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?

A sculpted pencile lead by the Russian miniature artist Salavat Fidai.
 A sculpted pencil by the Russian miniature artist Salavat Fidai. Photograph: WENN

On 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.

The state government, under relentless pressure from its political opponents, insisted that none of the dead had been murdered – the media, they contended, had simply stitched together a series of unconnected natural deaths. “Whoever is born has to die one day,” the state’s home minister, Babulal Gaur, said in a memorable TV interview, citing Hindu scripture. “This is the mrityu lok” – the realm of death.

When Akshay Singh arrived at the Damor home, Namrata’s father sat him down on a heavy wooden armchair in his living room, silenced the television, and handed over a well-thumbed file stuffed with photocopies of petitions, police reports, and court papers. Tea arrived on a tray; Singh picked up a cup and turned his attention to Namrata’s postmortem report and the coroner’s feathery scrawl.

As he sipped his tea, Singh turned as if to ask a question, but his face froze, his left arm shivered, his open mouth gasped for air, tiny bubbles of spittle formed on his lips before he collapsed in his chair, the dead woman’s case file motionless in his lap.

“We lay him down on the floor, loosened his clothes and sprinkled his face with water,” recalled Rahul Kariaya, an Indore-based journalist who took Singh to Damor’s house, “I checked his pulse and I knew right away, Akshay Singh was dead.”

* * *


Within hours of Singh’s death, the long-simmering Vyapam scandal exploded from the inside pages of newspapers on to primetime television. It soon emerged that the Madhya Pradesh police had ended their investigation into Namrata Damor’s death on the basis of a second postmortem report, prepared by a doctor who later admitted that he had not examined the body and had based his findings solely on photographs provided by the police. Namrata Damor, according to this postmortem, had killed herself because of a failed relationship.

“I want everyone across the country to ask themselves one question,” the country’s most bombastic TV news presenter, Arnab Goswami, bellowed one night in July, waving copies of both postmortem reports on his popular nightly programme. “How does a postmortem come to the conclusion, [without] using any evidence, that the ‘victim is disappointed in love and has caused annoyance of her parents?’”

The Vyapam scandal began as an old-fashioned scam in a country with a long and storied history of corruption. Officials at the testing agency, along with their political backers and a network of fixers and touts, had charged preposterous sums of money to guarantee candidates either a government job or admission to a state medical college by fixing the results of the entrance examinations. Cheating of this sort was not a new phenomenon – but the enormous scale of the racket, the involvement of top government officials and medical colleges, and the alleged murder of suspects made the Vyapam scam into an explosive political controversy. The four-week long summer session of the Indian parliament in 2015 was completely paralysed by demands from the opposition Congress party for the resignation of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

When the scandal first became public in 2013, the Madhya Pradesh government assembled a special taskforce of state police officers to investigate the allegations. It moved quickly, sweeping up everyone from individual students and their parents to the chief minister’s personal secretary. By the time of Singh’s sudden death in July 2015, the taskforce had already arrested an astonishing 2,235 people – of whom 1,860 were released on bail after questioning.

The list of top state officials placed under arrest reads like the telephone directory of the Madhya Pradesh secretariat. The most senior minister in the state government, Laxmikant Sharma – who had held the health, education and mining portfolios – was jailed, and remains in custody, along with his former aide, Sudhir Sharma, a former schoolteacher who parlayed his political connections into a vast mining fortune. Another minister, Gulab Singh Kirar, simply disappeared rather than face questioning from the police. (Many of those accused have protested their innocence, but it may take years for the prosecution to secure any convictions.)

Among those detained by the taskforce were half a dozen aides to top state ministers – but from the start, opposition parties insisted that the probe was an elaborate charade, intended to convey a sense of urgency to the public while protecting the chief minister. The preponderance of aides among the arrested fuelled speculation that underlings had been forced to fall on their swords to protect their bosses.

