A Portrait of the Activist as a Young Man
Death threats, assault and harassment have not deterred Vyapam whistleblower Ashish Chaturvedi from staying the course

For someone who is taking on the might of the state, Ashish Kumar Chaturvedi’s thin frame seems particularly vulnerable as he wheels his bicycle on the Gwalior Sessions Court premises, with a black backpack slung over one shoulder. The 27-year-old whistleblow er in the gargantuan Vyapam admission and recruitment scam in Madhya Pradesh has faced numerous threats to his life ever since he became a complainant in the case in 2014. But the current court appearance is related to a new battle, against the very peo ple tasked with protecting him. He contends that by recording him with a video camera at all times in the name of security, the police men posted to guard him are harassing him.The recent Supreme Court judgment that privacy is a fundamental right has given him hope, and he has reached the court to sub mit evidence. “This is probably the first case filed under the right to privacy after the re cent Supreme Court judgment,“ Chaturvedi is eager to highlight, as he climbs the paan stained stairs to the first-floor courtroom where his case will be heard on a Tuesday afternoon. On the way, a couple of lawyers greet what is obviously a familiar figure in the corridors of the heritage building.

The case is posted for hearing 10 days lat er but, in the meantime, he has filed a simi lar petition in the high court, seeking relief from the sustained invasion of his privacy.

It was in January that the policemen as signed by the court to guard him, he says, began recording his every move on camera, even inside his home at times, hampering his movements and making people reluc tant to meet him. Multiple photos have ap peared in the media, of the police holding a camcorder, as Chaturvedi stands near them disconsolately, or of them filming him while he is on his bicycle. The police say the camera has been missing since May and that Chaturvedi has stolen it -he has submitted evidence against this, he says.

Threats & Allegations

Worse, Chaturvedi adds that his sources have told him that the information about his movements would be shared with his enemies, of which there is no dearth, thanks to the multiple suspects arrested in the Vyapam scam on his complaints. In a restaurant near the court, he plays a short video clip he obtained through a Right to Information application, where a policeman is heard telling his colleague they needed to know who he is meeting and where. “I wrote a letter to the chief minister, saying that if the recording was for my security, everyone else the state was guarding must also be similarly recorded. Why are there separate rules for me?“ he asks.

The police squarely reject these charges. “We have a certain mandate for security but privacy is always respected… If somebody says his life is being threatened… and has levelled allegations against every officer, saying they are after his life, we needed to adopt the protocol that we did,“ says Gwalior SP Dr Ashish. “I can assure you that Ashish is not being victimised and his security is being taken care of,“ he adds.

This is hardly the first time Chaturvedi is challenging Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, though both trace allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The background of his Twitter profile declares “Shivraj Singh Chouhan Wants To Kill Me“. If such a charge was connected to any other case, one might dismiss it as bombast or paranoia. But the Vyapam admission scandal that Chaturvedi helped uncover is unique not just for its scale and the people accused of corruption (including a former governor and ministers in the current government) but, equally, for the number of unnatural deaths associated with it.Estimates vary but the Special Task Force investigating the case put the figure at 25 before the Madhya Pradesh High Court, including at least 10 killed in road accidents.Chaturvedi himself has faced numerous attacks, the latest of which took place in February, a day before he was to give evidence in court. “There is definitely danger to Ashish’s life, from the locals who are accused in the Vyapam scam. The police are also harassing him,“ alleges independent MLA Paras Saklecha, who questioned the chief minister in the Assembly about Vyapam as far back as 2009 and has since been pursuing the case.Questions sent to the CM’s office and his media spokesperson remained unanswered.

Most recently, Chaturvedi’s father, Om Prakash, was injured in an accident when another vehicle hit his scooter from behind.Father and son dismiss conspiracy theories that link the mishap with Vyapam, but take issue with the fact that no policeman took the injured 56-year-old to hospital, though they were around. “I had to come and take him in an auto. There were traffic policemen close by, but they chose not to intervene,“ says Chaturvedi.

While the persistence of the social work postgraduate, who is unemployed, who lost his mother to cancer and whose father works as a clerk in the education department, is laudable, one might well wonder why he does not choose an easier path. After all, as one of his sources in the police department perspicaciously told ET Magazine, “Everyone admires a Bhagat Singh. Just not in their own homes.“ For Chaturvedi, though, the fight is personal. “I am now emotionally connected to the issue.“

From RSS to Vyapam

Chaturvedi did not start out with the idea of becoming an anti-corruption crusader. Rather, he was well on the way to becoming a fulltime RSS pracharak, leaving his family to stay on the Sangh campus in Gwalior. “The idea of putting the nation first appealed to me. I have attended their camps, where they give us Back in Gwalior, Chaturvedi’s mother was suffering from lack of proper medical attention at the government medical college. “During those days, I got into conversations with doctors, especially in the RSS, about how fake doctors were entering the system through malpractice.“ But he still did not know how they got entry. That’s when a medical student and acquaintance from his RSS days approached him, seeking help.

Brijender Raghuvanshi had cleared the medical entrance exam in 2009 but now he training with weapons of our choice. I chose the lathi,“ he says. Those were days of waking up at 4 am and sticking to a strictly regimented schedule till it was time to go to bed, at 10 pm.All of that changed after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and his father arm-twisted him to return home. “He told me that if I did not come over, he would not give my mother medicines,“ he says. That was also how he got a whiff of the Vyapam scam.

