The Meghalaya RTI series has a success story to report. On 27th June, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a charge-sheet against Ampareen Lyngdoh, JD Sangma, and AL Lyngdoh for their alleged involvement in the White Ink Scam, which occurred during Ampareen Lyngdoh’s tenure as Education Minister of Meghalaya. The scam, which occurred over a decade ago, was quite simple. In 2008, the Deputy Inspector of Schools advertised for applicants to the post of assistant teacher in government schools, and a list of selected candidates was issued the following year. Several teachers from Jowai (and later from Shillong and the Garo Hills) then approached Agnes Kharshiing, convinced that the selection process had been tainted by corruption and vested interests. RTI petitions filed by her in February 2010 revealed that the “score sheets” of candidates in several places had been doctored with white ink.
“Whole pages had been tampered” she would later say “the right people who need jobs weren’t getting them. These people had been temporary teachers, and they only got 1500 rupees a month, and yet they were teaching children in these small rural areas because it was their passion. And then they went through the whole selection process, only to find their jobs taken away. For years they suffered, because these politicians were using the search for canvassing and nepotism, but I am so glad they didn’t go down a criminal path or embrace violence but came to me to seek a legal remedy. Of course I had to help them!”
Helping the disaffected and disappointed teachers would eventually prove to be a decade-long quest. Ms. Kharshiing first tried to lodge a criminal case against Ms. Lyngdoh on the basis of her RTI findings. “The RTI is an investigative tool,” Ms Kharshiing explained, “but the FIR is the strength. That is why my strategy included both. The FIR is how we ensure these matters do not just disappear under political pressure—they could not just ignore it. With RTI petitions you can get bogus replies or delay responding, but with the FIR they have to take it seriously.” In her first FIR, back in February 2010, Ms. Kharshiing alleged that Ms. Lyngdoh, while Education Minister, had supervised the alterations at the behest of a wide spectrum of her colleagues, all of whom wanted to ensure that their preferred candidates received the jobs, even when they were thoroughly unqualified to teach children.
Ms Kharshiiing tried to file FIRs on four separate occasions and encouraged teachers who subsequently approached her to file them as well. Her persistent efforts were stymied at every turn, until a group of teachers filed a writ petition with the High Court in October 2011. The High Court examined Mr. Sangma, then the Director of DEME (Directorate of Elementary and Mass Education), who testified that he had tampered with the selection records at the order of Ampareen Lyngdoh. The court ruling also included a list of the politicians and bureaucrats who had made “recommendations” regarding candidates. Finding that sufficient prima-face evidence for “massive irregularities, arbitrariness, and manipulation” had been unearthed by the RTI petitions, the High Court ordered the CBI to investigate the matter more thoroughly.
The CBI submitted its report to the High Court in May 2012. The report “established that the majority of candidates… were appointed in an irregular manner by changing their original marks… in the score sheet after applying white fluid on the original marks awarded by the board and the grand total of the score sheet was also changed in the similar manner.” The report also indicted a broad swathe of the local political class for having influenced the selection process. By this time, however, the matter had been appealed to the Division Bench. The judges transferred the investigation to the state government a few months later, which appointed a “High Level Scrutiny Committee” (HLSC) entirely comprised of bureaucrats from DEME and the Ministry of Education. The court further directed the HLSC to consider the findings of the CBI Report, and to terminate the service of any “tainted” candidates it discovered. The HLSC submitted its report in July 2013, and hundreds of people had lost their jobs by February 2014. These “terminated candidates” then appealed to the Supreme Court for relief.
Meanwhile, Agnes Kharshiing (along with Angela Rangad) continued to try to register a criminal case against Ampareen Lyngdoh for abusing her authority and forging official documents. Finally, in October 2012, a Judicial Magistrate directed Laitumkhrah Police Station in Shillong to register the FIR, and the investigation proceeded in fits and starts until 2016. Exasperated, Agnes Kharshiing filed a writ petition with the High Court, requesting that the criminal investigation be handled by the CBI. The High Court dismissed the petition because of the pending Supreme Court case.
The Supreme Court ultimately returned the case to the High Court for fresh consideration in 2017. The litigation was by then a tangled mess of appeals, writs, petitions, reports, and investigations. As the judge noted then: “the private parties [can be] broadly categorized in three: candidates who were declared unsuccessful… and initiated the litigation in this Court; candidates who were selected in the impugned selection process but whose services were terminated pursuant to the report of HLSC; and the candidates who aspire induction into service, essentially in displacement of the tainted…. Parallel to these civil litigations, a FIR relating to the same selection process remains pending for investigation wherein several other complaints and allegations have been clubbed.”
Patiently wading through the paperwork, the court first commented on the discrepancies between the HLSC report and the CBI report, finding several flaws with the state government’s enquiry. Rather than holding elected officials and bureaucrats accountable, the HLSC focused only on the narrow question of “tainted” candidates. “We have not an iota of doubt,” the court said, “that the exercise in the name of HLSC was farcical and was only a cover-up, aimed at saving and shielding the persons who had, with impunity, hijacked and polluted the system.” Dismissing the HLSC report, the High Court turned to the CBI enquiry, which indicated the sweeping nature of the scam: dozens of letters from bureaucrats and politicians at every level of government “recommending” lists of candidates, resulting in “gigantic manipulations by way of obliterations, insertions and cuttings in the score sheets.” The scale of the corruption, the court held, “could only vitiate the entire selection process.” “Had it been a matter of certain illegality or irregularity of lesser magnitude” the court went on to argue “we might have considered retention of unblemished candidates in the service, but any such exercise would be only giving credence to a process we have found to be fraudulent. This selection process… if allowed to remain even in part, would wreck and ruin the rule of law.”
The High Court thus ordered fresh selections and directed the CBI to investigate Ms Lyngdoh and her alleged conspirators in 2017, seven years after the first RTI petition in the White Ink Scam was filed. While the implementation of the order has hardly been perfect, with teachers being reappointed in some districts without due process, Ms. Kharshiing’s painstaking investigation into the scam demonstrates the power of the RTI infrastructure. The process might be slow, incremental, tedious, and exhausting, but it can be mighty. We can only hope that all the politicians and bureaucrats implicated in this scam will now be held accountable for stealing the future from an entire generation of Meghalaya’s children. In an interview this week, Ms Lyngdoh— now a member of the state assembly— said she had “full faith in the judicial system.” This once, so do we.