For the past 500 days, a motley group of young men and women in their late 20s and early 30s have sat together in Kolkata’s Dharmatala area, the busy office-cum-commercial hub, holding handwritten placards with words like: “We want jobs, we want justice.” They have faced police batons and humiliation, weathered the scorching summer and heavy rains, and even lost four of their compatriots. Yet, they have stood their ground, unwilling to budge an inch until the 6,000 men and women who made it to the merit list of the State Level Selection Test (SLST), conducted by the West Bengal School Service Commission (WBSSC) to recruit teachers for class IX to class XII, get jobs. There is little sloganeering, but their resolute, dogged silence has led to the unearthing of one of the biggest scams in West Bengal’s history. In their fight against a government machinery that allegedly sold jobs for cash, their only ray of hope is an unrelenting judge of the Calcutta High Court—Justice Abhijit Ganguly.
The long legal battle is bearing fruit: the CBI has launched a probe into the irregularities, allegedly carried out at the behest of now-ousted minister and Trinamool Congress heavyweight Partha Chatterjee, who held the education portfolio till 2019. In a parallel probe, the Enforcement Directorate recovered Rs 50 crore in cash from the homes of 36-year-old actress Arpita Mukherjee, a close aide of Chatterjee. Both Chatterjee and Arpita have been arrested, forcing an embarrassed chief minister Mamata Banerjee to sack Chatterjee from her cabinet and strip him of all party positions. In a further damage control exercise, she brought in nine new ministers in a cabinet reshuffle on August 3—all hand-picked by TMC general secretary and party second-in-command Abhishek Banerjee.
In 2014, the WBSSC issued a notification for the recruitment of nearly 18,000 teachers and non-teaching staff in government-aided schools. The SLST was conducted in 2016; around 200,000 candidates took the test. By the end of 2017, results were declared but no merit list was published. Instead, each candidate was given online access to check her individual status. Later, the Calcutta High Court would observe that “not publishing a merit list was the first instance of illegality”.
The SLST test was held in 2016, but full merit lists with scores were released only between July 14 and July 20, 2022
While candidates waited to be called for counselling, news spread that many undeserving candidates had been recruited, raising suspicion about the unpublished merit list. Angered applicants began sit-in protests, hunger strikes and moved court. On March 28, 2019, the Calcutta HC directed the WBSSC to make the merit list public. The commission failed to comply with the order, and the petitioners filed a contempt petition. On November 8, 2019, the court directed the WBSSC to file an affidavit, stating why its order was not complied with. The Covid lockdowns delayed the next hearing. In March 2021, the WBSSC agreed to make the list available. It had two categories of successful candidates—one empanelled, who were ready to be appointed, and those waitlisted, who would be moved up when vacancies arose.
Soon, it was found that many aspirants way down in the waiting list had allegedly jumped ranks and got appointment letters. Even unsuccessful candidates—neither empanelled nor on the waiting list—were said to have made it. For instance, 31-year-old Rabibur Sheikh, ranked 186, was surprised to find the candidate placed 194 getting appointed ahead of him. In September 2021, the petitioners again knocked at the door of the high court and Justice Saugata Bhattacharyya asked the WBSSC to address all their concerns.
On February 21, 2022, when the commission filed a detailed response, the case was listed in the court of Justice Ganguly, who asked it to furnish answers to specific questions. When the WBSSC admitted that the appointment of one Insan Ali, ranked 144 in the waiting list, was an inadvertent error, Justice Ganguly refused to accept it. He declared Ali’s appointment illegal and asked the chairman of the WBSSC to appear before him. On February 28, the officials told the court they had “no idea” who issued the appointment letters and that the signatures on them were “mechanically printed”. They did, however, name two persons who may have known more—Shanti Prasad Sinha, advisor to the commission, and Samarjit Acharya, its programme officer.
On March 3, Justice Ganguly ordered a CBI probe into the alleged irregularities. The state government challenged the order before a two-judge bench, which stayed the CBI probe and set up an inquiry panel headed by retired judge Ranjit Bag. The three-member panel, however, concurred with all of Justice Ganguly’s observations. On May 18, a different two-judge bench upheld Ganguly’s order for a CBI inquiry. It also observed that at the root of the illegal recommendations were the activities of the “five-member so-called supervisory committee” appointed by Partha Chatterjee.
