Thursday, December 17, 2015

Aman Sethi - The mystery of India’s deadly exam scam - Guardian report on Vyapam

It began with a test-fixing scandal so massive that it led to 2,000 arrests, including top politicians, academics and doctors. Then suspects started turning up dead. What is the truth behind the Vyapam scam that has gripped India? 

In the night of 7 January 2012, a stationmaster at a provincial railway station in central India discovered the body of a young woman lying beside the tracks. The corpse, clothed in a red kurta and a violet and grey Puma jacket, was taken to a local morgue, where a postmortem report classified the death as a homicide.

The unidentified body was “a female aged about 21 to 25 years”, according to the postmortem, which described “dried blood present” in the nostrils, and the “tongue found clenched between upper and lower jaw, two upper teeth found missing, lips found bruised”. There was a crescent of scratches on the young woman’s face, as if gouged by the fingernails of a hand forcefully clamped over her mouth. “In our opinion,” the handwritten report concluded, “[the] deceased died of asphyxia (violent asphyxia) as a result of smothering.”

Three weeks later, a retired schoolteacher, Mehtab Singh Damor, identified the body as his 19-year-old daughter Namrata Damor – who had been studying medicine at the Mahatma Gandhi Medical College in Indore before she suddenly vanished one morning in early January 2012. Damor demanded an investigation to find his daughter’s killer, but the police dismissed the findings of the initial postmortem, and labelled her death a suicide.

The case was closed – until this July, more than three years later, when a 38-year-old television reporter named Akshay Singh travelled from Delhi to the small Madhya Pradesh town of Meghnagar to interview Namrata’s father. Singh thought that Namrata’s mysterious death might be connected to an extraordinary public scandal, known as the Vyapam scam, which had roiled the highest echelons of the government of Madhya Pradesh.

For at least five years, thousands of young men and women had paid bribes worth millions of pounds in total to a network of fixers and political operatives to rig the official examinations run by the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal – known as Vyapam – a state body that conducted standardised tests for thousands of highly coveted government jobs and admissions to state-run medical colleges. 

When the scandal first came to light in 2013, it threatened to paralyse the entire machinery of the state administration: thousands of jobs appeared to have been obtained by fraudulent means, medical schools were tainted by the spectre of corrupt admissions, and dozens of officials were implicated in helping friends and relatives to cheat the exams.

A fevered investigation began, and hundreds of arrests were made. But Singh suspected that the unsolved murder of Namrata Damor – and the baffling insistence of the police that she had flung herself from a moving train – might be part of a massive cover-up, intended to protect senior political figures, all the way up to the powerful chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

By the time Singh came to interview Mehtab Singh Damor, the Vyapam scam had begun to seem like something more deadly than an unusually large bribery scandal. Since 2010, more than 40 doctors, medical students, policemen and civil servants with links to the Vyapam scam had died in mysterious circumstances… read more: