India's "Vyapam" scam, which allegedly saw a criminal ring help thousands of students in the central state of Madhya Pradesh bribe their way into medical schools and government jobs, has also seemingly led to around 40 deaths.
The country's Supreme Court ordered a high-level federal probe into the corruption and the deaths on Thursday, slamming Madhya Pradesh authorities for their dealing with the state-level investigation, which began in 2009.
Since the scandal opened up around the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (PEB), popularly known as "Vyapam," there have been a series of unexplained deaths of people linked to the scam. Officially, 27 people have died, but the opposition Congress party claim the figure is more than 40.
“Almost all the deaths are unnatural. Accused persons, suspects, middlemen, their family members, whistleblowers and witnesses associated with the scam have died. One cannot claim that all were natural deaths,” said KK Mishra, chief spokesperson of the Congress party's Madhya Pradesh unit.
The two most recent of these mysterious deaths have shocked Indians and forced the spotlight back onto the scandal.
Arun Sharma, the dean of a medical college in Madhya Pradesh, was found dead in a New Delhi hotel on Sunday. His predecessor DK Sakalle, who was probing fraudulent admissions in his college, died exactly a year earlier, when his charred body was found on the college campus.
A day earlier, Akshay Singh, a TV journalist investigating the Vyapam scam also suddenly died under mysterious circumstances, when he was rushed to hospital after falling ill while interviewing family members of a medical student whose name figured in the medical scam.
The two deaths in as many days put the Madhya Pradesh government under increasing pressure and protests grew against the state's chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
He had previously fought against the investigation going beyond state level but under pressure, announced on Tuesday that it should go to India's Central Bureau of Investigations, a federal agency.
The long-running scam allegedly involved key Vyapam officials directly associated with conducting exams, political leaders, senior government officials, businessmen, doctors and middlemen.
Top officials from the exam board are already facing trials after reportedly admitting they received kickbacks to help candidates, who paid as much as $70,000, clear the medical entrance tests.
“The racket was going on for many years. No action was taken by the authorities even after making many complaints as key officials of Vyapam and influential persons were involved,” said health activist Dr. Anand Rai, who exposed the scam.
Rai's tip-off first led to the arrest of a group of proxy candidates from the state's Indore district but a series of other arrests followed after they revealed the mastermind behind the racket was Indore resident Dr. Jagdish Sagar.
Admitting his role, Sagar said that after being approached by some struggling students, he arranged for proxy candidates to impersonate them during the test by switching photos on exam ID cards, or for the seating plans to be arranged to allow the cheating candidates to copy from a person inserted into the exam.
According to state police records, the Vyapam scandal has 2,500 accused, out of which 1,900 are in jail. The Congress party claims more than 7 million candidates benefited from the scam.