Mamata had met the protesting candidates in March 2019 and thereafter asked Chatterjee to form a panel to look into the complaints. This was duly formed under a government order, although technically such an empowered panel on recruitments could not have been constituted without first amending the School Service Commission Act, 1997. But even more eyebrow-raising was its composition. It seemed like a veritable Chatterjee club: Sinha; Alok Sarkar, deputy director of education; Sukanta Acharjee, private secretary to Chatterjee; P.K. Bandyopadhyay, OSD to Chatterjee; and T. Panja, law officer.
Even if irregular, its formation was ostensibly well-intentioned: it was supposed to smooth out the wrinkles in the recruitment process. Instead, it started recommending newer appointments. One of their recommendations was Ankita Adhikari, daughter of Paresh Chandra Adhikari, the current minister of state for education. On May 20, on finding that she had landed a job despite being neither empanelled nor wait-listed, Justice Ganguly terminated her employment and directed her to return the salary earned. The CBI has booked both Adhikari and his daughter. Though it hasn’t directly named Chatterjee as an accused in its FIR filed on May 20, his name has been dragged into the alleged scam for approving the formation of the supervisory committee. Justice Ganguly has dubbed Sinha, the panel’s head, the “main culprit”.
The modus operandi
According to many candidates, the operation was carried out by a well-oiled nexus. Agents, working allegedly for the minister and his aides, hung around cyber cafes, photocopy shops and tea stalls to target gullible, desperate candidates willing to pay for a job. The rate varied from Rs 8 lakh to Rs 20 lakh. In a state where nearly 200,000 government job vacancies were filled up in the past decade with people hired on contract or reduced salaries, advertisements for teachers’ posts with monthly salaries of Rs 45,000 (graduates) and Rs 70,000 (PG candidates) and Rs 30,000-Rs 45,000 for non-teaching staff expectedly led to a mad scramble. So much so that many sold off land to organise the bribe money. “The revenue department’s earnings from land sale over the past decade has been over Rs 1,000 crore,” alleges a person associated with the land revenue office in Birbhum.
Some agents took money to supply correct answers inside the examination hall through mobile phones
Former TMC minister U.N. Biswas, also an ex-CBI director, confirms the existence of the racket on the ground. In 2016, when he was the minister for backward classes welfare, a retired army officer tipped him off on government jobs being on sale. “I found that in my constituency one person was running this racket. I asked many youths to lodge a police complaint, but they were reluctant. They claimed the person refunded the money with interest if he failed to secure a job,” says Biswas.
Says a candidate who was approached by agents before the SLST: “Those who paid up and struck a deal with the agents were told before the test to just write their names and roll numbers and submit blank answer sheets. It made identification and manipulation easier. If a candidate approached agents after the test, they had to pay extra as correction of answer scripts by fetching OMR (optical mark recognition) sheets and uploading corrected answer sheets needed extra effort. Some agents took money to supply answers inside the examination hall through mobile phones. Candidates are required to send a picture of their OMR sheet series.”
The 68-page report of the Justice Bag panel revealed how some unsuccessful candidates misused the RTI Act for applications to fetch answer scripts. People in the education department then uploaded the OMR sheets with higher scores. The five-member panel issued appointment letters for these candidates. Though the report made the observations about the recruitment of Group C and D staff, the same process, it is known, was used to hire teachers too. “A friend of mine told us that after failing the written test, he still got a job. He said he had demanded a review through the RTI Act, which gave him pass marks, after which he was appointed in less than 24 hours,” says Sudip Mondal of Yuva-Chhatra Ekta Mancha, a union of successful candidates formed to fight the legal battle.
The ED is now probing if the money recovered from Arpita’s flats has links to the alleged scam, though both Arpita and Chatterjee have claimed they are “victims of a conspiracy”. While the court will decide the next course of action, the candidates have lost crucial years and are still waiting for jobs. Their only demand now is that justice takes a faster path, and the appointment letters reach them soon.
For the victims of the West Bengal teachers’ recruitment scam, Justice Abhijit Ganguly has emerged as the final hope
Abhijit Ganguly, 60, Judge of the Calcutta High Court
Justice Abhijit Ganguly, who played a crucial role in unearthing the West Bengal teacher recruitment scam, began his career as a West Bengal Civil Service officer and worked in the land department. Later, he quit his job and began practising as a lawyer. Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, Rajya Sabha MP and top lawyer, remembers him as a sincere junior. “While working as a lawyer, he learnt how entrenched corruption is and now he is digging deep into its roots,” he says. Lawyer Firdous Shamim remembers Ganguly for his wit and cultural interests. “He was into dramatics in his youth,” says Shamim.
