Discussing Madhya Pradesh’s Vyapam scandal, which began with students hiring proxies and bribing exam invigilators, a friend reminded me of the case of Ashwini Gupta. On April 9, 1935, Gupta, then a young professor in Calcutta’s Ripon College, took leave from work pleading ill health, and instead sat for a BA economics exam under the name of a student he tutored privately called Samaresh Mukherjee. Gupta’s ruse was discovered, he was soon arrested, and in December that year sentenced by a magistrate to six months hard labour. On  April 22, 1936, the Calcutta High Court, hearing the case of Ashwini Kumar Gupta vs. Emperor affirmed the guilty verdict.

Seventy-seven years later, in June 2012, Rajat Kumar Gupta, one of the world’s most respected business leaders and Ashwini Kumar Gupta’s son, was convicted for insider trading by a New York court. Gupta had passed on information about Warren Buffet’s prospective investment in Goldman Sachs, a company on whose board he sat, to Raj Rajaratnam of the Galleon Group hedge fund. The prosecutor in the case was Preet Bharara, like Gupta and Rajaratnam a man of South Asian descent. Writing in Newsweek, Suketu Mehta contrasted Bharara, who had lived his entire life in the United States, with Gupta and Rajaratnam, who had been brought up in India and Sri Lanka respectively:
“The Rajaratnam case can be seen as a metaphor of the difference between immigrants from South Asia, who have a more elastic view of rules and a more keenly developed art of networking, and their children, the first generation, schooled to play by American rules. Preet Bharara came to the US when he was an infant. Yet for all his complaints about unfairness, Rajaratnam, surprisingly, still believes in American justice. 'In Sri Lanka I would have given the judge 50,000 rupees and he’d be sitting having dinner at my house. Here, I got my shot. The American justice system is by and large fair.'”

Like Suketu Mehta, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati suggested that Rajat Gupta’s downfall was, “… the product of Indian culture”. Unlike Mehta, though, Bhagwati was sympathetic to the immigrant perspective. In an interview with Aseem Chhabra, he gave Gupta the benefit of doubt, suggesting the former chief executive of McKinsey & Company may not have fully understood the implications of divulging information about Goldman Sachs. “I think most people will see Rajat as somewhat of a victim,” Bhagwati concluded.

Breaking the rules

What Bhagwati said about Gupta has turned out to be true of suspects in the Vyapam case. As hundreds of them filled Madhya Pradesh’s prisons, the public began to view students and parents who broke rules as victims rather than culprits. The Madhya Pradesh government won two sweeping victories in elections even as the extent of the Vyapam deception was being brought to light by a few brave whistleblowers.

It would be absurd to suggest that South Asia has a monopoly on cheating, or on parental help in that endeavour. Parents and children have rioted side by side in more than one Chinese city following crackdowns on exam fraud. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of the practice within India and its widespread tolerance is striking as well as depressing. (Remember the previous occasion when Indian education was in the international spotlight?)

The Vyapam racket, now that it has finally got the prominence it always deserved, could have offered the Aam Aadmi Party the perfect opportunity to make incursions into Madhya Pradesh with its anti-corruption plank. Unfortunately, AAP has been hobbled by a series of missteps, among them the appointment as Delhi Law Minister of Jitender Singh Tomar, a man who had forged his academic credentials. Nobody would now take the party seriously if it talks of stamping out malpractices in education. And, without a strong activist political force it is unclear how we can prevent more lawyers, policemen, food inspectors, and, most frighteningly, doctors from gaining employment in state agencies without having passed the qualifying examination.

Looking back on the Ashwini Kumar Gupta episode, one is tempted to conclude that little has changed in the intervening decades. Back in 1935, though, Calcutta society was in uproar over the exposure of a professor. The fast-working criminal justice system  took cheating seriously and dealt with it ruthlessly. Gupta was tried and convicted within eight months of his offence and had his appeal heard and dismissed within a year of the misdeed. In the present situation of endlessly delayed justice, cheating is the most rational approach; certainly the cost/benefit ratio tilts heavily in its favour in examinations. Unless we find a way to impose sufficiently heavy costs on a sufficiently high number of fraudsters, especially those in high places, we will remain not only a society of cheats, but one which, thanks to defence mechanisms that come into play in such a situation, considers criminals victims.