Vyapam, the acronym for the Hindi name for Madhya Pradesh’s Professional Examination Board, or Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal, conducts entrance exams for colleges and government jobs. While there were complaints of corruption from the mid-1990s and a few arrests were made, these were considered isolated incidents. It was in 2009, the year Chaturvedi’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, that the issue was brought to the attention of the Assembly by Saklecha, the MLA. “I was the first person to raise this issue in the Assembly in July 2009 and in November, Shivraj Singh Chouhan set up a high-level probe committee,“ says Saklecha. In Indore, another doctor-activist (incidentally, also affiliated to the RSS) Anand Rai also began filing complaints about suspected corruption and the presence of bogus candidates in Pre-Medical Tests. While the committee identified 117 candidates over two years, it was in 2013 that the sheer scale and organisation of the scam was revealed. “I tipped off the police on the eve of the exam that impersonators going to write the entrance exam on behalf of candidates were staying in city hotels. The police caught 20 people,“ says Saklecha. More importantly, these arrests led to one of the kingpins, Jagdish Sagar, who was caught along with his diary, which was a goldmine of information about the well-oiled operation he ran. was in deep trouble, with his name figuring on the list of rusticated students because they had got “scorers“ to write the exam on their behalf. “His father, who had political links, had told him to get someone to file an RTI application so that more fake candidates would be uncovered. His idea was that if 600-700 such candidates were exposed, the government would have to bend, and their rustication might be revoked.“ Raghuvanshi was also the one who explained the modus operandi: a middleman had assured him admission if he paid `12 lakh. While the impersonator wrote the exam on his behalf, he was told to go to a multiplex and watch two movies, so that he would not be seen outside at that time.

Chaturvedi did file an RTI, his very first, but not according to Raghuvanshi’s plan. Perturbed that fake doctors like him might be treating his mother, he began digging deeper into the scam and filing complaint after com plaint, which eventually led to the arrest of Deepak Yadav, son of a retired policeman, who ran a successful network of impersonators. Chaturvedi’s sources are usually those who have themselves been victims of the scam, such as people who have seen undeserving candidates get recruited or promoted at their cost, or who are themselves honest officers.

Investigation was handed over to a Special Task Force and later, at the intervention of activists who approached the Supreme Court, to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is currently handling the case. While around 2,000 people were arrested in the case, the pace of the investigation has now slackened. The investigating officer in Gwalior refused to comment while questions sent to the agency’s headquarters remain unanswered. Many of the accused who were behind bars, in no small measure due to Chaturvedi’s efforts, are now out on bail, a fact that is causing considerable disquiet to his family.

The Price of Activism

“What can one individual do? All of them have got power on their side,“ says Om Prakash, Ashish’s father. If friends and activists are full of admiration for Ashish, the narrative is slight ly different at home. “What he is doing is very dangerous. It is good for the country and for society, but not his family,“ says Om Prakash, who grumbles that his son does not shoulder any responsibilities at home. “I’m not sure what he does or where he goes. I check two three times at night to make sure he has re turned,“ says the 56-year-old. His stepmother, Binita Sharma, says she hardly goes out of their small, two-bedroom home in one of the bylanes near the Jhansi Road police station, and hence is not aware of what he does.

Ashish smiles sheepishly when told about these remarks. But his family’s opinion is unlikely to sway him. His adopted “parivar“, the RSS, too has distanced itself. “I still believe in the organisation’s ideals but I was disillusioned after its members told me to drop the case against senior political leaders. They preach something but practise something else,“ says the swayamsevak.

At the organisation’s Gwalior office, the district-in-charge, Pankaj Sharma, refuses to comment on the grounds that he is new to the position. Another senior member, Dr Sukhdeo Makhija, who drops by the office, commends Chaturvedi for his anti-corruption campaign but refuses to be drawn into whether the chief minister, too, bears any responsibility in the scam. Om Prakash Sisodia, an RSS spokesperson, accuses Chaturvedi of being misled by others with vested interests. “The Sangh supports those who fight corruption.But when they start having a different agenda, we distance ourselves,“ is the official response. Incidentally, while the CM is not an accused, former minister Laxmikant Sharma, who has been named in the scam, was once close to both Chouhan and RSS leaders.

So, for how long does Chaturvedi plan to continue his crusade? “I am doing a course now. I’ll see what I can do. I have two friends who support me,“ he says. But there are moments, he admits, when he wants to give up.“Sometimes, when I am alone, I break down and think of suicide. But then I realise that’s what my opponents want, so I don’t.“

Days later, another small victory comes in the form of the high court issuing notice to the principal secretary (home) and the director general of police, asking them to respond to Chaturvedi’s petition. Once this case is over, he intends to tackle illegal mining in the state.He laughs, when reminded about friends’ suggestions that he find a job or practise as a lawyer once he completes his degree. “I don’t know if I’ll practise. I think it’s good to know the law as an activist,“ he says.

Monica Singar, a final-year medical student at Gajra Raja Medical College in Gwalior, is all praise for Chaturvedi’s efforts, having seen, first-hand, the corruption in the system. “I had an acquaintance who failed his tenth and twelfth grade exams but still got admission in medical college. I think the only reason I got through was that they introduced biometric authentication that year,“ she says. “Imagine how demoralising that is for honest students.“

Such reactions might serve as some motivation. But Chaturvedi has another view, too.“There are millions of people in Madhya Pradesh. Thank god that I am not just one among them.“