India's deadly exam-rigging scandal: murder, corruption, suicide and scapegoats

Since 2013, I've been reading in the Times of India's RSS feed about the Vyapam scandal that has shaken the state of Madhya Pradesh to the very highest levels, but I never understood exactly how insane and massive the scandal was until I read Aman Sethi's cogent, comprehensive A-to-Z in today's Guardian.

India's state exam system is billed as a meritocratic solution to the deeply ingrained inequalities of caste and wealth. It is the one-and-only score that can guarantee you admission to a civil service career or admission to a medical college, and with stakes that high, it is ripe for corruption (and of course, it completely fails to address inequality, because even if you're not bribing your way to a top exam mark, you can still pay big money for test preparation services).

The bribery scandal has engulfed MP's officialdom all the way to the highest levels, and an alarming number of witnesses have committed suicide or died by misadventure through the most suspicious circumstances. The human tragedy is matched by skulduggery and scandal, from the forensic expert who happened to have accidentally made an extra copy of a key spreadsheet that he says shows the government engaged in evidence-tampering to implicate their political rivals to the coroner who ruled on the suspicious death of a young woman without ever having seen the body.

The story is deep, weird, terrible and huge, and Sethi's piece was the Rosetta stone I'd been looking for to get my head around it.

But what of the deaths? "Please read this booklet," Shukla said, reaching for a glossy pamphlet titled Vyapam: Propaganda and Reality. "It should answer most of your questions."

The 23-page booklet, which the state government has distributed widely in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, praises Chouhan's administration for its swift and decisive action in appointing a police taskforce to investigate the case, and reviews each fatality alleged to be connected to Vyapam in succinct paragraphs, nearly all of which end with some variation on the following phrase: "The family has not expressed any doubt about his death so far."

The booklet considers the deaths of 31 people: 11 died in road accidents, five allegedly committed suicide, two drowned in ponds, and three lost their lives to "excessive liquor consumption" – all of which have come under suspicion precisely because of the apparent reluctance of the state police to investigate any of the deaths allegedly connected to the scandal. Shukla and his government, however, insist that all these deaths, while tragic, have no connection to the Vyapam scandal to begin with.

Namrata Damor, the young woman found dead on the railway tracks in 2012, is not mentioned in the government's list of deaths allegedly linked to Vyapam. When I met her father Mehtab, however, he also insisted that his daughter had no connection to the scam.

The mystery of India's deadly exam scam