Calcutta high court: “Jobs are being sold like a commodity”
One year on, the probe into the West Bengal school recruitment scam remains mired in a political tussle. Will the victims find justice? An explainer
When the Calcutta high court last week cancelled the appointments of 32,000 primary school teachers recruited in 2016 by the West Bengal Board of Primary Education (WBBPE) for allegedly violating recruitment norms, the single-judge bench observed that “jobs were sold like a commodity.”
It was probably the highest number of jobs cancelled by any court in India in one go till date. Earlier in May 2014, the Tripura high court had terminated the appointments of 10,323 teachers.
Justice Gangopadhyay who passed the order, observed: “A corruption of this magnitude was never known in West Bengal. The former education minister, the former president of the board and a number of middlemen through whom the jobs were sold like a commodity are now behind the bars and the CBI and ED investigation is being continued in full swing.”
On May 19, a division bench of the high court put a temporary stay on the order till September. Till date, however, around 4,800 candidates have had their appointments cancelled by the Calcutta HC through previous orders. The list includes a minister’s daughter.
How the scam surfacedIt all started in August 2021 when a section of candidates filed petitions alleging irregularities in the teacher recruitment process in government schools. Justice Gangopadhyay ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the allegations. The division bench of Justice Harish Tandon and Justice Rabindranath Samanta however, stayed the order and instead set up a committee on December 6, 2021 headed by retired Justice Ranjit Kumar Bag to get to the “root of the irregularities”. The committee submitted its first report on April 14, 2022 and its second the following month, on May 13.
“The Bag committee first pointed out how the optical mark recognition (OMR) sheets of undeserving candidates were manipulated and their marks were hiked to recruit them. The committee recommended that a first information report be lodged against some officials of the School Service Commission and West Bengal Board of Secondary Education,” Arunava Banerjee, senior advocate of the Calcutta high court and a member of the Justice Bag committee, said.
Subsequently, Justice Gangopadhyay also ordered a CBI probe and directed the agency to question the then state education minister Partha Chatterjee.
On May 18, 2022, the CBI questioned Chatterjee for the first time. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) had already started a parallel probe after the CBI lodged an FIR naming five officials, and it formally took up the case in June. The ED filed two FIRs to probe the money trail between 2014 and 2018.
The probe led to some big names tumbling out. Chatterjee, the then state secretary general of the ruling Trinamool Congress party (TMC) was arrested by the ED on July 23 after facing over a day of questioning over his alleged involvement in the scam. His close aide, Arpita Mukherjee, was also arrested. The ED raided Mukherjee’s south Kolkata flat on July 22 and seized ₹21.9 crore in cash along with gold worth ₹79 lakh and US dollars worth ₹54 lakh. Another raid at another flat belonging to Mukherjee, this one in the northern fringes of Kolkata, led to a haul of ₹27.9 crore in cash, and gold worth ₹4.31 crore.
Manik Bhattacharya, the then chairman of the WBBPE and Jiban Krishna Saha, the MLA of Burwan, as well as two TMC youth wing leaders, Kuntal Ghosh and Santanu Banerjee, were also arrested. Top officials of the School Service Commission (SSC) and education boards including SP Sinha, former advisor Kalyanmoy Ganguly, the then president of the WBBPE, Samarjit Acharya, former programmer of SSC, Saumitra Sarkar, and former secretary Ashok Kumar Saha, were also indicted for their roles in the alleged scam. The agencies contended that TMC’s youth level leaders and their agents allegedly collected crores of rupees from people in lieu of teachers' jobs. The money was alleged to have been sent up the ladder to heavyweight TMC leaders like Chatterjee and Bhattacharya.
On May 18, the Calcutta high court allowed the CBI and ED to question Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee, in connection with alleged irregularities, upholding a previous order by Justice Ganguly that Abhishek had challenged in the Supreme Court seeking a change in the HC bench.
Subsequently, on May 20, Abhishek was questioned for the first time in the school recruitment scam, even as the ED carried out simultaneous raids at multiple locations in Kolkata. One of the teams searched the residence of Sujoy Krishna Bhadra, who is said to be close to a section of TMC’s top brass. Bhadra had earlier told the media that Abhishek was his “boss” and that he worked in the MP's office. Bhadra was earlier questioned by the CBI after his name cropped up during Kuntal Ghosh’s interrogation.
Ghosh, who was arrested in January and is now a prime accused in the case, told the press while being taken to court for a hearing that the central agencies were forcing him to name Abhishek Banerjee in the scam. Ghosh even sent a letter to the Hastings police station in Kolkata on this matter.
The scam and probe by the central agencies was a big embarrassment for the ruling TMC, which has a contentious relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state. Former IPS officers and political experts said that even though several TMC leaders have been allegedly involved in multiple scams — Sarada (2013), Narada (2016), coal smuggling (2020) and cattle smuggling (2020)— it was this scam that did maximum damage.
“Just like the Sarada chit fund scam, which was related to the hard-earned savings of the poor and lower-middle-class depositors, the recruitment scam has also affected the people and their livelihoods more than the other scams. Undeserving candidates got jobs by paying bribes to TMC leaders and agents while the deserving candidates were left out,” said Amal Mukherjee, political analyst.
“The SSC scam has ruined the entire education system of the state. People have seen how by paying bribes to TMC leaders undeserving candidates secured jobs. They have seen how bundles of notes, stacked in posh flats, have stumbled out and how top officials and ministers abused their posts to collect crores of rupees by facilitating jobs to undeserving candidates,” said Nazrul Islam, former IPS officer.
Fallout of the scamThe ED has so far recovered cash and attached properties to the tune of ₹111 crores in the SSC scam.
Whether the videos of bundles of cash tumbling out of closets have an impact on the party’s image in the upcoming polls remains to be seen. The TMC returned to power in 2016 and 2021 even after its leaders were arrested for their alleged involvements in Sarada and Narada scams.
“The party’s stand is very clear. We are not going to support anyone who has been found guilty. We have full faith in the judiciary. But we want the truth to come out fast. The SSC case has been going on for a year now. But what result have we got except for confusion? The CBI has been pulled up many times by courts,” said Jay Prakash Majumdar, TMC spokesperson.
The fallout has indeed affected the powerful even as those affected knock on the court's door for justice.
Recently, the Calcutta high court cancelled the recruitment of Ankita Adhikari, who is the daughter of former TMC minister Paresh Adhikari, who was a minister of state in the higher education department till last August. Ankita’s job was given to Babita Sarkar, a Siliguri resident and Ankita was ordered to pay ₹15.9 lakh to Sarkar as compensation. However, 10 months later, the Calcutta high court amended its order and deemed Sarkar “ineligible” as her score was wrongly calculated. It further directed the SSC to appoint Anamika Ray and asked Sarkar to give the amount retrieved from Ankita to Ray by June.
The high court found that Ankita had used fraudulent means to get the job and asked the minister’s daughter to refund the salary that she had received over 41 months of work. Six months later, Ray, another candidate, moved court alleging that Sarkar’s marks were wrongly calculated and actually totalled 31 instead of 33, elevating Ray’s rank in the merit list. The high court however, allowed Sarkar to keep the salary she had drawn, but directed her to refund the compensation which she had received from Ankita.