Intimations of evil
The Vyapam deaths
- Published 6.07.15
If you google 'vyapam', the first hit on the first page takes you to the website of the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, Bhopal. The Hindi for 'Professional Examination Board' is 'Vyavsayik Pareeksha Mandal'.
The website's design is Standard Sarkari: ugly fonts, moving straplines that skate across the window from right to left, tender notices, bulletins and disclaimers. On the left is a vertically stacked set of links that are meant to help you find your way around the site. 'About Us', 'FAQs', 'Right to Information', 'Statistical Information', 'Want to work with us'. In the light of recent events, the answer to the last question has to be no.
Vyapam is the Hindi acronym for Vyavsayik Pareeksha Mandal. It sounds like one of those newly minted words that characterize modern Hindi, opaque but well meaning, only this one isn't. 'Vyapam' has a reasonable claim to being the most sinister word in contemporary journalism. Between 25 and 40 relatively young people linked with a corruption scandal centred on the MPPEB have died in suspicious circumstances, several in the last few months.
The corruption scandal consists of ministers, officials, businessmen, students and their parents conspiring to rig the competitive examinations for entry into Madhya Pradesh's professional educational institutions. Vyapam administered these examinations on behalf of the Madhya Pradesh government.
A government medical officer, Dr Anand Rai, blew the whistle on the systematic bribery and impersonation that had corrupted the pre-medical examinations in Madhya Pradesh, and, in the aftermath of this, investigations suggested that Vyapam's recruitment examinations for bank probationers, police constables and food inspectors had been rigged too.
The scale of the scandal can be judged from the number of arrests: some 1,800 people have been arrested. A Bharatiya Janata Party leader who had once been the minister in charge of Vyapam was arrested and later resigned from the party. The Congress alleged that the chief minister of the province, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, was implicated in the scam and asked for his resignation. The political implications of this scandal for the ruling BJP are obvious. Chauhan is one of its stars; he has been chief minister of Madhya Pradesh for three consecutive terms and his reputation for probity, and the BJP's claim to being the party of honest governance, are on the line.
But the political fall-out from subverting competitive exams is dwarfed (or should be) by the appalling implication of the deaths of some 40 individuals, connected to the scandal as accused persons and potential witnesses. These are relatively young people who have died in ways and in contexts that should be closely investigated.
Several of them died very recently. Narendra Singh Tomar, who was accused of organizing impostors to write pre-medical exams, died just over a week ago in an Indore jail. Since his was a custodial death, it has to be formally investigated by the government, but there have been other deaths of accused released on bail, like Rajendra Arya, who died in a Gwalior hospital of some unnamed disease the day after Tomar's death. Dr D.K. Sakalley, dean of a medical college in Jabalpur, died of burns in his house. Sakalley, a forensic specialist, had been on a committee investigating the Vyapam scam. Namrata Damor was a student at a medical college in Indore and was one of the students accused of using corrupt means to get admission. She was found dead on railway tracks in Ujjain in 2012. A panel of three doctors declared that she had been smothered to death; the police, however, proceeded on the assumption that it was a suicide.
The Madhya Pradesh government's response to these deaths and others has been routinely grotesque. Babulal Gaur, its home minister, insisted that the deaths had occurred from natural causes. Gaur played ingenious variations on this theme. So "...the accused fell sick and died" came a close second to "whoever is born has to die one day". The Madhya Pradesh government refused to ask for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation arguing that the Special Investigation Team (which reports to it) is being monitored by the Madhya Pradesh high court. Meanwhile, whistle-blowers like Prashant Pandey and Anand Rai have testified that they have had threats to their lives, threats that in the context of the string of scam-related people who have died recently, ought to be taken seriously.
As lay consumers of news, none of us is in a position to come to forensic conclusions about these deaths. So how do we process them? Well, one way is to ask whether it is statistically significant when between 25 and 40 people, most of them young and hale, associated with a single scandal, die in suspicious, unnatural, unexplained -call it what you will - circumstances. The answer must be yes. These deaths are both strange and deeply frightening.
Many of the people who died were potentially valuable witnesses, links to powerful figures associated with the scam. Given the fact that Indian police forces and desi politicians routinely collude with each other to suppress inconvenient truths, why would anyone automatically give the Madhya Pradesh government and its police forces the benefit of the doubt when it comes to investigating this sequence of mysterious deaths?
Oddly enough, Indian newspapers and news channels had, till very recently, treated the Vyapam scam, its investigation and its attendant horrors, as business as usual. It's only now that these deaths and their implications have begun to make the front pages of newspapers, and then, not all of them. The television news shows are still too busy with Lalit Modi to systematically pursue news of dozens of people connected to a single corruption scandal dying at a great rate. Apart from one 'debate' on Times Now, I haven't seen news channels spend time on Vyapam beyond the odd news report; nothing like the obsessive zeal that they have displayed in snouting up princely property disputes.
This might be about to change with the death of Akshay Singh, an India Today journalist. Last Saturday, Akshay Singh went to Meghnagar in Madhya Pradesh to interview Namrata Damor's parents about her unnatural death. After a preliminary meeting with her father, as he waited for some papers to be photocopied, he began foaming at the mouth outside the house and died. The medical officer at the hospital in Gujarat where the post-mortem had been done declared that there was no evidence of foul play even as he waited for the forensic analysis.
We must, as dispassionate readers, allow for the possibility that Akshay Singh and all the other dead people connected to Vyapam, died natural deaths. It is possible but it is a great deal less than probable. Vyapam is the terminal rot in desi governance made frighteningly visible. After Akshay Singh's death, if the mainstream media that we depend on for news - our newspapers and our television news channels - continue to treat the Vyapam deaths - literally and metaphorically - as an inside-page item, we should be very afraid.
Because that will mean one or more of the following: that metropolitan news organizations are unconcerned about provincial deaths (I can't see 40 deaths linked to a single scandal in Delhi being treated as indifferently as the Vyapam deaths have been); that, in spite of Akshay Singh's death, journalists lack both solidarity and a sense of self-preservation, or, more simply and more scarily, that they just don't want to go there. We shall see.