In the annals of Indian scandals, few will match the spectacular nature of Madhya Pradesh’s Vyapam, where anyone associated with it – from some of the accused to those assisting the law – have been dropping off like flies. The latest to drop dead unexpectedly are a TV reporter for India Today, a dean of a medical college in Jabalpur, and a trainee policewoman. The number of unexpected or unexplained deaths linked to Vyapam is now said to exceed 40.
Even if some of these deaths are finally explained as being due to natural causes (some surely will be so), the Shivraj Singh Chouhan ministry cannot remain untainted by it. The only way to escape this taint is by allowing outside agencies to investigate and deliver the final verdict on it. The state government should, therefore, accept that a Supreme Court-monitored SIT, or a court-supervised CBI inquiry, will be the only way to prove its non-complicity in these deaths, not to speak of the scam itself.
However, several conjectures and hypotheses surrounding the Vyapam whodunit (Vyapam is acronym for Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pareeksha Mandal, the board that oversees entrance tests to engineering and medical colleges) are questionable.
Conjecture One is that the deaths are intended to shield one or two powerful people, including ministers and bureaucrats. This is entirely within the realm of possibility, but not probability. The sheer scale of the scam does not suggest that a central mind orchestrated it, or is now bumping off those who are a threat to it.
The core of the Vyapam scandal is that candidates (or their benefactors or guardians) could pay money to gain medical and engineering seats. This was facilitated by letting candidates copy at examination halls, by allowing impersonators to write the exam, or even by finding ways to award high marks even on blank answer sheets. This means hundreds of thousands of people were involved, from ministers to college invigilators to parents and students, not to speak of the middlemen who enabled it all. In one part of the scam, even computer analysts were involved; they apparently used their systems to allot roll numbers to fake students to specific exam centres. One whistleblower in the scam thinks only 5 percent of the truth has emerged so far.
The sheer number of arrests in the scam – over 2,000, according to one estimate – shows that all kinds of people at various levels were involved in it.
This means the scam did not necessarily need a central mind to plot the murders of those who may name the guilty in the course of investigations. Reason: many, many people were guilty, and many more than just a few powerful people had a motive to silence those who could compromise them. Is it a stretch to believe that they would not have done their bit to keep their names out? The sheer geographical spread of the deaths – covering many districts in Madhya Pradesh and even Uttar Pradesh, suggests that local murders could well have added to the ones planned by the key powerful people.
This is truly scary. It means many of the deaths may have been plotted opportunistically by those worried their names may come out in the probe, which is now being monitored by a SIT reporting to the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
Conjecture 2 is that this scam involves only one state, and one government. No doubt, the BJP government bears an inordinate share of the blame, for the bulk of the scam appears to have happened on its watch (from 2004 to now), but the chances are Vyapam was not a one-off involving only one state.
Remember the mass copying scandal in Bihar earlier this year, where parents and relatives were seen hanging out of windows helping their wards copy in an exam? What is the probability that this happened without official connivance? Nil. Copying on such a massive scale cannot happen without many people aiding it, since this happened in many places in Bihar.
If we only bother to look, there may be many Vyapams in many other states.
Conjecture 3 is that so many people cannot have died purely by accident and natural causes. They must have been murdered. This, too, makes obvious sense, but it is one thing to add up the numbers of all people dying in the scam, and quite another to actually link specific deaths as equivalent to murder. A quick analysis of the people who died (my analysis was done on this Wikipedia entry) shows that all the people who died in the early months of the scam – in 2009-2010 – were middlemen. This clearly suggests that those who knew a lot about it were possibly being bumped off.
But some time a bit later, students started dying – at least six or seven of them – and later even a parent or two. Now, these could well have been suicides or abetted suicides, since knowledge about the full dimensions of the scam would have been low with students or parents. At best, they would know the middlemen who helped them. And the middlemen were dying in large numbers after 2009-10.
In a country where we routinely report on students committing suicide for failing an exam, or even doing badly in it, it is not difficult to imagine Vyapam-linked students committing suicide to escape ignominy and protect their families from taint. This aspect clearly needs further scrutiny.
But Vyapam is a first in corruption-scarred India: it has brought to the fore in raw form the systemic and ethical rot that we have been countenancing in order to get our children ahead in life. Thousands of people have been shown to think nothing of gaining something for their children by paying money to the corrupt. It was carried out pretty openly, or else thousands could not have benefited.
In a sense, thus, the whole of society is tainted by Vyapam.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, detective Hercule Poirot, who had boarded the Express at Istanbul, was accosted by a man who claimed his life was in danger, and sought Poirot’s protection. Poirot declined, as he didn’t like the man’s face. The next day the man was found murdered in his compartment. There were only two possibilities: someone unknown had got on to the train midway, bumped off the man, and escaped. But Poirot found one intriguing possibility; everyone in the coach seemed to have a motive to murder the man, who apparently went unpunished for an earlier crime in which he had kidnapped and killed a three-year old heiress. To cut a long story short, Poirot finally explains the murder as one in which all 13 people in the Orient Express coach were complicit in the murder.
The Vyapam scam and the related unexplained deaths have all the hallmarks of multiple people having a vested interest in eliminating those with access to inconvenient facts, whether as an accused, or as someone aiding the investigations.
We should call it Murder on the Vyapam Express, where thousands of people stilled their consciences to promote their kids by fair means or foul. People are dying because we want our children to gain any which way they can, ethics be blowed. Vyapam indicts us all.