The education system in West Bengal is facing one of its biggest crises in recent times. Allegations of rampant corruption at almost every level in the recruitment process of the School Service Commission (SSC) has not only exposed the rot in the system but also, more dangerously, raised questions regarding the credentials and credibility of teachers who have been recruited in the last 10 years. With two heavyweight leaders of the ruling Trinamool Congress—former Cabinet Minister Partha Chatterjee and influential legislator Manik Bhattacharya—arrested by Central agencies and protests and public outrage intensifying by the day, the Trinamool Congress appears to have its back against the wall.
From manipulation of marks to giving appointments for payment, the organised manner in which the alleged irregularities have taken place points to a well-planned racket. The Central agencies investigating the case—the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED)—in their submissions and reports before courts have indicated that the recruitment scam may well amount to hundreds of crores, as around 8,000 candidates appear to have been illegally recruited across categories.
In a report placed before the High Court on September 28, the CBI pointed out that there were more than 8,000 cases with glaring discrepancies between the scores that were uploaded in the SSC servers and those they originally got as per discs recovered by the Central agency. The report revealed that some of the candidates who had secured jobs had, in fact, submitted blank answer sheets, yet scored pass marks. The CBI cited cases where candidates received zero or one on their OMR sheets, but the scores uploaded in the servers were 52 or 53.
Of the 8,163 candidates who got jobs through manipulation of marks, 952 were appointed as teachers of classes 9 and 10; 907 as teachers of classes 11 and 12; 3,481 as Group C staff; and 2,823 as Group D staff. However, the SSC claimed in its affidavit that so far only 183 teachers of class 9 and 10 were found to have been illegally appointed.
Resign or be barred
Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay, who is hearing the cases, directed the CBI to find out the total number of people who have been illegally appointed by the SSC and urged those who have been illegally appointed to resign by November 7 to avoid punitive measures. “If they do not resign I will bar them from applying for other government jobs,” said Justice Gangopadhyay.
However, the State government made it clear that it had no intention of sacking anyone, even those who were “illegally” appointed. Education Minister Bratya Basu said: “Neither Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee nor the State government wants to sack anyone. We want to save even those who got their jobs by doubtful means…. At the same time, we want all deserving candidates to get their dues…. We will do whatever the Calcutta High Court says.”
A large number of court cases have been filed by individuals who were unfairly denied their rightful appointment and, in a few cases, the courts have provided restitution—the most notable case being that of Ankita Adhikari, daughter of Paresh Chandra Adhikari, former Minister of State, School Education. After a petition was filed against the illegal appointment of Ankita, the High Court ordered in May this year that Ankita be sacked and the post given to Babita Sarkar, the petitioner. The court also directed Ankita to return the salary she had earned for the duration of her appointment. Babita had filed the petition after Ankita bagged the job of political science teacher for classes 11 and 12 in a school in Cooch Behar in spite of scoring far lower marks than Babita.
According to Debasish Sarkar, Principal of Chandannagar College and member of the national executive committee of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisation, the fact that people are having to continuously take recourse to the courts fior justice n the education sector is an ominous sign for the future generation.
ALSO READ: Trinamool struggles to shake off corruption charges
Sarkar told Frontline: “The better the education sector works, the better future citizens will be moulded. If there is malpractice here, it is a dangerous situation. In such a system, what kind of an example will a student draw from a teacher who may not even have the necessary qualifications for the job? The sector has stakeholders who number in crores, not even lakhs…. As a teacher, I am ashamed of what the education system has degenerated into.”
In the last 10 years, over 50,000 candidates were selected as primary school teachers in Bengal and the number of appointments in this time frame, including non-teaching staff, may exceed well over a lakh.
According to Sarkar, the corruption in the system is already affecting the higher education sector as, over the last few years, more and more students have left Bengal after school to pursue higher studies elsewhere. “At least 30 per cent of seats in colleges go vacant every year in Bengal,” he said.
Though there have been protests on the streets for nearly two years, it was only with the arrest of Partha Chatterjee that the matter snowballed into a major sociopolitical issue. On July 23, Chatterjee, a Minister in charge of four key portfolios, including Industries and Parliamentary Affairs, was arrested along with his close associate Arpita Mukherjee.
The alleged irregularities in SSC recruitment had taken place when he was the Education Minister between 2014 and 2021. The ED also recovered around Rs.50 crore in cash, more than Rs.4 crore in jewellery, and Rs.74 lakh in foreign currency from the residence of Arpita Mukherjee.
The ED in its charge sheet against Chatterjee said that it had seized a total of Rs.103.10 crore while investigating the case. It also said that Chatterjee had set up six dummy companies to siphon off the money.
