The witnesses and criminals involved in India's largest corruption scandal ever have been dying mysteriously recently, leaving investigators baffled as clues and leads into a $1 billion dollar medical examination cheating scheme are being cut off with each passing death.
In a plot reminisce of a dark crime novel, more than 20 witnesses and criminals have reportedly died from chest pains in prison, drowning in a village pond and a mysterious liver infection. On Saturday, a television reporter Akshay Singh died while investigating a suspect's death. He had sipped tea during an interview, but starting coughing and foaming at the mouth shortly after, He was rushed to hospital where doctors reportedly said he had died of a "heart attack".
Other accused have died from poison, or perished in freak road accidents, or by consuming too much alcohol, or by hanging. One medical college dean died in a fire. A medical student was found dead on railway tracks. The son of the state governor was found dead at his father’s home in March, ostensibly from a brain hemorrhage.
Last week, Narendra Singh Tomar, a 29-year-old veterinarian who was in prison on charges of arranging impersonators for medical school applicants, complained of chest pain, police said, and died soon after in a hospital. His family told reporters that they suspected Tomar was murdered.
A day later, a 40-year-old assistant professor at a medical college, Rajendra Arya, who was out on bail after being charged in the case, died of a heart attack.
Unsurprisingly, the scale of the medical exam scandal has left observers wondering whether they are witnessing the biggest cover in India's history.
Some 1,930 people were arrested and more than 500 are on the run in the state of Madhya Pradesh because they had been caught cheating in the examinations. Police say that since 2007, tens of thousands of students and job aspirants have paid hefty bribes to middlemen, bureaucrats and politicians to rig test results for medical schools and government jobs.
The state’s government, run by the Bharatiya Janata Party, has said that “no conspiracy was found’’ in the recent deaths. But others involved in the case fear otherwise. The state’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, said Sunday that his mind is in “agony and pain” and promised that all the deaths will be investigated.
Cheating on school and college tests is commonplace in India. A few months ago, photographs of parents hanging precariously from school windows to throw cheat sheets to their children caused nationwide outrage.
But in Madhya Pradesh, cheating on tests became a sophisticated racket using various approaches. High-scoring students from across the country toting fake identity cards were brought in to impersonate applicants taking tests. Applicants would be told to leave their answer sheets blank so that scorers could fill them out in a separate room. And scores would be manipulated by testing board officials to favor bribe-paying candidates.
In July 2013, after a tip-off from whistleblowers, police raided a test center in Indore and arrested eight impersonators taking the medical school test. Police say that the scheme was carried out by a syndicate of agents, doctors, officials and politicians across five states and that there was no single ringleader.
“There is so much information with the investigators that it could bring the government down,” said Ashish Chaturvedi, 26, one of the whistleblowers. He has been attacked 14 times by unknown assailants, he said. Six of the assaults took place in front of a police officer assigned by a court to protect him last year.
“But so far they have just gone after students, middlemen and lower officials,” Chaturvedi said. “They are not even probing the roles of the big fish in the state.”