With Elections Around the Corner, Vyapam Scam Bounces Back to the Centre in MP

A special court judge's on September 26 directed the police to file an FIR against senior Congress leaders Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Vyapam whistleblower Prashant Pandey on charges of forgery.

A judge’s extraordinary flip-flop has made Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh’s alleged direct complicity in the Vyapam scam a potentially explosive election issue in the poll-bound state. Vyapam, India’s biggest job-cum-recruitment swindle, appeared to have gradually faded from the collective memory of the Madhya Pradesh people, thanks largely to the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) lackadaisical investigation into it in the last three years. But, Bhopal special CBI court judge Suresh Singh’s two contradictory orders in a week have brought the scam bang into the centre of the electioneering in Madhya Pradesh.

On September 26, the judge directed police to register an FIR against senior Congress leaders Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Vyapam whistleblower Prashant Pandey on charges of forgery.

The directive came on a BJP leader’s complaint that the Congress leaders and the whistleblower made false allegations against the chief minister regarding the Vyapam investigation “with the intention to influence evidence and take political mileage”.

The complainant Santosh Sharma is president of the BJP’s district legal cell.

Curiously enough, the same judge had on September 22 permitted Digvijay Singh to record his statement regarding the same complaint which, five days later, he found dubious enough to order a police investigation into it along with filing an FIR against the petitioner and two others.

On September 17, Digvijay Singh had filed a private complaint alleging that investigative agencies had not acted against the chief minister in the Vyapam scam.

Before the two developments, the multi-billion rip-off was not such a big poll issue in Madhya Pradesh despite its scale and multi-layered dimensions. People’s gradual indifference to the developments in the Vyapam probe could be attributable to mainly two reasons. One, the CBI has lost interest in pursuing the scam-related cases after demonstrating initial vigour. Two, following the premier probe agency’s clean chit to the chief minister in the scam a year ago, the Vyapam was no longer viewed explosive enough to alter the existing political equations in the state.

The CBI had absolved the chief minister of the charges of tampering electronic evidence in one of the Vyapam-related cases in its submission before the Supreme Court on October 31, 2017.

After the clean chit to Chouhan, the BJP had become more aggressive while the Congress was on the defensive. The Congress’s allegations that the CBI was trying to shield the chief minister carried little conviction because it was none other than the Congress that had so vociferously demanded the federal agency’s probe into the scam.

The opposition party was adamant on a CBI probe presumably because its leaders thought that the federal agency under the Prime Minister would show no mercy to the MP chief minister. Their belief stemmed from the perception that Narendra Modi and Chouhan had had less-than-cordial relations. Chouhan was then considered marginalised BJP patriarch L.K. Advani’s protégé and, as such, was considered suspicious in Modi’s eyes. Wily Chouhan, however, proved the Congress leaders terribly wrong with his uncanny ability to win over the PM. His efforts to please the Modi appeared to have borne fruits. The CBI, to which Chouhan was extremely reluctant to hand over the Vyapam probe initially, went overboard to bail him out. The agency also slowed down investigation in other cases to the extent that the scam has become a fading memory.

Shivraj Chouhan with Narendra Modi

The Congress believed that Narendra Modi and Chouhan had had less-than-cordial relations, but it would not prove to be so. Credit: PTI

Moreover, overexposure of the scam’s multiple aspects in the media in first two years since it surfaced had caused a fatigue to set in among people. As people grew more and more insured to it, media too grew indifferent to the scam-related developments.

That was the reason why the Congress had been, of late, failing to get expected traction to its agitations on the issue.

If BJP leader Sharma had not filed the petition leading to the FIR against the Congress leaders, the Vyapam scam might have been a ‘sub-judice” matter. For, the court had given next date for hearing on Digvijay Singh’s petition December 20, by which time assembly election will be over. But on the local BJP legal cell head’s plea, the court has decided to hear the matter on November 13, when electioneering will be at a peak in MP.

Now the scam has bounced back to the centre stage and the Congress has pretty good reason to thank the judge.