And then, as the investigation widened, people started dying. Some had perished before the taskforce had a chance to interrogate them – such as Anuj Uieke, a medical student accused of working as a middleman connecting exam aspirants and Vyapam officials. He died along with two friends also accused of involvement in the scam when a truck ploughed into their car in 2010. Others apparently took their own lives, like Dr Ramendra Singh Bhadouriya, who was accused of cheating his way to a medical college seat in 2008 and then helping others do the same. He was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his home in January 2015. (Five days later, his mother took her own life by drinking acid.) Another suspect, Narendra Tomar – a seemingly healthy 29-year-old veterinary doctor at a government hospital, who had been arrested for his role as a middleman in the scam – had a sudden heart attack in jail this June and died in hospital the next day.

Salavat Fidai
 Photograph: WENN

In July 2014, the dean of a medical college in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, Dr SK Sakalle – who was not implicated in the scandal, but had reportedly investigated fraudulent medical admissions and expelled students accused of obtaining their seats by cheating – was found burned to death on the front lawn of his own home. The police initially maintained that Sakelle had doused himself in kerosene and set himself alight; an unusual means of suicide for a doctor with easy access to a wide range of toxins. But they were forced to reopen their investigation one year later, when Sakelle’s colleague and close friend, Dr Arun Sharma, who took over as dean of the medical college, was found dead in a Delhi hotel alongside a half-empty bottle of whisky and a strip of anti-depressant pills.

In March of this year, Shailesh Yadav, the 50-year-old son of the governor of Madhya Pradesh – the formal head of state government, appointed by the president of India – died of a suspected brain haemorrhage in his family home. Both the governor and his son were implicated in the scam.

Each new death brought a flurry of headlines, and increasingly excited speculation about conspiracies and cover-ups. “Who is killing all these people?” the TV presenter Goswami demanded on air one night – inviting viewers to tag their tweets on the story with #KillingAScam.

Through it all, the government of Madhya Pradesh insisted that the series of deaths was nothing more than a coincidence – a conspiracy theory cooked up by its political opponents – and that the state police taskforce was conducting an exemplary investigation of the scandal. But the death of Akshay Singh, which brought the national spotlight on to the case, forced the government to ask for a probe by the notionally autonomous Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In an interview with the Indian Express newspaper, Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, said he was satisfied by the state police investigation, but agreed to a CBI investigation to clear “an atmosphere of falsehood” that “would have eventually affected the wellbeing of the state”.

When I arrived in the state capital, Bhopal, a beautiful city of lakes, greenery, and double-storey buildings, at the end of July, the local press had coined a cruel pun on the chief minister’s first name. Rather than Shivraj – after the Hindu god Shiva – they were calling him Shavraj, or King of the Corpses.

* * *

In 2013, the year the scam was first revealed, two million young people in Madhya Pradesh – a state the size of Poland, with a population greater than the UK – sat for 27 different examinations conducted by Vyapam. Many of these exams are intensely competitive. In 2013, the prestigious Pre-Medical Test (PMT), which determines admission to medical school, had 40,086 applicants competing for just 1,659 seats; the unfortunately named Drug Inspector Recruitment Test (DIRT), had 9,982 candidates striving for 16 vacancies in the state department of public health.

For most applicants, the likelihood of attaining even low-ranking government jobs, with their promise of long-term employment and state pensions, is incredibly remote. In 2013, almost 450,000 young men and women took the exam to become one of the 7,276 police constables recruited that year – a post with a starting salary of 9,300 rupees (£91) per month. Another 270,000 appeared for the recruitment examination to fill slightly more than 2,000 positions at the lowest rank in the state forest service.

It was on the morning of the medical exam in 2013 that the Vyapam scandal began to unravel. A team of policemen raided the Hotel Pathik, a seedy £5-a-night motel on the outskirts of Indore, the largest city in Madhya Pradesh.

In room 13, the police came upon a young man readying himself for that morning’s exam. He handed over a voter identity card, introducing himself as exam candidate Rishikesh Tyagi, but when the police asked him his father’s name and his date of birth, he said he could not remember.

“On doing strict interrogation,” a police report of the incident reads, “he told his correct name as Ramashankar … he told us he came to give the examination in the name of Rishikesh Tyagi.”