Ganguly was elevated as a judge in 2018 and gained notice in 2021 when the case related to irregularities in the recruitment of teachers came before him. From the beginning, Justice Ganguly was unsparing on the authorities involved in the alleged recruitment scam and came down heavily on two heavyweight ministers—former education minister Partha Chatterjee and current minister of state for the department of school education, Paresh Chandra Adhikary, whose daughter was illegally appointed as a teacher. He was vocal against the judgment of the division bench which stayed some of his orders, including the directive for a CBI probe.
When the division bench set aside his orders four times, he wrote a strong letter to the Chief Justice of India on April 13, 2022. “I don’t understand who would benefit by tying the hands of a single-judge bench,” read the letter. Meanwhile, TMC-affiliated lawyers gave a call for boycotting his bench, and unleashed veiled threats. Ganguly was unmoved. “You can hold a gun to my head and kill me if you want, but you cannot stop me from delivering justice,” he said. When petitioners suspected foul play and tampering of evidence in the West Bengal School Service Commission office following the resignation of the chairman, Ganguly held a special hearing at 10.45 pm on May 18 and ordered CRPF personnel to be posted and CCTV footage to be preserved till the next chairman took charge.
There is also a softer side to the 60-year-old judge, who is set to retire in August 2024. After seeing a news clip on Soma Das, a cancer patient waiting to be recruited as a teacher, he sent his officers to bring her to his chamber. He ensured her that the government would recruit her, as she had got a high rank in the selection test. “Like a guardian, a father, he stood by us,” says Soma. In another case, he fast-tracked the petition of 76-year-old Shyamali Ghosh, who had not received her pension for the past 25 years.
The fall of a heavyweight
Partha Chatterjee, 69, Former cabinet minister, West Bengal
Armed with an MBA degree, Partha Chatterjee quit his HR job in Andrew Yule to join politics in 1998. He is an old loyalist of Mamata Banerjee who has stuck by her from the time when TMC’s MLAs accounted for less than one-fifth of the 294-member Bengal assembly. He contested his first assembly polls in 2001 from Behala Paschim and has won it five times in a row. A strong organisation man, he emerged as Mamata’s go-to person in running the party. He has held important portfolios—leader of the Opposition in the assembly between 2006 and 2011, deputy leader of the house in 2011, secretary general of TMC, head of the party’s disciplinary commitee and several cabinet posts. He was education minister from 2014 to 2021. One thing Mamata has disapproved about Chatterjee is his ample girth. The TMC chief has body-shamed him in public on multiple occasions.
The cash queen
Arpita Mukherjee, 36, model, actress, producer
Born in a middle-class family, Arpita’s father was a central government employee. A small-time model, she acted in minor roles in Bengali, Odia and Tamil films. Around a decade ago, she was introduced to minister Partha Chatterjee by a businessman. She soon began accompanying Chatterjee to public events, becoming the face of the Naktala Udayan Sangha Durga Puja committee, of which Chatterjee is the chief patron. Arpita moved to an apartment in an upscale housing complex in south Kolkata, from where the ED recovered Rs 20 crore in cash, foreign currency and a cache of incriminating documents. From another flat owned by her, it seized Rs 30 crore. Arpita claims Chatterjee used her Aadhaar and PAN card to buy properties in her name and that she had little clue about it all.
How to sell a job
The West Bengal School Service Commission conducts the state-level selection test in 2016 to recruit teachers for Classes IX to XII. Results are out in 2017 but without a merit list. Candidates could only check scores online. So they do not know their ranks, and are uncertain if they made the cut. As some get interview calls, others grow desperate.
Word spreads that the jobs are being ‘sold’. Agents allegedly identify candidates willing to pay. There are believed to be various price tags—Rs 8-10 lakh for teachers in Class IX-X, Rs 10-15 lakh for Class XI-XII and Rs 20 lakh for candidates from other states, those who did not have BEd degrees or who did not even appear for the test.
Based on payments, agents allegedly prepared lists of candidates to be recommended. Unsuccessful candidates got answer scripts for revaluation through RTIs. OMR sheets got corrected with higher marks. Appointment letters are given to these candidates, bypassing genuine ones.