Special judge Suresh Singh ordered Bhopal police to immediately send an FIR copy against the Congress leaders to the court. He said that the court could not investigate a matter which was the job of the police and hence an FIR should be registered under section 465,468,471,474 and 120-B of the IPC.

The judge directed the police to complete the investigations and submit the final report on November 13.

Counsel for the petitioner, Shreyraj Saxena, said that the investigation into Vyapam scam was first carried out under the supervision of MP high court, which formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to monitor the probe. After it was handed over to the CBI, the apex court was monitoring the investigation, he pointed out.

“Yet, the Congress leaders have been accusing STF, SIT and CBI of biased investigation and are challenging the validity of their findings,” the petitioner’s counsel said.

The lawyer was referring to Digvijay Singh’s submission in the same court on September 22. Singh claimed that the police conspired to tamper with electronic evidence to save the chief minister in the scam.

Senior lawyers from Congress, Kapil Sibal and Vivek Tankha, had appeared in the court while Digvijay Singh’s statement was being recorded.

The complaint has been filed under Section 200 of the CrPC. Nearly 27,000 pages of documents as evidence have been submitted along with it.

Kapil Sibal accused Chouhan of being at the root of corruption in the Vyapam case.

Sibal’s charge is serious and requires recapitulation of the scam from the beginning.

Digvijay Singh stated that Chouhand had tampered with electronic evidence. Credit: Facebook

The Vyapam’s history

On July 13, 2013, Indore police arrested from various hotels, a dozen youth who were to sit as proxies for candidates appearing in the pre-medical test (PMT). The arrests opened a can of worms. The interrogation led to arrests of top executives of the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB) or Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal (Vyapam). The executives, when grilled, started singing as canary. It transpired that all the tests for admission in medical colleges and recruitment for state government departments were rigged. A seemingly interminable drive for arrests followed. The number went up to over 2,000 in a year and as many remained absconding. The arrested included students, parents, bureaucrats, education mafia, politicians, middlemen, scorers apart from employees of the Vyapam.

While the investigation was on and arrests were being made at frantic speed, nobody had the foggiest of idea what the Indore police had done soon after the lid on the scam blew off.

Digvijay’s lawyer Kapil Sibal says the Indore police had seized the hard disk of accused Nitin Mohindra on July 17, 2013, four days after the first arrests were made and asked cyber expert Prashant Pandey to download the details in the disk.

Mahindra was the PEB’s chief system analyst. He kept meticulous records of the candidates of various tests conducted by the board with those who recommended the candidates. The record was stored in excel sheets. The Indore police had drafted Pandey to crack the computer hardware and retrieve the record. Pandey did his job as asked. But he allegedly went a step further – he copied the mirror image of the excel sheets too, presumably without the knowledge of the Indore police.

Top Indore police officials including then IG Vipin Maheshwari and additional SP crime Dilip Soni had a role to play in the deletion of names, according to the petition filed by Digvijay Singh.

His counsel Ajay Gupta says that the hard disk had been tampered with on instructions of the chief minister to protect himself in the case.

Pandey, the cyber expert-turned-whistleblower, fell out with the police. Later, Bhopal police arrested him. After getting bail, Pandey fled to Delhi and got a stay on further arrests from the Delhi high court.

While staying in Delhi, Indore-based Pandey reportedly came into contact with Digvijay Singh. He handed over the mirror image of the excel sheet that he had retrieved from Mahindra’s computer. The mirror image allegedly had Chouhan’s name entered as “CM” 48 times as recommender against candidates of contact teacher-grade II test which the PEB had conducted. The Indore police had allegedly tempered with the original excel sheet to replace the “CM” entries with that of senior BJP leader Uma Bharti and, at some places, ‘Raj Bhawan”.

Sibal claims the hash value generated with each action had been recorded which proved that tampering was done. He also claimed that the names of Uma Bharti and other ministers with serial numbers too were in the hard disk.