Ramashankar, the police alleged, was already studying medicine in Uttar Pradesh, and had accepted 50,000 rupees (£500) to take the exam on behalf of Rishikesh Tyagi. Twenty such impostors were arrested that morning, 18 of whom had come from out of town to impersonate young students who felt they could not pass the entrance exams themselves.

The impersonators led the police to Jagdish Sagar, a crooked Indore doctor who had set up a lucrative business that charged up to 200,000 rupees (£2,000) to arrange for intelligent but financially needy medical students to sit examinations on behalf of applicants who could afford to pay. Police claimed that Sagar had amassed a fortune in land, luxury cars, and jewellery from the racket: according to a report in the Hindustan Times (headline: “Vintage Wine, Bed of Cash”), he slept on a mattress stuffed with 1,300,000 rupees. But Sagar, one policeman told me, was only the most prominent of a swarm of middlemen who offered similar services.

Standardised testing in India is a heroic and misguided attempt to compensate, over three short hours, for a young lifetime’s worth of inequities of caste, class, gender, language, region and religion, and the crushing inadequacy of the state-run schooling system. It is the only consideration for achieving college admissions or government employment. Nothing else matters – not your grades over 12 years of school, nor any hobbies, interests or transformative life experiences.

The competition is so intense, and India’s schools so poor that, according to the National Statistics and Sampling Office, a quarter of all students in India are enrolled in tuition centres. In some states, that figure is as high as 90%. The private tuition industry grew 35% over a five-year period from 2008 to 2013, as reported in a 2013 survey by the Indian Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and is expected to be worth around £27bn by 2015.

This fevered demand for after-school classes has turned tuition centres into well-known brands – represented by star students who have secured the highest test results, whose bespectacled and slightly woebegone faces are plastered, like football stars, on billboards along rural highways, crowded railway stations, dusty bus stands, and outside schools and colleges.

The tuition industry has taken over entire towns, such as Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where students come from across the country to sleep in cramped hostels, subsisting on fried snacks and shuttling from coaching centre to coaching centre under the tutelage of “celebrity” teachers. While established centres advertise “world-class” facilities and faculties, less well-known institutes offer tales of improbable success, such as the poster I saw in Kanpur for a centre called The New Tech Education, featuring four young women in hijab and celebrating a “Miracle in the history of pre medical institute, all the 4 sisters of middle class family became doctor.”

The explosion of tuition centres, and the scarcity of jobs, has only intensified the desperation to grasp the tiny number of university places and jobs that are made available each year. “The impostor system has its roots in the world of the tuition centres,” I was told by a medical student who I met at his college hostel in Gorakhpur, in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, where Sagar had recruited most of his fraudulent candidates. “Centres conduct weekly exams and post the results on their bulletin boards, which makes it easy for touts to spot both – bright students who can work as impostors, and weak students looking to cheat their tests,” he said.

“Once I started doing well in my tests, touts started calling me every week promising me 100,000 rupees (£1,000) for two days’ work. He said, I’d be flown to an examination centre, put up in a five-star hotel, and flown back to home – all I had to do was solve a paper.” My source said he had declined their overtures – but one of his classmates did not, and is now in jail in a Vyapam-related case.

Beginning in the late 1990s, investigators allege, Sagar and his out-of-town impostors helped hundreds of students cheat the medical exams. But eventually Sagar’s ambitions widened, and he turned to a man called Nitin Mohindra.

* * *

Nitin Mohindra is a short, pudgy manwith a receding hairline, descending paunch, and lampshade moustache, who joined Vyapam in 1986 at the age of 21 as a data entry operator. By the time he met Jagdish Sagar, he had risen through the ranks to become the agency’s principal systems analyst, without ever drawing much attention to himself.

His colleagues recalled that he had only twice been the subject of any office gossip – both times for arriving at work in slightly flashy new cars: a Honda City in 2008, and Renault Duster SUV a few years later. “And he wore very nice shirts,” one colleague told me. “Nothing fancy, but you could tell that the material was just better quality than everyone else’s shirts.”

