The deaths of Aaj Tak reporter Akshay Singh on Saturday and Jabalpur medical college dean Dr Arun Sharma on Sunday cast the Vyapam scam in a new, disturbing light. Singh collapsed in Madhya Pradesh just after interviewing the family of a student associated with the cash-for-jobs scandal who had died under mysterious circumstances. Sharma was found dead in a Delhi hotel on Sunday. He was helping investigators scrutinize students who had secured admission through rigging the medical tests since 2008

The special investigation team probing the case has admitted that at least 23 people associated with the case have had “unnatural deaths”. An unofficial count puts the figure at closer to 45. The deaths of the journalist and the doctor, if proved to be linked to the scam, could point to a cover-up of frightening proportions.

Unfortunately, in this country, the death of witnesses and accused in criminal cases is not a rare phenomenon. But in Vyapam, the clear and present danger seems to have even engulfed those covering and investigating the scam. Over the last week, special task force officers in MP have complained of threat calls. What closely guarded wrongdoing could have such vicious repercussions?

The case so far
The scam involves widespread irregularities in the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, also known as the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pareeksha Mandal or Vyapam. The body is responsible for conducting admission and recruitment tests for professional courses and government jobs. An initial probe into the manipulation of pre-medical tests expanded in scope to include a range of admissions and recruitments, including pre-engineering and teaching institutions. Apart from thousands of students taking intensely competitive examinations, doctors, teachers, constables and other appointees to government posts stand to be affected by it.

Candidates reportedly paid up to Rs 25 lakh to be pushed through the system. In some cases, officials were bribed to recruit candidates who hadn't made the cut. In other cases, candidates hired smarter people to take the entrance exams on their behalf.  Those implicated include corrupt Vyapam officials as well as bureaucrats, politicians and influential middlemen. Accusations have reached the highest levels of government, including Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, his wife Sadhna Singh and Governor Ram Naresh Yadav.

The scam broke in July 2013, when evidence of rigging, dating as far back as 2007, began to surface. The investigation initially focused on Dr Jagdish Sagar, who confessed, after being arrested, to having helped about 140 students cheat their way through medical examinations. Since then, the admissions of 1,087 students who entered medical colleges between 2008 and 2013 have been cancelled. About 2,000 people have been arrested, including the former MP Education Minister Laxmikant Sharma, and mining baron Sudhir Sharma.

The probe and whistleblowers
The probe itself is a matter of contestation. FIRs on impersonation at the medical examinations have been filed at several police stations and the Indore Crime Branch made the first arrests. By August 2013, the inquiry was handed over to a special task force of the Madhya Pradesh police.

In November 2014, the Madhya Pradesh High Court appointed a special investigation team to monitor the probe, even as it rejected petitions for the Central Bureau of Investigation to take over. It has been clarified that the SIT is not empowered to carry out independent investigations, merely to monitor the task force's probe.

The story so far has been driven by the revelations of a number of whistleblowers, such as the ophthalmologist, Anand Rai, and social activist Ashish Chaturvedi. Prashant Pandey, a forensic expert, also joined the ranks last year when he alleged that documents being used by the task force had been tampered with. The original documents related to the case had mentioned the chief minister’s name 48 times, Pandey said. In the documents used by the task force, the name had allegedly been excised.

Matters were complicated further when Pandey fled to Delhi, alleging intimidation by the Madhya Pradesh police and others in positions of power. The Delhi High Court in February directed the Delhi Police to provide Pandey with security for two months.

Political response
If the state government is serious about getting to the bottom of the case and clearing its name, the political signals it has sent out so far are not convincing. Chouhan continues to resist demands for a CBI probe.

When Pandey pleaded for security in Delhi, the state government chose to accuse him of “political affiliations” instead of assuring him safety in Madhya Pradesh. Other statements by the government have been equally cavalier. After the deaths of two more accused last week, State Home Minister Babulal Gaur had philosophised, “Whoever is born has to die one day. It’s mrityulok.”

What is at stake here?
Needless to say, the reputation of Madhya Pradesh's BJP government and chief minister, currently serving his third consecutive term, hangs in the balance. But the case has more far-reaching implications for the credibility of the state. For one, the Vyapam scam has sent out a damaging signal to thousands of young candidates who look towards government jobs and higher qualifications for a better life. This scandal demonstrates that there is no level playing field, that money can buy the security hard work cannot assure.

The death of journalist Akshay Singh seems to throw another reality into sharp relief. Journalists covering politics and corruption in India are increasingly at risk. Akshay Singh’s death comes weeks after Joginder Singh, a freelance journalist in Uttar Pradesh, was set alight and murdered. His investigations had implicated the state's dairy minister, Ram Murti Singh, and two senior police officers in land seizures and illegal mining.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 35 journalists have been targeted and killed in India since 1992. Of these, 43% were covering politics and 31% corruption. Corruption and intimidation are so entrenched in the political and state machinery that they impose de facto restrictions on the freedom of the press, even where no official regulations exist.