On May 3, the Assam Police arrested three bureaucrats across towns in the state for their alleged involvement in a cash-for-jobs scam. This is the latest in a series of arrests since November. With each arrest, the scam appears to grow in scale. All three held now are circle officers who had cleared the Assam Civil Services exam conducted by the Assam Public Service Commission, a constitutional body that recruits candidates for a range of state government jobs, allegedly by bribing its chairman.

The police said they had recovered their answer sheets from the residence of the chairman, Rakesh Kumar Paul, who was arrested in November. These were reportedly duplicate answer sheets, written after the actual examination was held. “We found the answer sheets during a raid at Paul’s house in November itself,” said Surjit Singh Panesar, the investigating officer. “We were waiting for verification from the forensic laboratory to arrest them.”

A trap and arrests

The first lead in the case came in November, when a job aspirant made a complaint. “A dental surgeon who had appeared for the recruitment examination for a job in the health and family welfare department complained to us that one Nabakanta Patir had asked her for money in lieu of the said job,” Panesar said.

The police caught Patir red-handed, accepting money from the dental surgeon, Panesar said. Patir’s arrest opened a can of warms. “His phone records revealed he was in regular contact with Paul and another member of the commission called Samedur Rahman,” said the officer. He added that they also found text messages sent by Patir to the two detailing payments he had collected from aspiring candidates on their behalf.

A rigged system

“Investigations are still ongoing but from what we know so far, around 40-50 people got jobs by paying money from 2013 to 2016,” said Panesar, conceding that the number could be much higher in the time to come. “Each of these people paid around Rs 30 lakhs to Rs 40 lakh,” he added.

Middlemen like Patir usually collected the money from job aspirants. But Paul, in many cases, accepted payments personally as well, the investigating officer said.

So far, the police have arrested 11 people in connection with the case, seven of them officials of the Assam Public Service Commission. Two suspected middlemen are absconding, Panesar said.

According to Ranjit Borthakur, a retired Indian Army brigadier who was in charge of the Assam Public Service Commission till last month, after Paul’s arrest, the rigging took place in various ways. In written exams, question papers were leaked or answer sheets replaced, he said, and at the next stage, interview boards were formed to favour candidates who had paid up. “Often, after the board had graded the candidates, Paul and his men would change and manipulate them [the grades],” he added.

Over the last decade, stories of job aspirants being told to pay up have become common. A 28-year-old Guwahati-based lawyer, a graduate of Delhi University, who cleared the written test of the Assam Civil Services exam in 2015 said that he was told by an employee of the commission that he had to pay Rs 30 lakhs if he wanted to clear the interview. “Since I had heard that one cannot get through without paying, I decided to find out how much exactly,” said the lawyer who did not want to be identified. “I decided against paying.”

The chairman

Paul, a lawyer, was appointed to the commission by the Congress state government in 2008 and made chairman in 2013. His tenure was marked by controversies. Several civil society organisations, such as the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and the Assam Public Works Committee, had clamoured for his removal over allegations of corruption and irregularities in the commission even before Patir’s arrest led the police to him. In 2013, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Department of the Assam Police had carried out a preliminary inquiry on a “jobs bazaar” allegedly run by Paul.

According to an Indian Express report, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Department of the Assam Police received a letter from the Central Bureau of Investigation in March 2015. It cited allegations that records were manipulated in the recruitment processes of the Assam Public Service Commission and that Paul collected hefty bribes. The letter was forwarded to the state government, which, however, did not act on it, the report said.

Assam Public Service Commission chairman Rakesh Kumar Paul, who was arrested in November, allegedly received bribes personally in many cases. (Credit: PTI)

Based on a petition filed by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, which works for the rights of small farmers and farm labourers, the Gauhati High Court asked for a report on Paul’s assets by the vigilance department. In October 2015, it asked for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation on disproportionate assets allegedly held by Paul. It also instructed the state government to institute a judicial enquiry on the public service commission. The next month, Paul managed to get a Supreme Court stay on the order.

Political blame game

The case against Paul is “air-tight”, according to public prosecutor Bijan Mahajan. “There is very strong forensic evidence proving his involvement in the case,” he told Scroll.in. “In every apparent case of marks manipulation, the investigating agencies have found his signature.”

Mahajan is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which formed a coalition government in Assam last year. He said the current government has a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and the investigators have been given complete autonomy to carry out their investigations in a “transparent and scientific” manner. “The Congress did nothing,” he alleged.

The Congress’s Debabrata Saikia, leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, said it was unfair to say the previous government had turned a blind eye to the allegations against Paul. “I admit there was some delay for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it was an election year,” he said. “But we did constitute a committee under a senior IAS officer to look into the issue of reformation in the Assam Public Service Commission.”

In the past, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti has accused former chief minister Tarun Gogoi and his Congress government of protecting Paul, an allegation Gogoi has denied.

While no political leaders have been arrested so far, investigating officer Panesar said new evidence that has surfaced may lead the police to politicians. “We cannot arrest politicians on the basis of hearsay,” he said. “If there is concrete evidence against anyone, we will not hesitate in calling them for questioning and even arresting them.”

Panesar said he has received threats over the phone, telling him to drop the case.

Corruption in the ranks?

“Corruption was always there, but there was no proof,” former Army officer Ranjit Borthakur said of the Assam Public Service Commission.

The other two members of the commission when Paul was arrested, Samedur Rahman and Basanta Kumar Doley, are also in jail. Pabitra Kaibartya, the deputy controller of examinations of the commission who was reportedly close to Paul, is also in police custody.

“It is unfair to say that everyone paid their way through, but a significant number definitely seemed to have,” Borthakur said. He blamed the developments on the process of selecting the chairman and members of the commission: “In the absence of clear service rules, appointments were made on the whims of politicians.”

While money may not have always changed hands in the appointment process, there was a culture of favouritism, he said. “Because the chairman and members were all political appointees, candidates endorsed by politicians seemed to have had an edge,” he added.

“If our officers have become officers by paying money, it means they will not hesitate in accepting bribes too,” he cautioned.