice Gangopadhyay said, “This court intimated Mr. Dutta specifically that what is coming to the fore in this matter is nothing but a scam and corruption and no technical point as was raised by him would be accepted by this court because this Writ Court wants to go to the root of the matter to unearth the scam as a court of equity.”

He ordered a CBI probe into this as well.

Both these orders on teacher recruitment were again granted interim stays by the division bench of Justices Tandon and Samanta.

However, the division bench’s modification of his March 25 order asking S.P. Sinha, a former advisor to the SSC whom the judge suspects to be one of the kingpins, to submit an affidavit of assets, visibly irked Justice Gangopadhyay, as his March 30 order was full of criticism of the division bench’s order, including calling it “a highest degree of double standard expressed by the appeal court”.

“I also do not understand who would be benefited by tieing up the hands of the Single Judge when it has been made clear in the order dated 25.03.2022 that this court has found that there are serious illegalities in giving recommendations to ineligible candidates and the tip of the corruption-iceberg in issuing illegal recommendations is seen, which is getting gradually bigger,” he wrote in the order.

Justice Gangopadhyay did not stop there. He also wrote to the chief justices of the Supreme Court and the Calcutta high court, drawing their attention to how his orders were being stayed. He ordered more CBI inquiries – in Lakshmi Tunga’s case (WPA/18585/2021) on March 31. The petitioner had cited 98 irregularities. On April 1, he asked the members of the supervisory committee to the SSC to appear before the CBI for questioning. Its members, including S.P. Sinha, did not turn up, informing the CBI that they had made an appeal and it was likely to be heard on April 4.

But when the division bench of Justices Tandon and Samanta sat on April 4, they not only recused themselves from hearing this case but also released all 11 cases related to SSC recruitment, citing personal reasons. After three other benches declined, the division bench of Justices Talukdar and Mukherjee agreed to hear all the appeals. During the hearing on April 5, the division bench, however, only asked the CBI not to make any arrest at this point. Subsequently, based on Justice Gangopadhyay’s orders dated April 1 and April 5, the CBI registered an FIR and questioned the committee members.

Increasing evidence 

Trouble kept increasing for the SSC and the education department, as more cases started coming up for hearing in Justice Gangopadhyay’s bench – those filed by Babita Sarkar (WPA/ 5406/2022) and Anindita Bera (WPA/5538/2022). Sarkar challenged the appointment of minister Paresh Adhikary’s daughter Ankita, while Bera produced examples of 27 illegal appointments.

Another order came following – his seventh CBI order. In Abdul Gani Ansari’s case, on April 12, he asked the agency to immediately question former education minister Partha Chatterjee. The minister, though, got interim relief from the division bench. But the pro-TMC lawyers perhaps thought they had seen enough of the judge, adopting a resolution on that very day to boycott the court of justice Gangopadhyay. The lawyers said they were not protesting the CBI orders but protesting the way the single bench criticised the previous division bench that stayed its orders.

April 13 stood witness to scuffles at the court premises as TMC-aligned lawyers tried to prevent other lawyers from entering Justice Gangopadhyay’s court. But the judge was unperturbed and was quoted by the Bengali media as telling a senior pro-TMC lawyer that he would not budge even if a gun was held to his head.

Meanwhile, the Bag committee, which had submitted its report on group D recruitment on April 13, was asked by the division bench to also file a report on group C, which was submitted on May 13. The submission of the Bag committee report turned the table on the SSC and the state government entirely.

Responding to the SSC and state government’s charge that the single bench was predisposed against them, the division bench wrote in its May 18 order: “It is really not the predisposition of the Court but a predisposition of facts.”

The single bench was “on a focussed fact finding exercise” and “stands justified in its endeavour to be in possession of all relevant facts,” the division bench said.

“The dice of facts as it stands today is so overwhelmingly loaded against the appellants in the scam involving public jobs concerning the SSC, that with facts, facts everywhere and not a drop in favour of SSC, a mirage of misperception has resulted where the Court and not the Facts appear to be the Devil,” reads the May 18 order.

The facts that the court and the committee unearthed will be the discussed in the third part of this series.