At least 10 people linked to the PEB scam in Madhya Pradesh were killed in road accidents and four more committed suicide, statistics by a court-monitored investigation show, raising suspicions of an attempt to silence key players in a massive corruption scandal dogging the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.
The death of two more people at the weekend took the official body count of people linked to the scandal to 25, according to sources in the Special Task Force whose investigation into the crime is being monitored by the Madhya Pradesh high court.
But an investigation by Hindustan Times showed that there are at least 12 other people, not mentioned in STF documents, whose deaths have remained in the realm of suspicion.
Among these are students who allegedly cracked the pre-medical test by fraudulent means and a former dean of Jabalpur University, DK Sakalle, who died of burn injuries in his own home in what is still an unsolved case. Sources said when Sakalle died in July last year he was in the midst of scrutinising documents of MBBS students who were under the scanner.
On Monday, state home minister Babulal Gaur termed the deaths of all people linked to the scam as natural, rejecting an Opposition demand for a CBI probe into the mysterious deaths.
But the STF’s affidavits filed before the high court paint a picture of possible conspiracy or worse, leaving investigators to concede that each of these deaths affected the probe.
Late in the evening, the government confirmed that 25 people linked with the scam had died but sought to deflect some criticism by insisting that 11 of those deaths took place before a case had been filed in connection with the scandal.
Sources said the dead include those who were part of the racket that helped candidates crack examinations, middle-men, youth who paid money for selection, witnesses and whistle-blowers.
Many of those linked to the scam include high-profile people and even governor Ramnaresh Yadav and one of his sons Shailesh Yadav, who also died in mysterious circumstances before he could be interrogated.
Though the governor was also booked, the high court later quashed the FIR but did allow the STF to question Yadav.
The father of Narendra Tomar, who died at the Indore central jail on Sunday, said his son was murdered, echoing the Congress’ suspicion of foul play in the deaths.
The Professional Examination Board (PEB) fraud — also known as the Vyapam scam from the board’s Hindi acronym — involved multiple rackets that helped candidates rig the examinations for money, including employing imposters to write test papers, manipulating sitting arrangements as well as supplying forged answer sheets.
So far, nearly 2,000 people, including politicians and government officials, have been arrested in connection with the scam.
Sources, however, pointed out that the deaths began long before the scam surfaced in 2013 – Deepak Verma, a medical student and suspected middleman who was killed in a road accident in 2010. He is, however, not among those listed by the STF among the 23 names it had placed before the high court recently as “unnatural deaths”.
STF officials insist that not all deaths are suspicious as they include those who died either because of a failed love affair, in a road mishap or due to natural causes, but agree that every death affects investigation.
“With each death, the link to scamsters in the particular probe is severed, as those connected to the person become untraceable. There are more than 55 cases and the deaths affect investigation in these cases,” said an STF official on condition of anonymity.
Apart from the deaths, many have alleged threats to their lives.
Whistleblower Ashish Chaturvedi, 25, has been threatened several times prompting the court to order police protection for him. Another whistleblower Prashant Pandey shifted to Delhi after he was allegedly attacked.