In 2009, police claim, Sagar and Mohindra had a meeting in Sagar’s car in Bhopal’s New Market bazaar, where the doctor made an unusual proposition: he would give Mohindra the application forms of groups of test-takers, and Mohindra would alter their “roll numbers” to ensure they were seated together so they could cheat from each other. According to Mohindra’s statement to the police, Sagar “offered to pay me 25,000 rupees (£250) for each roll number I changed.”

Salavat Fidai
Photograph: WENN

This came to be known as the “engine-bogie” system. The “engine” would be one of Sagar’s impostors – a bright student from a medical college, taking the exam on behalf of a paying customer – who would also pull along the lower-paying clients sitting next to him by supplying them with answers.

Vyapam officials showed me seating plans from examination centres to illustrate how Mohindra ensured that engines and bogies not only sat together, but were allotted seats in the last few benches in each examination room – far from the moderator – to make it easier for them to cheat. From 2009 to 2013, the police claim, Mohindra tampered with seating assignment for at least 737 of Sagar’s clients taking the state medical exam.

The scam became even more sophisticated in 2011, when the Madhya Pradesh state government appointed Pankaj Trivedi, a lecturer at a government college in Indore, as the controller of examinations at Vyapam – responsible for ensuring the security of the testing process. According to the police, Trivedi, who is now in jail, came under pressure from influential state ministers and officials to provide jobs and admissions for their relatives and friends. New to the job, Trivedi turned to Mohindra, who devised a solution that was dazzling in its simplicity. Students who had paid to have their results fixed were told to attempt only those questions for which they knew the answers, and leave the rest blank.

“Mohindra hooked all of Vyapam’s computers to a common office network and retained all administrator privileges,” said Tarun Pithode, an energetic young civil servant who was appointed Vyapam’s new director to set things straight after the scam broke. After the multiple-choice exam sheets were scanned, Mohindra could access the computer that stored the results, and alter the answers as he wished.

Once the results had been altered on the computer, Mohindra would approach the exam observers and ask for the original answer sheet, claiming that the student had requested a copy under India’s Right to Information Act. He would then sit in Trivedi’s office and fill out the originals so that they tallied with the altered version saved on the computer

The most glaring example of this method was discovered in the case of Anita Prasad, a daughter of Prem Chand Prasad, the personal secretary to Chief Minister Chouhan. She had passed the PMT exam in 2012 with the assistance of Trivedi and Mohindra – but failed to follow their instructions, and attempted to answer all of the questions, many of them incorrectly. When police investigators later obtained a copy of her original answer sheet, they found that Vyapam officials had used correction fluid to blank out her wrong answers and pencil in the correct ones instead.

“In our review, we found almost every system had been subverted,” Pithode said. “For example, every question paper set has an ‘answer key’ that is put into a self-sealing envelope before the exam and opened only at the time of tabulating results. Trivedi would seal the envelope in the presence of observers, but later would simply tear open the envelope, make copies of the key, and put the original document into a new envelope.”

Over the course of only two years, police allege, Mohindra and Trivedi conspired to fix the results of 13 different examinations – for doctors, food inspectors, transport constables, police constables and police sub-inspectors, two different kinds of school teachers, dairy supply officers and forest guards – which had been taken by a total of 3.2 million students.

Amidst this tangle of impostors, engine-bogies and altered answer sheets, the police soon found a spreadsheet on Nitin Mohindra’s hard drive that listed the names of hundreds of students who had paid to cheat the exams – along with the names of the minister, bureaucrat or fixer who had referred the student to Mohindra and the agreed payment.

The list included political heavyweights such as Uma Bharati, a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh who is now the water minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet – and a longtime rival of Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

With the police in possession of Mohindra’s spreadsheet and a ready list of suspects, the case seemed to be heading to a speedy closure. But in February this year, the opposition Congress party – which had been demanding for months that Chouhan resign over the scam – made a startling claim. The police taskforce, they alleged, had tampered with the spreadsheet of conspirators to remove the name of the chief minister and replace it with the names of his rivals. The changes were made in “at least 48 places”, the Congress leader Digvijaya Singh – another former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh – claimed when we met in his office in New Delhi. “The chief minister’s name was either removed all together, or replaced with the name of Uma Bharati.”

