At least two dozen suspects, whistleblowers, and witnesses linked to a $1 billion cheating scandal continue to die under mysterious circumstances. Although many high-level government officials in central India have been accused of accepting bribes, law enforcement officials have primarily been targeting students and lower officials involved in the test-rigging scam. In response to the numerous deaths and the recent demise of an Indian reporter investigating the Vyapam scandal, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has instructed the Indian government to thoroughly investigate these suspicious deaths.
Since 2007, tens of thousands of students and job applicants in the central state of Madhya Pradesh have paid large bribes to manipulate their test results for entrance into medical schools and government positions. Students reportedly paid bribes between $15,000 and $40,000 for admission to medical schools because they could not pass the exams. While investigating complaints of imposters taking entrance exams for various medical schools, police in the city of Indore discovered multiple tests being rigged including recruitment exams for food inspectors, forest rangers, medical officers, police officers, and teachers.
After whistleblowers tipped them off, Indore Police raided a test center and arrested eight imposters taking a medical school entrance exam in July 2013. High-scoring students equipped with fake IDs were paid to impersonate applicants with lower scores. Many test proctors were bribed to allow applicants to sit next to the imposters so they could easily cheat off them. Other applicants left their answer sheets blank so bribed scorers could fill out their exams later with the correct answers.
Earlier this year, online photographs of Indian parents precariously hanging from school windows caused nationwide embarrassment. Clinging to the side of the buildings, the parents were caught throwing cheat sheets to their children during exams. At least 1,087 students who received admission to medical colleges between 2008 and 2013 were expelled for cheating.
To date, more than 1,930 people have been arrested for participating in the scandal with over 500 others on the run from law enforcement. At least 24 suspects, whistleblowers, and witnesses have died under mysterious circumstances. The unofficial death toll lists between 41 and 156 people who have died from illnesses, road accidents, suicides, and unknown causes.
“Everybody was making money,” stated Vivek Tankha, a lawyer representing the whistleblowers in the Supreme Court. “It is no wonder that we are now witnessing one of the biggest cover-up operations in Indian corruption history.”
Along with hundreds of medical students, several bureaucrats and the state’s education minister have been sentenced to prison. Former education minister Laxmikant Sharma was arrested for fraud due to his participation in allowing contract teachers to cheat during their recruitment tests. His former officer on special duty (OSD) was also arrested. A former OSD to the governor was also accused as well as Governor Ram Naresh Yadav for allegedly accepting bribes, but the charges against the corrupt governor were later dropped citing constitutional immunity.
On the morning of March 25, the governor’s son, Shailesh Yadav, was found dead at his father’s home from a reported brain hemorrhage. Shailesh had been accused of accepting bribes from ten contract teachers who had cheated on their recruitment exams.
Jabalpur Medical College dean Dr. D.K. Sakalley, who was investigating the scandal, mysteriously died after neighbors witnessed him running out of his residence covered in flames. The fire burned 96% of his body. On July 5, another dean, Dr. Arun Sharma, who had been assisting the Special Task Force investigating the scandal, was found dead in a hotel room in Delhi with a bottle of whiskey and several pills next to his bed. Last month, assistant professor Rajendra Arya, who was out on bail after being arrested for his participation in the scam, died of a reported heart attack.
On June 29, a 29-year-old veterinarian named Narendra Singh Tomar, who was being held at the Indore jail after arranging imposters for medical school applicants, complained of chest pains before dying of a heart attack. His family believes Tomar was murdered to silence him.
On July 4, Akshay Singh, an investigative journalist for the private Hindi news channel Aaj Tak, died from what doctors claim was a heart attack. While interviewing the father of Namrata Damor, a deceased student who allegedly cheated on an exam before her corpse was mysteriously found on railroad tracks, Singh began coughing and foaming at the mouth after sipping a cup of tea. Although Dr. Kailash Patidar announced that Singh had died from a heart attack, Singh’s family requested additional testing to determine whether or not he was poisoned instead.
“There is so much information with the investigators that it could bring the government down,” asserted whistleblower Ashish Chaturvedi, who has been attacked 14 times by unknown assailants. “But so far they have just gone after students, middlemen, and lower officials. They are not even probing the roles of the big fish in the state.”
Although members of the Indian Congress have directly accused Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of participating in covering up the scandal, Home Minister Babulal Gaur refuses to hand the investigation over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier law enforcement agency for the investigation of corruption cases. Suspecting multiple agents, doctors, officials, and politicians spread across five states of participating in the scam, police have become overwhelmed attempting to solve numerous suspicious deaths of suspects, whistleblowers, and witnesses associated with the case. Although Home Minister Gaur believes all of these potential witnesses died from natural causes, law enforcement officials find it difficult to believe that the disturbingly high number of freak road accidents, hangings, poisonings, heart attacks, drowning, immolation, and liver infection are mere coincidence.
“The Indian government should do its utmost to investigate the death of journalist Akshay Singh in a credible and thorough manner,” insisted CPJ Asia Research Associate Sumit Galhotra. “Given the recent spike in the number of journalist deaths in the country, authorities should dedicate their efforts to solving these cases and delivering justice where due.”