For over 20 months, the “evidence” with Pandey remained a secret. Once Uma Bharti’s name had figured in the scam during investigation in January, 2014, she flew into a rage and sought a CBI probe into the scam. The then director general of police, Nandan Dubey, had to go to her house to persuade the angry sadhvi. With an assurance of a clean chit, she fell silent on the matter.

Digvijay Singh, along with other top Congress leaders and eminent lawyers such as Kapil Sibal, K.T.S. Tulsi and Vivek Tankha, landed in Bhopal on February 16, 2015. In a press conference that day, they claimed to have electronic evidence that established the chief minister’s complicity in the Vyapam scam. Digvijay Singh admitted that Pandey had supplied the evidence to him. The same day, Digvijay Singh handed over the pen drive containing the ‘original excel sheet’ to the then chairman of the special investigation team (SIT) justice Chandresh Bhushan. The SIT had been formed on the Madhya Pradesh high court’s directive to supervise investigation in the scam by a special task force (STF) of the state police.

The SIT head sent the hard disk seized from Mohindra to the forensic laboratory in Gandhinagar. The report said it was not tampered with.

Based on the report, in April 2015, the SIT told the MP high court’s then chief justice A.M. Khanwilkar that the documents used by Singh to target Chouhan were forged. The chief justice accepted the plea.

Digvijay Singh got another opportunity to produce the alleged evidence against the chief minister when the Supreme Court ordered the CBI to probe into the Vyapam scam in July 2015. The order was after a nationwide uproar over the mysterious deaths of around 40 persons related to the scam, directly or indirectly. The Congress too had been mounting pressure for a CBI probe.

Supreme Court ordered the CBI to probe into the Vyapam scam in July 2015. Credit: PTI

SC took upon itself to monitor the investigation

The CBI informed the Supreme Court on December 15, 2016 that the hard disk and pen drive which were sent to Central Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), Hyderabad, for scrutiny suggested no tampering.

Sibal contends that the CBI had told the Supreme Court in November 2016 that the FSL denied tampering in the evidence, whereas the lab had sent the report to the agency on December 23, 2016. Sibal claims he had sent the same electronic evidence to the Truth Lab in Bangalore, an independent forensics lab, which found that the data was tampered with.

On May 3, 2017, the CBI reiterated before the court that “the allegations of tampering of the seized hard disk were false and that some of these persons making such allegations were found to be indulging in creation of false digital records in the pen drive and on that basis, making false complaints”. It said it would be taking steps against the culprits in accordance with the law.

On October 31, 2017, the ongoing CBI probe zeroed in on Digvijay Singh and whistleblower Pandey, while giving a clean chit to Chouhan. It sought court permission to prosecute both Digvijay Singh and Pandey.

The CBI contention prompted three MP ministers – Dr Narottam Mishra, Bhupendra Singh and Vishwas Sarang – to demand a criminal case against Digvijaya Singh, Pandey and another whistleblower, Dr Anand Rai, for making false allegations against the chief minister. They called on CBI DIG Tarun Gaba, who was heading the probe, and urged him to book the “culprits” under Sections 120B, 182, 192, 195, 465 and 468 for criminal conspiracy, forgery, and fabrication of false evidence.

After that, the top Congress leadership suspended the legal fight against the chief minister, though its workers kept organising agitations over the issue.

Barely two months ahead of the assembly election, the Congress has an opportunity to corner the chief minister.

On being asked if the timing of filing the complaint had something to do with upcoming elections, Rajya Sabha member and AICC legal cell head Vivek Tankha said a large number of documents had to be studied to prepare for the case and hence the delay.

Reacting on the court’s order for FIR against him, Jyotiraditya Scindia tweeted that ” truth can only be harassed but cannot be defeated. We will not be intimated or bowed down and would fight this battle for the youth of our state till our last breaths.”

MPCC chief Kamal Nath said the party would take appropriate steps after studying the matter.

Now all eyes on the police in the wake of the court order. Will the police arrest the Congress leaders?

Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based journalist.