On Sunday, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a first information report about alleged irregularities in the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test, which was conducted on May 5 for admissions to undergraduate medical courses.

The FIR was filed after the Economic Offences Unit of Bihar told the Centre that the irregularities in the examination “clearly suggests a paper leak”.

The findings in the report submitted by the Economic Offences Unit of Bihar is significant because allegations of paper leak had emerged in the state on May 5 – the day of the examination itself. The Bihar Police had even arrested two men in connection with the matter on the same day.

The Bihar Police made a total of 13 arrests before the CBI took over the investigation on Sunday. In Gujarat too, the police had registered a case of attempted malpractice in the examination, three days after it was held.

One of the arrested men in Bihar, who appeared for NEET, has confessed that the question paper was leaked a night before the examination.

These developments took place even as the Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and the National Testing Agency, which conducted the examination, repeatedly denied large-scale irregularities in the examination.

Even the FIR filed by the CBI on Sunday has been registered on the basis of a complaint filed by the Union education ministry which only alleges “certain isolated incidents [that] occurred in a few states”. The central government’s decision to adopt this mode of denial seems to have delayed action by its agencies even as investigations in at least two states – Bihar and Gujarat – have been underway for more than a month.

Red flags

Hours after the NEET examination on May 5, an FIR was filed in the Shastri Nagar police station in Patna based on allegations that the question paper had been leaked.

On May 10, The Times of India cited the police as saying that 20 students had received the question paper before the examination. The police identified Samastipur-resident Sikander Yadavendu as the person who rented a house in Patna to lodge the 20 aspirants who were given the question papers on May 4 – a day before the examination.

The police’s version was corroborated by Anurag Yadav, a NEET candidate in Bihar, who told the authorities that Yadavendu, his uncle, had dropped him at a house in Patna where he was given the question paper.

Meanwhile, in Gujarat too, the police named three persons, including a school teacher in Godhra, in an FIR registered on May 8 for attempting to commit malpractice in the NEET examination.

The FIR stated that at the Jay Jalaram School, an examination centre in Godhra, students who had allegedly paid money to an alleged racket were asked to skip questions to which they did not know the answers during the examination. The answers to the blank questions were to be filled out by the teachers involved in the alleged racket, the FIR said. The ploy was thwarted during a raid at the examination centre by an inspection squad from the education department, according to the FIR.

On June 14, the Gujarat Police arrested five persons for alleged malpractice.

Even as these allegations were being investigated by the state police in Gujarat and Bihar, the National Testing Agency maintained that the examination had been conducted in a fair manner. In a press release issued on the day of the examination, the agency said that in an “isolated incident” at a school in Rajasthan’s Sawai Madhopur, incorrect question papers had been distributed. “Despite efforts by invigilators to prevent it, some candidates left the examination centre with question papers,” the press release noted.

As a result, “the question paper was being circulated on the internet around 4 pm, but by that time the exam had already started at all other centres across the country”, an official of the National Testing Agency told The Indian Express, “So, there has not been any ‘leak’ of the NEET UG question paper.”

Press release issued by the National Testing Agency on the day of the exam.

The National Testing Agency’s press release on the day of the examination made no mention of the developments in Gujarat and Bihar. Nor did it say anything about the purported delay in distributing question papers that led to grace marks being awarded to 1,563 candidates in the NEET examination.

The National Testing Agency only announced that the grace marks would be awarded in a press release on June 6, two days after the results were announced, sparking a controversy over the total scores obtained by some students. In a petition filed in the Supreme Court, the Students’ Federation of India has submitted that the inflated marks led to 67 candidates securing the top rank, including six from the same examination centre. The petition sought the court’s directions to quash the NEET examination, hold a re-test.

On June 13, the Centre told the Supreme Court that the grace marks would be cancelled. The submission was made in reply to a bunch of petitions alleging question paper leaks, grace marks being awarded arbitrarily and other irregularities in the entrance examination.

Even as the Centre cancelled the decision to award grace marks, it continued to claim that the question paper had not been leaked. Till as recently as on June 12, the National Testing Agency cited the incorrect distribution of question papers in Rajasthan as its defence against allegations of paper leak.

On June 13, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan also said that there was no evidence of paper leak in the NEET examination. He also said that allegations of corruption in the National Testing Agency were unfounded.

It was only on June 21, after the Centre cancelled another examination – the University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test as its question paper was leaked – that the minister took “moral responsibility” for loss of confidence among students in competitive examination processes. The University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test for the post of assistant professor in government-funded universities and colleges held on June 18 had also been conducted by the National Testing Agency.

On June 22, the Centre removed National Testing Agency Director General Subodh Kumar Singh from his post.

Law delayed

The government’s denial of irregularities in the NEET examination also reflected in the delay in the decisions it took to address the matter.

As the controversy over the NEET and University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test exams erupted, the government notified the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024, on June 21.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to 10 years and a penalty of up to Rs 1 crore for paper leaks that are the result of “organised crime”. It had been passed by Parliament on February 6, but came to effect only after the law was notified on Friday. Four persons arrested in Maharashtra on Sunday in connection to the paper leak case, have been charged under the new law.

The Bihar and Gujarat Police were unable to file cases under this law as it had not been notified when the FIRs were registered in the two states. In addition, since the law cannot be implemented retrospectively, the CBI will not be able to prosecute culprits in the other paper leak case – that of the University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test, as the FIR in the matter was registered on June 19.

Lack of cooperation?

Besides the failure to curb alleged malpractice in the NEET examination, the National Testing Agency has also come under the scanner for not doing enough to assist the Economic Offences Unit of Bihar in its investigation.

On the day of the examination itself, the Bihar Police had found burnt remains of a purported photocopy of a question paper from a house where the arrested NEET candidates were staying, The Indian Express reported on Monday. The Economic Offences Unit of Bihar has said that 68 questions retrieved from the burnt remains were the same as on the original question paper. The serial numbers of the questions on the retrieved question paper and the original paper were also the same.

The Economic Offences Unit was unable match the burnt remains of the question paper with the original one earlier due to a delay by the National Testing Agency, which only started sharing information a week ago, according to The Indian Express.

On June 8, India Today reported that the Economic Offences Unit had received no response from the National Testing Agency after it asked for question papers for a forensic analysis of the burnt remains of the question papers it had found.

On June 15, The Telegraph too had reported that the Economic Offences Unit had in mid-May asked the National Testing Agency to provide information on the chain of custody of question papers. But the testing agency did not provide the inputs.