At least 45 people associated with Madhya Pradesh's cash-for jobs Vyapam scam have died in suspicious circumstances and more than 2,000 arrests have been arrested since the racket came to light in 2013. But state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan seems to see all this as the collateral damage of his "pure and pious" drive to cleanse the messy system he inherited from the Congress government about 12 years ago.

“I take pride in the fact that no sooner as the irregularities in the pre-medical test admissions surfaced [in July 2013] then I ordered a comprehensive investigation into the whole gamut of the admission and recruitment process," Chouhan told journalists at his residence on Sunday  morning in the wake  of the mysterious  death of  Aaj Tak reporter Akshay Singh  in Jhabua district  on Saturday evening. "I wanted  to cleanse the rotten system. Rarely have such extensive probes been ever ordered by state governments in India. The probe is on and accused are being arrested ”

Akshay Singh  had gone to Meghnagar to interview the father of medical student Namrata Damor whose body was found near the railway tracks in Ujjain, nearly 150 km away from her home town, in January 2012. Damor had passed a rigged pre-medical test in 2009 using the services of a group whose kingpin, Dr Jagdish Sagar, was arrested in July 2013.

Controversy snowballs

Since then, the racket involving the Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal, or Vyapam, the state body in charge of professional examinations and recruitment, has snowballed into the biggest   admission and job swindle in India. Dr Sagar’s interrogation revealed that it wasn't only the medical admissions that had been manipulated: all the dozen-odd tests conducted by Vyapam for the state government jobs  had been rigged since 2008.

More than 2,000 suspects have been arrested so far by the special task force of the state police that was formed in August 2013 to investigate the scam. They include a former minister, power brokers, Vyapam officials, bureaucrats and their relatives, businessmen, inter-state job and admission racketeers, impersonators, job aspirants, middlemen besides a large number of medical students and their parents. The task force has filed a total 55 charge sheets, including 24 in job test manipulations, in various courts so far.

Horrifyingly, 33 accused or suspects involved in the racket have so far been reported dead, according to the latest report of the special investigation team formed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2014 to monitor the probe.

Unofficial figure

The unofficial figure, though, is 45, with the deaths this weekend of Akshay Singh and Jabalpur medical college dean Dr Arun Sharma. Dr Sharma was found dead in a Delhi hotel on Sunday in mysterious circumstances. He was helping the the task force scrutinize students who secured admission through rigging the medical tests since 2008. His death was all over the news channels when the chief minister was addressing the media.

However, Chief Minister Chouhan pleaded ignorance about the incident, saying he was awaiting a report about it. As it turns out, Dr Sharma’s predecessor Dr DK Sakalle had allegedly committed suicide exactly a year ago in his Jabalpur residence by setting himself aflame. Dr Sakalle  had also been scrutinizing bogus admissions in the Jabalpur medical college.

Until the death of journalist Akshay Singh, the chief minister had blithely deputised his cabinet colleagues to defend the government on the issue. Ministers Dr Narottam Mishra and Uma Shankar Gupta had been handling the media till now. Their stock response would be that the deaths were unrelated to the scam, that 14 deaths had occurred before the scam surfaced, that 11 of the suspects had died in road accidents and four had committed suicide. Although the explanations were far from convincing, media attention had begun to slack of late.

Two deaths

But on June 28, the near-simultaneous deaths of two accused in Indore and Gwalior brought the scam in sharper focus.  Narendra Singh Tomar, a veterinary surgeon, died of alleged heart attack in Indore central jail. He had been accused of helping two medical students to fraudulently clear the test in 2009.

On the same day, Dr Rajenra Arya died  in a Gwalior hospital due to kidney ailment. He had been on bail since July 2014  after being arrested for providing impersonators  for two candidates taking the medical test in 2009.

The two deaths had the national media houses rushing their correspondents to Madhya Pradesh to report on the ever-deepening mysteries of the Vyapam suspects.

Chouhan told journalists on Sunday that he would write to the special investigation team to probe Akshay Singh's mysterious death but added that it was for the Madhya Pradesh High Court to take a call on this. "The state government completely withdrew from the probe when the High Court took upon itself monitoring by setting up a special investigation team under a retired justice," he claimed.

Chouhan responded to most queries about the deaths of the suspects and potential threats to surviving ones with the same answer: The High Court, which is monitoring the probe, should act on such matters.

Demands for CBI probe

About a  CBI probe into the scam ‒ a persistent demand from the opposition Congress ‒ the chief minister again passed the buck. The state government would have no objection if the High Court orders a CBI probe. "But the state government  will not recommend  a probe by any other agency  since the court is seized of the matter and  he has full faith in the India’s judicial system," he said.

The chief minister’s reluctance to call a CBI probe is being viewed as a desperate attempt to save his own skin. Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh had in February submitted what he claimed was "incontrovertible proof" to the special investigation team about Chouhan’s alleged direct complicity in the racket.

The evidence, the Congress leader said, was contained in an Excel sheet that he had procured through from a whistleblower who had collaborated with the special task force in cracking the data from the hard disk of Vyapam chief system analyst Nitin Mahindra. This Excel sheet had the chief minister’s name entered as recommender in 48 places for candidates for contact teacher jobs.

Tampering allegations

However, the Congress has alleged that Chief Minister Chouhan had the Excel sheet tampered with. As a result, Chouhan's name has been replaced with those of Union minister Uma Bharti and “Raj Bhawan”. Madhya Pradesh governor Ram Naresh Yadav is accused of taking Rs 3 lakh each from five candidates for the forest guard test.

Although the Madhya Pradesh High Court has has given the chief minister a clean chit, the risk of the CBI revisiting this evidence still haunts Chouhan.

Chouhan looked unmistakably rattled during the press conference by  the nationwide outrage the series of deaths over the last one and half months. He is acutely conscious of the fact that his Digvijay Singh last week filed a fresh petition in the Supreme Court asking for a CBI probe. The court had in December 2014 upheld the Madhya Pradesh High Court’s decision to carry on the probe under the High Court's supervision.  The BJP frequently cites this Supreme Court order to dismiss the Congress demand for a fresh probe. But given the massive political storm over the deaths, the Supreme Court might  find it hard to ignore the Congress leader’s plea this time.