Deaths Trail in Wake of Indian Exam Scandal

By Rohit Wadhwaney
150715-IN-exams-620 Indian students prepare for competitive exams in an open space at City Central Library in Hyderabad, Feb. 7, 2014.

Mehtab Machhar suspects that her son’s death in a road mishap nearly two years ago was pre-meditated murder.

Her son, 19-year-old Tarun Machhar, died just days after investigators questioned him as part of a probe into a murky state-run exam scandal that allegedly involved a slew of politicians, bureaucrats, police officials and businessmen in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India.

Tarun was one of at least 24 witnesses and suspects connected to the case who have died of “unnatural causes” since investigations into the multi-billion rupee racket began in 2009, a special task force (STF) assigned to the case told the state’s High Court late last month.

Of these two dozen, 11 died in road accidents, 10 committed suicide, and three succumbed to alcohol- and drug-related diseases, the STF testified.

These deaths “need further investigation to rule out foul play,” the STF said according to court records.

Tarun had been suspected of sitting in for a candidate in the 2013 Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB). Popularly known by its Hindi acronym “Vyapam,” this set of highly competitive entrance exams is used for recruitment to government jobs and admissions to educational institutions, mainly medical schools.

On Sept. 15, 2013, Tarun, a student at Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal, the state capital, was on his way to dinner with a friend when an unidentified vehicle hit his motorcycle and sped off, killing him instantly.

“The question is not whether my son was guilty or not. The question is did he deserve to die for it?” Mrs. Machhar, a primary school teacher from a village in Ratlam district, Madhya Pradesh, told BenarNews.

According to police, his death resulted from an accident.

“If indeed it was an accident, why has the vehicle that ran over Tarun’s motorcycle never been traced or even identified,” she said, adding that she believed her son was killed because “his statements to the police could have proved dangerous for those involved in the scam.”

“These people are very powerful. My husband and I cannot fight them,” Machhar said. “We are trying to forget all this and move on.”

Lives ‘secondary to money’

Although irregularities in the Vyapam exams have been reported since the mid-1990s, the sheer scale of the organized racket came to light only in 2013, when state police arrested 20 people who allegedly confessed to impersonating candidates for a pre-medical test in 2009. The test is one of 50 entrance exams given yearly by the professional examination board.

Subsequent interrogations of the suspects revealed collusion by hundreds of state politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and MPPEB officials, who allegedly received kickbacks for offering high marks to undeserving candidates using fraudulent means.

Perpetrators leaked question papers, rigged answer sheets and had impersonators sit in on the exam for anyone who could cough up between 1 million rupees ($15,700) to 7 million rupees ($110,000) to secure high marks, investigations revealed.

Since the special task force was formed in August 2013, more than 2,500 people have been accused of involvement in the scam; of them nearly 2,000 have been arrested.

Among those who have been arrested are the state’s former education minister, personal aides to the state chief minister and governor, two top police and revenue officials, a mining tycoon and the owner of a hospital.

With such a roster of prominent suspects, experts are finding it hard to see the deaths of people like Tarun, who were connected to the case, as a mere coincidence.

According to the Indian media, as many as 48 people linked to the scam have died since 2009, a figure challenged by state Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan, whose administration on Monday put the toll at 31.

“These deaths are related to the scam in a crucial way and each death should be investigated thoroughly,” commentator and historian Farhat Hasan told BenarNews.

“This racket has thrown light on the extremely cruel, barbaric and insensitive political culture in India, where even people’s lives are considered secondary to money,” he said.

Pharmacist’s death

Following a major Indian media campaign over the mysterious deaths of those linked to the scam, India’s Supreme Court on July 9 ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the probe from the state police and STF.

The court has given the bureau until July 24 to submit an initial report.

Chhotelal Singh, the father of a pharmacist accused in the scam, who was found dead in a hotel room in Chhattisgarh state on April 28, praised the court’s decision to transfer the case to the CBI.

“At least now we have some hope that the culprits who may have killed my son will face justice,” Chhotelal told BenarNews.

His son Vijay went missing just hours before he was due to testify before a Bhopal court on April 17.

More than 10 days later, Vijay’s body was found in a hotel room, in Kanker, his wife’s hometown. The hotel, incidentally, was owned by a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician. The party controls a majority of seats in the state’s Legislative Assembly.

Police said Vijay’s death was a case of suicide. The hotel room was bolted from inside and an autopsy report detected poison in his body.

Chhotelal challenged the police finding, but to no avail.

“There was no suicide note or poison container found in the room,” he said, adding that his son used to get phone calls warning him against testifying in court.

Witness: Targeted 14 times

That the Vyapam scam culprits are ready to go to any level to escape prosecution is revealed in a telling statement by Ashish Chaturvedi, one of four key witnesses in the case.

“There have been 14 attempts on my life since I went public with the evidence in 2009. I get death threats almost daily,” he told BenarNews.

For his protection, police have assigned Chaturvedi, a 26-year-old social studies major, three guards.

“But the police protection is an eyewash,” he said.

“My protectors tell me every day that I should retract. Otherwise they won’t be able to protect me. This protection is a joke.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.