* * *

The Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case in July of this year. But there is little reason to believe that its findings will resolve the scandal. In 2013, India’s Supreme Court famously described the country’s premier investigating agency as a “caged parrot” for its susceptibility to political pressure from the reigning central government. And while the investigation drags on, it has been further muddied by an elaborate and increasingly impenetrable series of allegations and counter-allegations between the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress over the veracity of the evidence seized from Mohindra’s computer.

Two days after Mohindra’s arrest in 2013, a policeman showed up at the office of Prashant Pandey, a cyber-security expert with pointed sideburns, bouffant hair, a handlebar moustache and a taste for fitted waistcoats.

Pandey is the proprietor of a firm called Techn07. In a detailed resume he sent me after our first meeting, Pandey claimed to have helped the Madhya Pradesh police crack cases involving Islamist terrorists, tax evaders, kidnappings, and political murders – along with the Vyapam investigation. (The head of the Vyapam taskforce did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but state officials and police officers confirmed that Pandey had done work for the Indian Revenue Service and the Vyapam taskforce.)

“The policeman said his seniors had seized a hard drive from a suspect, but the local police station did not have a SATA cable to connect it to their desktop,” Pandey recalled when we met in his lawyer’s office in Delhi. “I gave him a cable, but the policeman wanted to make sure the connector was working and so he plugged it into one of my computers.” Pandey said that once he connected the drive, his computer automatically began to make a mirror image. The policeman had a cup of tea and left.

Two months later, Pandey said, the Vyapam taskforce paid him to install hidden cameras in their interrogation cells in Bhopal. (Pandey showed me a bill, dated March 2014, for a “bullet camera”, a Sony voice recorder, and various accessories, along with copies of cheques from the state finance ministry, to prove he had worked for the government in the past.)

Pandey said that he had worked for the Vyapam taskforce for more than six months – until the relationship soured in June 2014, when the Congress party released phone records alleging that Sadhna Singh, the wife of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, had made 139 calls from the chief minister’s residence to the ringleaders of the scam, Nitin Mohindra and Pankaj Trivedi. (The chief minister dismissed the allegations as a fabrication, and the matter was never investigated by the police.)

The police arrested Pandey, and jailed him on charges of trying to sell confidential phone records. His computers were seized, he said, and he was interrogated for three days. “All they asked me was, ‘What do you know about the chief minister and Vyapam.’” He was released on bail, but claims he was picked up again in the middle of the night, and taken to a safe house for further interrogation. “They said, you give anyone any more information and you are finished,” he told me.

“I decided to fight back and expose all these corrupt officials,” Pandey continued. “I realised that I had a mirror image of Nitin Mohindra’s hard drive, and on comparing the Excel sheet submitted by the police in court, and the Excel sheet from my copy of Mohindra’s hard drive, I realised that the police had doctored the evidence to save the chief minister.” Through his lawyer, Pandey leaked the information to the Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, who released it to the public.

The state government insists that it is Pandey – and the Congress party – who have tampered with the evidence. The Madhya Pradesh police submitted Mohindra’s hard drive to a government forensic laboratory in Gujarat, which certified the authenticity of their version of the document. Pandey’s lawyers, on the other hand, submitted his copy of the spreadsheet to a well-regarded private forensic lab in Bangalore, which verified that his was the original copy. So the BJP-led government has its own version of the evidence, and the Congress opposition has another – a neat parable for the general condition of Indian political debate. It will fall to the Supreme Court (and perhaps yet another forensic lab) to decide whose report to believe.

In the meantime, Mohindra’s lawyer, Ehtesham Qureshi, has seized on the controversy to insist that the case against his client has been fabricated. “If the police have altered the Excel sheet in my client’s hard drive,” Qureshi told me, “how can we trust any of the supposed evidence seized from his computer?” The police, he alleges, have kept Mohindra in jail for two years by filing a succession of cases against him, one each 90 days, to prevent him from becoming eligible for bail. “My client, who is a poor, middle-class person, is being made a scapegoat to protect the wealthy and powerful,” Qureshi said. “They are going to keep him in forever, because if he gets out and starts speaking, who knows what will happen.”

