The entire state of West Bengal is celebrating Durga Puja with great pomp and show – the extravaganza being much bigger in scale this year as Kolkata’s Durga Puja has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.
However, to a group of a few hundred young men and women the Puja has not brought any cheers. They have been on a sit-down protest near the statue of the Father of the Nation beside the Kolkata Maidan, for nearly six hundred days, demanding justice.
They are among those candidates who had cleared the state’s Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET) 2014 (held in October 2015) for recruiting school teachers. They had figured in the “Merit List” but were not appointed as school teachers. Instead, their posts were doled out to those who, it is now being revealed, either failed the recruitment test, deposited blank answer papers, or even did not appear in any test.
All this was done, it is alleged, in exchange for lakhs of rupees of bribe paid to various offices, high and low through middlemen who had cast their nets far and wide.
The prolonged demand for justice of those on the TET merit list was met with complete apathy of the officialdom and occasional police action. Their appeals to the then Education Minister and even to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fell on deaf ears.
It was at this point that some of the aspirants, who figured on the merit list of qualified candidates, came together. They collected and compiled documents about how they were deprived of jobs to which they had legitimate claims. With the help and advice of some reputed, public-spirited lawyers these job aspirants finally knocked at the doors of the Calcutta High Court for justice.
Disturbed by the enormity and spread of the web of corruption, Justice Abhishek Gangopadhyay of the Calcutta High Court ordered a CBI enquiry into the scam in its entirety. The judge did not stop at just entrusting the CBI with the investigation but almost forced the agency to form a Special Investigating Team for the probe and submit its progress report to the court within a specified date.
The State Government challenged the petitioners’ case in the court, first before the single bench of Justice Gangopadhyay and then before a Division Bench. In February 2022, a Division Bench of the High Court set up a committee under retired Justice Ranjit Bag of the Calcutta High Court to look into the matter and report back to the Court.
The report of the “Justice Bag Committee” was damning as it indicated that the matter was not a simple case of some clerical mistakes, but that there lay a huge network of middlemen who took large sums of money from individuals who were issued letters of appointment as teachers, even though they had failed the TET or had never ever appeared in it.
The Division Bench, after perusing the Bag Committee report, rejected the State’s appeal and found no reason to interfere with the order of the single bench, handing over the investigation to the CBI.
In an unprecedented step, the High Court compelled one of the illegally appointed teachers – daughter of the then Deputy Education Minister Paresh Adhikary – to resign from her post and refund in two instalments all the salaries she had received.
The post was then given to the petitioner who had approached the court against the illegal appointment of Adhikary’s daughter who had ranked lower than the petitioner in the merit list but still got the job.
Meanwhile, the Enforce Directorate (ED), looking into the money trail of the scam, recovered cash amounting to almost Rupees 50 crore and gold jewellery valued at Rupees 5 crores from a flat belonging to Arpita Mukherjee, who was reportedly close to Partha Chatterjee, Minister of Commerce and Industry as well as the General Secretary of the TMC. Arpita was arrested.
Prior to the last Assembly elections, Chatterjee was the state’s Education Minister. It was during his term in that office that the alleged illegalities in the recruitment of teachers had taken place. After prolonged grilling, the ED arrested him.
At the political level, the Trinamul Congress (TMC) blamed the Centre for cherry-picking the opposition and subjecting their leaders to an investigation by the central agencies. Some pro-TMC lawyers criticised Justice Gangopadhyay and resorted to a boycott of his Court. TMC leaders even openly charged “a section of the judiciary” with bias. The Party, however, distanced itself from Partha and stripped him of all party posts.
These attacks on the judiciary had had no effect. If anything, they appear to have steeled the resolve of Justice Gangopadhyay to get to the bottom of the scam, as he himself indicated at a rather rare interview (for a sitting judge of a High Court) recently given to ABP Ananda, one of the most popular Bengali television channels.
Besides the cash recovered, ED’s investigation also brought to light the existence of a number of high-value properties, reportedly owned by Partha and Arpita, who are now in judicial custody. The CBI also arrested some senior former officials of the Department in connection with the case, including the Vice Chancellor of North Bengal University.
Both agencies have now filed their charge sheets with the concerned trial courts. Further investigation is also going on.
The above, in short, is the background and present status of the scam that has sent shockwaves through the state of West Bengal, with ripples felt across the country. In fact, the High Court observed in the course of some proceedings related to the scam that what came out in the investigation till then was the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
While the courts will now deal with the scam and the trial may take a long time to conclude, the real danger posed by this absolutely unprecedented corruption in the appointment of school teachers has not been discussed in as much detail as it should have been.
Once upon a time teaching was considered a noble profession. It seems that now a teaching job is simply a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder, while the meritorious ones are left on the roadside. It is dreadful to think that from the primary to the higher level many of those to whom we entrust the future of our boys and girls are not fit to be teachers.
Even more shocking is that a number of them have allegedly become teachers without writing a single word – apart from their roll numbers – on their answer papers. What will our children learn from such teachers? The answer is self-evident.
A similar question was asked when the Vyapam case exploded like a bombshell in 2013. In that case, too, the CBI was asked to probe it after a similar kind of judicial intervention. As the investigation proceeded, it was revealed that office bearers, workers and followers of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party were reportedly hand in glove with bureaucrats, and they subverted the system of admission to medical courses to enable those who paid them huge bribes to get admission and eventually become medical doctors.
However, after the death of more than 30 witnesses and others related to the case in mysterious circumstances, there does not appear to be any further news about the scam. Only the Supreme Court judgement of February 2017 cancelling the degrees of over six hundred ‘doctors’ is in the public domain.
The progress of the investigation and trial – although over 2000 arrests were made in the case – seems to be a closely guarded state secret. The public as well as the media seem to be no longer interested in the matter.
This raises the doubt that the central agencies go hammer tongs in cases where the opposition political parties are involved, while in similar matters involving the BJP – the ruling party at the centre – the agencies grow a cold foot.
There are many other examples – recent and remote – where investigations into scams started with much fanfare but the matter invariably got lost somewhere in the maze of the judicial process. There is hardly any reason to believe that the Bengal teachers’ recruitment scam will have a different fate.
In the West Bengal case, the High Court has, indeed, asked all the illegally recruited teachers to resign by November 7, failing which strong steps would be taken against them. It is hoped they will do so.
However, the State’s recent announcement of recruitment to a couple of hundred ‘vacant posts’ of teachers has raised the question as to whether this is an attempt to retain the illegally recruited teachers by giving them a legal footing. Only the future will tell what the true intention of the state government is.
The politicians know well that public memory is proverbially short. After the fanfare around the recruitment episode dies down it will be business as usual for them, till another such scam hits the headlines to eventually meet the fate of its predecessors.
The only tangible gainers from the latest scam seem to be the television channels that keep airing unverified, sensational reports attributed to “agency sources” about raids and recovery of proceeds of the loot every other day. Their viewership and TRP keep going up and so does their advertisement revenue.