NEW DELHI — India's top court Thursday ordered a federal investigation into a multimillion-dollar college admission and government job recruitment scandal in central India said to be linked to dozens of mysterious deaths.
The Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's FBI, to take over from the state police the investigation into the alleged irregularities in job recruitment and college admissions as well as the deaths of nearly 50 people associated with the scam.
Police have arrested hundreds of parents and students for paying bribes and officials for allegedly rigging eligibility tests for admission to medical colleges and recruitment for jobs in the police force, schools and banking sector in Madhya Pradesh state.
The court also directed the Madhya Pradesh government to respond to a petition demanding the removal of the state's federally appointed governor after questions were raised about his involvement in the scandal. Gov. Ram Naresh Yadav's son Shailesh Yadav died mysteriously in May after the younger man was alleged to have accepted bribes in the governor's house.
Opposition Congress party leaders had been demanding a federal inquiry into the scam, accusing the Madhya Pradesh government of trying to influence the outcome of the inquiry by the state police.
Congress leader Digvijay Singh demanded the resignation of Madhya Pradesh's top elected official, saying Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan should step down to allow for a free and fair investigation.
"Students who have been arrested in connection with the scam should be made witnesses for the state," Singh said. "Isn't it strange that hundreds of students and their parents are in jail, while those who took the bribes are roaming free," he told reporters Thursday.
More than 2,500 people have been accused in connection with the scandal and around 1,900 of them have been arrested.
Dozens of people, either witnesses or accused participants in the scam, have died over the last five years in inexplicable circumstances. Congress leaders have alleged that some top state bureaucrats and politicians accepted millions of dollars in bribes to facilitate the admissions.
The scandal has come to be known in India as the "Vyapam scandal," after the Hindi language acronym for the state-run employment agency in Madhya Pradesh. For the past couple of weeks, Indian media have given wide coverage to the sudden deaths of a number of people connected to the scam.
The scandal hit the front pages of newspapers once again last weekend after the death of an investigative journalist who had gone to Madhya Pradesh to speak with witnesses.
The following day, the body of a medical college dean was found in a New Delhi hotel. The official, Arun Kumar, headed a medical college in Madhya Pradesh that was involved in the admissions scandal. Kumar was helping the state police in its investigation.
The many suspicious deaths of people linked to the scam have raised concerns among civil society groups who feel the deaths were in some way connected. Many of the dead were younger than 40 and autopsy reports in most cases were inconclusive.
Madhya Pradesh home minister Babulal Gaur dismissed the opposition's charge that witnesses and whistle-blowers were being targeted to shield top politicians and bureaucrats. He said most of the deaths were due to natural causes.
The scam dates to 2007, but investigations began only in 2013 after details emerged that many unqualified and undeserving candidates had been admitted into medical and engineering colleges. Medical school entrance test papers were leaked before the examination, impersonators were allowed to appear for exams, or the marks of undeserving candidates were enhanced — all for a fee.