* * *

When I met Rajendra Shukla, Madhya Pradesh’s minister for public relations, power and electricity, and mines and minerals – the man with the unenviable task of managing the fallout from the Vyapam scam – he calmly insisted that the massive scale of the multiple ongoing investigations was proof that the state government had nothing to hide.

“Several senior people have been arrested in connection with this case,” Shukla told me one evening at his residence in Bhopal. “This means no one is being shielded and the probe has been conducted in a fair way.” He declared that the chief minister was completely innocent, and added – very plausibly – that “if senior people had not been arrested, the opposition would have said this is a cover up.”

But what of the deaths? “Please read this booklet,” Shukla said, reaching for a glossy pamphlet titled Vyapam: Propaganda and Reality. “It should answer most of your questions.”

The 23-page booklet, which the state government has distributed widely in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, praises Chouhan’s administration for its swift and decisive action in appointing a police taskforce to investigate the case, and reviews each fatality alleged to be connected to Vyapam in succinct paragraphs, nearly all of which end with some variation on the following phrase: “The family has not expressed any doubt about his death so far.”

The booklet considers the deaths of 31 people: 11 died in road accidents, five allegedly committed suicide, two drowned in ponds, and three lost their lives to “excessive liquor consumption” – all of which have come under suspicion precisely because of the apparent reluctance of the state police to investigate any of the deaths allegedly connected to the scandal. Shukla and his government, however, insist that all these deaths, while tragic, have no connection to the Vyapam scandal to begin with.

Namrata Damor, the young woman found dead on the railway tracks in 2012, is not mentioned in the government’s list of deaths allegedly linked to Vyapam. When I met her father Mehtab, however, he also insisted that his daughter had no connection to the scam.

But why would anyone want to kill his daughter? “She fell into bad company,” he said, “When a young girl from a small town like Meghnagar goes to a city like Indore, there are always people who could prey on her.”

Yet after our meeting, I spoke to Rahul Karaiya, the local journalist who had gone to interview Damor with the television reporter Akshay Singh shortly before Singh’s death – which remains unsolved. Karaiya sent me a video clip from a “sting operation” that had been conducted by a local TV station four years earlier.

The clip, from 2011 – prior to Damor’s death – records Gaurav Patni, who identifies himself as a fourth-year student at a city medical college, speaking with a reporter on the assumption that his camera was off. Patni claims that he is planning to get out of the business of fixing Vyapam exams because of the increasing difficulty in getting people through and collecting their payments.

Salavat Fidai
Photograph: WENN

“Last year we got only two students through, I’ll even tell you the names,” he says, “One is a girl from Indore, Namrata Damor … You can ask around, they haven’t even paid as yet.”

Was Namrata killed because she did not, or could not, pay whoever had rigged her exam? Her father, understandably, refused to entertain such speculation. He said the police, who had left him waiting years for any news in his daughter’s death, were now floating wild theories to cover up their own incompetence.

The police aren’t the only ones floating theories. The scandal was so vast that almost everyone I met in Madhya Pradesh knew someone connected to it – and it quickly became clear that Vyapam had become the stuff of myth and legend: everyone had a theory, and no scenario was too implausible to entertain.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times earlier this year, a policeman, whose own son was accused in the scam and died in a road accident, advanced an unlikely yet tantalising theory. He argued that the Vyapam taskforce – under pressure to conduct a credible probe that nevertheless absolved top government officials – had falsely named suspects who were already deceased in order to shield the real culprits.

A competing theory, voiced by journalists covering the scandal in Bhopal, proposes that it will be all but impossible to determine whether the deaths are connected to Vyapam, because the families of many of the dead refuse to admit that their children paid money to cheat on their exams – for fear that the police might arrest the bereaved parents as well.

All this suggests that it is unlikely that the truth behind the Vyapam deaths will ever be established. Rather than a simple scam, Vyapam appears to be a vast societal swindle – one that reveals the hollowness at the heart of practically every Indian state institution: inadequate schools, a crushing shortage of meaningful jobs, a corrupt government, a cynical middle class happy to cheat the system to aid their own children, a compromised and inept police force and a judiciary incapable of enforcing its laws.

