On November 3, the Meghalaya High Court ordered the appointments of 365 teachers in government lower primary schools to be cancelled. It also directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the “criminal aspect” of the irregularities that are alleged to have marked the selection process. The appointments took place in 2010, when Ampareen Lyngdoh was the state’s education minister and purportedly involved many politicians from the state.

As Meghalaya prepares for assembly elections early next year, the high court order has put the Congress-led state government on the back foot. Lyngdoh is now a cabinet minister in the state government and corruption is likely to be a key issue in the elections.

The order has also given fresh ammunition to rival parties: the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is making a determined push to form a government in Meghalaya, and the National People’s Party, which has been gaining ground in the state, with several members of the Congress defecting to its ranks.

Shibun Lyngdoh, the BJP’s state unit president, said that this would be a major issue for his party. “In the last 10 years, in the Congress government’s tenure, rampant corruption has happened,” he contended. “People have realised that Meghalaya is sinking under corruption and BJP is the only alternative.”

The National People’s Party’s James K Sangma, the opposition chief whip in the Meghalaya assembly, said his party has been reiterating the claim that corruption is rampant in this government. “There is a very strong chorus among the people: they want a government that is accountable and at the same time transparent,” he said. “Any kind of matters related to corruption that are coming up now will definitely have an impact on the election results.”

The first sign of irregularities

The alleged irregularities first came to light when a candidate who had taken the entrance test for the teaching jobs and a civil society organisation lodged separate police complaints alleging “manipulation of [test] scores”. On October 21, 2011, the Shillong bench of the Guwahati High Court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry, stating there was “strong prima facie evidence of massive irregularities, arbitrariness and manipulations”. The CBI in its report, seen by Scroll.in, found widespread irregularities in the selection process and “tampering of marks”, allegedly carried out “under the instructions of the then Education Minister”.

However, the state government in 2012 challenged the necessity of the CBI report in an intra-court appeal to a division bench of Guwahati court, saying the matter “ought to have been left for appropriate scrutiny and inquiry by the Government”. The division bench upheld the appeal on August 16, 2012, but refused to annul the CBI report. It ruled that the new inquiry committee, under the Meghalaya government, while reexamining the evidence, should not dismiss the “beneficial assistance and guidance of the findings” of the CBI.

‘High-Level Scrutiny’

Soon, the state government formed a high-level scrutiny committee comprising three bureaucrats with a mandate to review the entire selection process and ascertain if there was any political interference in the exercise. As the committee was conducting its probe, Agnes Kharshiing of the Civil Society Women’s Organisation filed a simultaneous case of forgery and cheating against Lyngdoh and other politicians named in the CBI report. She followed up the complaint with a petition to the Supreme Court, asking for the case to be transferred from the local police to the CBI.

Meanwhile as the High-Level Scrutiny Committee also submitted its report, the Supreme Court directed the Meghalaya High Court to take up Kharshiing’s petition and “have a fresh look at the matter in the light of the two reports”. Finally, after a series of hearings, the court passed its final judgment on November 3.

An attempt to ‘cover up’?

While ordering that the case against Lyngdoh and the other politicians be transferred to the CBI again, the high court took a dim view of the state government’s conduct, saying its decision to form the high-level scrutiny committee suggested an attempt to “cover-up and give the ghosts of the scam a decent burial”, which seemed to indicate the involvement of many lawmakers. It accused the committee of looking the other way in spite of “hard facts staring on the face of the record”.

The court also ordered the state government to form a new three-member scrutiny committee headed by the chief secretary. The committee, it instructed, should examine the findings of the CBI and make a final recommendation to the state government within three months of receiving of the central investigating agency’s report.

A tainted opposition

While the Congress finds itself in troubled waters, the BJP and the National People’s Party may not be in the clear either. Apart from Ampareen Lyngdoh, the CBI’s initial report names 19 other politicians from the state – people who had allegedly recommended names of candidates to be included in the list to Lyngdoh.

Of the 19, at least two – Prestone Tynsong and Sniawbhalang Dhar – are expected to join the National People’s Party from the Congress before the elections. In fact, the party has even publicly said that Tynsong would make a fine chief minister. Besides Tynsong and Dhar, JA Lyngdoh, a Congress minister when the alleged irregularities took place, is now the vice president of the BJP’s Meghalaya unit.