With surprising alacrity, the Trinamool Congress distanced itself from one of its most senior and influential leaders, one who was also the party’s secretary general, national working committee member, and national vice president. “If someone is a thief, then Trinamool Congress does not care about that person,” said Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee.
The situation was made more embarrassing for the government when Upendra Nath Biswas, former Minister in Mamata’s Cabinet and retired IPS officer, dropped a bombshell when he said in the High Court that a certain Chandan Mondal, hailing from Biswas’ erstwhile Bagda Assembly constituency, was granting teacher jobs in exchange for money. “Chandan Mondal is just a dot. An organised operation cannot be carried out without the involvement of senior government functionaries,” Biswas said in court.
Partha Chatterjee’s arrest was followed by a spate of arrests which resulted in the incarceration of all the top officials involved in the SSC recruitment process between 2014 and 2021. Shanti Prasad Sinha, former Adviser to the West Bengal School Service Commission (WBSSC), and Ashok Kumar Saha, former Secretary of the WBSSC, were arrested on August 10, while Kalyanmoy Ganguly, former Chairperson of West Bengal Board of Secondary Education (WBBSE), was arrested on September 15. This was followed by the arrest of Subiresh Bhattacharya, former WBSSC Chairperson and Vice Chancellor of North Bengal University, on September 19. In August, the CBI also arrested a middleman named Prasanna Roy. He was known to be close to Partha Chatterjee.
On October 11, another influential Trinamool leader found himself behind bars when the ED arrested Manik Bhattacharya, the powerful Palashipara MLA. Bhattacharya was named in the ED’s charge sheet against Partha Chatterjee. He was the president of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education (WBBPE) from 2011 until June this year, when he was removed from his post by an order of the Calcutta High Court. In its remand application, the ED said that Manik Bhattacharya “was in receipt of a letter which was also addressed to the Chief Minister of West Bengal”.
The letter, the application said, revealed that “illegal amounts to the tune of Rs.7 lakh each were taken from 44 candidates in lieu of offering them the job of teachers”. The amount was apparently collected by a general secretary of the West Bengal Pradesh Trinamool Youth Congress Committee.
On dharna, 591 days and counting
However, what is perhaps causing greater discomfort to the State government and ruling party than the allegations, arrests of top leaders, or embarrassing revelations by party insiders is the prolonged protest by job seekers who feel cheated out of a future they worked very hard for.
For 591 days (as of October 26), the protesters have sat in dharna, come rain or shine across the State. Many fell ill from constant exposure to the heat and the rain, but they returned to the protest site after they recovered.
Even as the whole State erupted during the Pujas, the protesters remained in their various spots. They refused to allow the festive merriment to drown out their cry for justice. They have been repeatedly removed by the police, but their stoic resistance neutralises the force of the state and all the refutations put forward by the government.
Mohibullah Mollah had qualified for a job as an upper primary teacher in 2016. He was 28 years old at that time. “We have been robbed of what we have earned rightfully. There are many among us who have now gone past the age of securing a job. There are at least seven of my contemporaries who have committed suicide out of hopelessness. Atanu Mistri, Shibu Das were my friends who killed themselves in 2019. Mamata Banerjee believes in making promises. But we do not believe those promises. We only believe in our rights. Until we get it we will continue our agitation,” he told Frontline.
Aparna Sen condemns
The protesters are realising that they are not alone in their struggle. With every passing day, public support for their cause is increasing. On October 21, when the State police forcibly removed a four-day peaceful demonstration outside the WBBPE office in Salt Lake in a midnight operation, civil society erupted in angry protest. Even intellectuals and celebrities known to be close to the ruling party broke their silence to condemn the use of force on peaceful job seekers. Well known actress and film director Aparna Sen said on social media: “The Trinamool govt is flouting the basic democratic rights of the hunger-strikers! Section 144 issued against a non-violent protest! Why? I strongly condemn the undemocratic and unethical action of the West Bengal govt!” Prominent citizens who have maintained a measured silence so far against the actions of the government participated in a protest march.
ALSO READ:Puja card to deflect attention from corruption
While the Trinamool has accused the opposition parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), of fanning the unrest, it cannot stop the issue from being at the forefront of public discourse.
The Trinamool has survived several big scams such as the Saradha and the Rose Valley deposit collection scams to return to power for the third consecutive term, but the SSC recruitment scam has struck at the very core of Bengali society, as it has a direct bearing on the future of education of the next generation. It remains to be seen how this will ultimately impact the ruling party in the days to come.
- Questions raised regarding the credentials and credibility of teachers who have been recruited in the last 10 years.
- The CBI says in a report that more than 8,000 candidates got jobs through manipulation of marks.
- Trinamool Minister Partha Chatterjee and Palashipara MLA Manik Bhattacharya have been arrested.
- The protesters have sat in dharna for 591 days (as of October 26).