* * *

While the investigation goes nowhere, some of the hundreds of students implicated in the scam have begun to feel like its victims. In Indore, I met a young man who I’ll call Ishan. The son of an impoverished lower-caste family in rural western Madhya Pradesh, neither of his parents can read or write. After moving to Indore in 2007, he spent four years at a series of tuition centres preparing for the medical exam, which he finally passed in 2011. Two years later, when he was a student at medical college, he was swept up in the Vyapam investigation and accused of serving as an agent for one of Jagdish Sagar’s impostors.

“Students preparing for their exams would often approach me for advice,” Ishan told me. “One day a boy asked me for a phone number for a doctor known to Jagdish Sagar. I gave the number because the doctor was our senior from medical school.” Ishan’s friend cleared the exam, was picked up by the police, and mentioned Ishan’s name in the interrogation.

“Now the police claim I am a middleman in the Vyapam scam,” he said, “I spent three months in jail before I was granted bail. My college admission has been cancelled, six years of my life are wasted, and my dream of becoming a doctor is over. I know I will be exonerated, the police have no evidence against me, but it will take the rest of my life to clear my name. Now tell me, why shouldn’t someone in my place commit suicide?”

At a lawyer’s office in Bhopal, I heard a similar tale from a man who had come to help secure bail for his brother, another accused in the scam.

“My brother was arrested four months ago for paying someone to ensure he cleared the police constable exam in 2012,” the man told me. “Some people in our village said, ‘This is Madhya Pradesh, nothing happens without money.’ My brother sold his land and paid them 600,000 rupees.”

In August that year, he was one of 403,253 people who appeared for the recruitment test to become a police constable. When he passed it was clear to everyone that he had a bright future ahead of him – and so he was soon married off. Four months after his marriage, his name popped up in the scam, he lost his job and he was hauled off to prison.

“So now my brother has a wife and his first child, but no job, no land, no money, no prospects and a court case to fight,” the man said. “You can write your story, but write that this is a state of 75 million corrupt people, where there is nothing in the villages and if a man comes to the city in search of an honest day’s work, the politicians and their touts demand money and then throw him into jail for paying.”

It seemed plausible that some of Vyapam deaths really were suicides – that people did hang themselves, jump off trains, and drink themselves to death rather than meeting their demise at the hands of mysterious assassins. Many of the accused had, at great personal expense, through fraud or perseverance, succeeded in overcoming a system designed to reward a microscopic minority with the lifelong privilege of permanent employment, only to see their rewards snatched away after the fact. But these deaths were not “unrelated to Vyapam”, as the government kept insisting. Rather, they seemed a consequence of the prevailing corruption common to both the scandal and and investigation that shows no sign of ever concluding.

“A scam like this is going to take years to investigate,” a lawyer representing several of the thousands of accused told me. “The CBI just doesn’t have the manpower to investigate so many deaths and arrests. When the CBI took the case from the police, they literally sent a truck to gather all the documents.”

So the case, in all likelihood, will ultimately collapse into a giant, disorganised pile of court hearings and paperwork. Memories of the dead will fade away, while the living spend the rest of their lives appearing in court to defend themselves from the accusation that they once cheated on their exams.

* * *

On 9 October this year, the Supreme Court reviewed the progress of the Vyapam case with some satisfaction, noting that the mysterious deaths had suddenly ceased since the investigation was taken away from the Madhya Pradesh police and handed to the CBI.

“I was wondering that from the time the court had ordered the CBI probe into the case and decided to monitor the investigations,” the chief justice, HL Dattu, asked, “how come not a single death has been reported?”

One week later, the driver of a train en route to Bhopal spotted a corpse on the tracks. The body was later identified as Vijay Bahadur, a retired Madhya Pradesh bureaucrat, who had served as an observer for at least two Vyapam exams. His wife, who had been travelling with him, told the police that Bahadur had stepped out of their train compartment and into the corridor to shut the door of their carriage, and never returned. The CBI has now added Bahadur to the list of suspected Vyapam-related fatalities – and begun an investigation into his death.