The reputation of Bihar's schools has taken a knock.
Satyavrat Mishra explains how a student-teacher nexus has gamed the system to produce toppers by the dozen.
Ruby Rai, the Class 12 topper from the humanities stream, a resident of Vaishali, was having the time of her life on May 29.
Her father and brother were busy answering congratulatory calls, while she was giving interviews to local journalists. But soon things began to go awry.
Although she had scored 91 out of 100 in political science (prodigal science, in her words), Rai thought it was all about cooking. She didn't even know out of how much she scored 89 per cent.
A short distance away, at Hajipur, another topper, Saurabh Shrestha, the son of a railway contractor, too was being interviewed.
Shrestha, who scored almost 85 per cent in the science stream, didn't know what is the most reactive metal on the Periodic Table (Caesium) and said there are only two electrons in a Sodium atom (there are 11).
Both were students of the Vishun Rai Inter College in Vaishali, just 30 km away from Patna. As soon as the interviews were broadcast, the red-faced Nitish Kumar government was forced to acknowledge that there was widespread wrongdoing and ordered an investigation.
Two weeks since the students unwittingly exposed the rot in Bihar's education system, 10 people have been arrested so far and three are absconding including former Bihar State Education Board chief Lalkeswar Prasad and his wife and former Janata Dal (United) MLA, Usha Sinha. (Singh has been arrested since this report was filed.)
Examinations in Bihar have been infamous for cheating. Last year, during the Class 10 exams, photos of adults scaling walls to pass chits to their wards made national news.
Stung by the bad publicity, before this year's board exams, Bihar's education department made elaborate arrangements to prevent cheating, including fixing CCTV cameras at examination centres and posting armed policemen. At several places, teachers asked examinees to take off their shirts in order to prevent cheating.
As a result, when the results were declared late last month, the pass percentages fell by a fifth in Class 10 as well as Class 12. Before the state government could take credit for the clean-up, the Ruby Rai and Saurabh Shrestha interviews blew up.
Education Minister Ashok Kumar Chaudhary was left seething. "All our efforts to prevent cheating have been soiled. It is unforgivable. Be assured, I will personally make sure that the guilty are punished."
BSEB ordered a re-test for the 14 toppers on June 3, where all except Ruby Rai turned up -- she claimed she was in depression and would need some more time.
When asked to explain some of his answers, Saurabh Shrestha reportedly threatened to commit suicide. The examiners were aghast. On the other hand, Rahul Kumar, another topper and Shrestha's classmate, could not answer most of the questions asked. Their results were annulled by the BSEB.
In the eye of the storm is Vishun Rai College where these students were enrolled. The institution is headed by Amit Kumar, aka 'Baccha' Rai, the alleged kingpin of the scandal. He is the prime accused in the FIR filed by the Bihar education department on June 7.
He, along with Shrestha, Kumar and his daughter, Shalini Rai, has been charged with forgery, cheating and conspiring to commit a crime. Ruby Rai has been named as a person of interest in the case.
Rai's father says he asked the school management to "take care of her results, but they made her the topper."
Shalini was a Class 10 topper in 2014. She appeared for the Class 12 exams this year and actually scored more than Shrestha. However, her result was allegedly concealed on the direct orders of the then BSEB chief, Lalkeswar Prasad, to avoid suspicion.
Revising the merit list on a later date has become common practice in the state in the last few years. The direct beneficiary of this has been Rai's college.
In the last three years, several Class 12 toppers have been students of this college, even though it has no regular teachers for math, physics, chemistry and English.
"Rai's grip over the BSEB and the education department was complete," says one former teacher at the Vishun Rai College, "He got to decide where his students' examination centre would be. Even before the examination was complete, he knew the result. He is the one who dictates the merit list in the state."
People used to get their money's worth in return. Last year, out of the 1,007 students in the college, no one got less than 60 per cent. Moreover, 222 students got identical marks.
Suspecting something fishy, the education department put their results on hold, but later due to unexplained reasons the embargo was lifted.
Rai was arrested by the police on June 11, when he was going to surrender at the Hajipur civil court. Even in prison, he is reportedly getting preferential treatment.
The police admit that Rai had connections with some of the more influential people in the state. "Rai and his partners ran the operations in collusion with some very influential people. Rai had deep connections with various influential figures," says Patna Senior Superintendent of Police Manu Maharaj who is heading the Special Task Force constituted to probe the 'Toppers Scam'.
The masterminds of the case worked in a systematic manner for at least six years to allow those who could afford it to get the top spots on the merit charts. The first step would start at the time of admission.
"At least Rs 50,000 used to be taken from aspiring students at the time of admission with the promise that the candidate would achieve success. In case of girl students, the charges were a bit higher as good education improves their marriage prospects," says a senior SIT officer.
At the time of the exams, the fixers would get the examination centre of their choice for their students.
At these centres, 'special freedom' was provided to the students so that they could without fear resort to unfair means.
The next step would be about managing the evaluation centres. This was at the BSEB's sole discretion.
It is alleged that officers were ready to manipulate these evaluation centres.
How deep the tentacles of this scandal have spread can be gauged from the fact that while all answer sheets from the Vaishali district were sent to evaluation centres in the Kaimur and Rohtas districts, those of Vishun Rai College were sent to a centre in Patna on Lalkeswar Prasad's special orders.
He even accompanied the sheets to the centre.
Answer sheets of some 'specially favoured' candidates were also found at the office of his wife, Usha Sinha, at a college in Patna, where she is the principal.
Prasad, allegedly, ensured that the students of Vishun Rai College secured 'good marks' and some of them made it to the merit list.
Ever since the scandal broke out, Baccha Rai's photos with leaders of almost every major political party have surfaced. His political connections initiated a verbal duel between the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal-United.
His equally cordial relationship with all political parties ensured him patronage. However, now all parties are busy disavowing him.
Last year, during the Bihar assembly election, Rai openly campaigned for Lalu Prasad and his son, Tej Pratap. He even shared the dais with them.
BJP leaders allege that Rai used to collect funds for the RJD and Lalu's other son, Tejaswi.
The RJD chief was quick to distance himself from Rai, but Tejaswi, the deputy chief minister, posted a photo of Rai and Union Minister Giriraj Singh on Twitter.
He alleged that Singh used to often visit Rai's college and was on friendly terms with him.
In response, Singh put up a photo of Rai with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Now, the Janata Dal-United is busy explaining that it is an inconsequential photo from a wedding in 2011.
The SIT has also found several documents from Rai's house which indicate that he was in touch with a Union minister and was even planning to set up a medical college with him.
Meanwhile, the reputation of Bihar's schools has taken a knock.
A senior bureaucrat, who topped the state, now refrains from mentioning his achievement, or else people may cast aspersions on his character.