Karnataka High Court: While considering a bunch of petitions which had challenged the decision of the State Government to conduct fresh written examinations for all the candidates who had earlier appeared in the examination for the post of ‘Police Sub-Inspector (Civil)’ in the State of Karnataka on 21-01-2021; the Division Bench of P.S. Dinesh Kumar* and T.G. Shivashankare Gowda, JJ., refused to interfere with the decision of the State Government stating that the evaluation of academic achievement or the suitability of a candidate for public employment necessitates an examination process that adheres to principles of rationality. “Rationality stands as a fundamental requirement within the realm of public administration. The decision to cancel an examination is an extreme step usually taken in the interest of maintaining the integrity of the examination process and to ensure absolute fairness to all the candidates both successful and unsuccessful.”
Background: On 21-01-2021, the Police Department called for recruitment for the post of ‘Police Sub-Inspector (Civil)’. The selection procedure was carried out in two parts- firstly, a physical test and secondly, a written test. The candidates who passed the physical test became eligible to take up the written examination consisting of a descriptive paper and an objective type paper.
The written examination was conducted on 03-10-2021 across 92 centres in Karnataka. Based on Provisional Selection List published on 19-01-2022, the candidates were called for verification of documents and medical test. However, certain complaints were received alleging malpractice in the written examination in Kalaburagi centre and particularly against one of the candidates.
Subsequently, a FIR was lodged against the candidate for offences punishable under Section 120-B, 465, 468, 471, 420 r/w Section 34 IPC and the Home Minister of Karnataka directed the DG & IG to entrust the enquiry to the CID.
A 19 member investigating team was formed to enquire into the allegations of malpractice. All the 545 selected candidates were called upon by the CID to submit carbon-copies of their OMR sheets. After investigation, the State Government vide order dated 29-04-2022 ordered that, fresh written examinations be conducted for all the candidates, who had earlier appeared.
Feeling aggrieved by the said order, petitioners approached the Karnataka State Administrative Tribunal (KSAT) and the KSAT dismissed their applications holding that there was a ‘systemic failure’ of the recruitment process.
Contentions: The petitioners prayed before the Court to direct the respondents to segregate the cases of those involved in the malpractice and complete the recruitment process in respect of other candidates.
It was contended that out of 545 selected candidates, only 53 candidates have been named in the charge sheet and out of them, 52 candidates have been debarred. There are no allegations against the remaining candidates. It was further contended that the State Government had validated the appointments of untainted candidates of Gazetted Probationers of 2011 batch by promulgating Karnataka Civil Services (Validation of Selection and Appointment of 2011 batch, Gazetted Probationers) Act, 2022. The case on hand is similar to that of Gazetted Probationers of 2011.
Per contra, the State argued that the malpractice has taken place in two ways. Firstly, by marking the OMR sheets by obtaining the answers from an outside source using Bluetooth devices. Secondly by tampering the OMR answer sheets after the examination. Furthermore, the OMR sheets themselves were tampered on two levels. First at the level of examination centres after handing over the OMR answer sheets to the invigilators. Second at the recruitment headquarters i.e., in the Office of the Head of the Recruitment Cell (ADGP), where the OMR answer sheets were kept in safe custody. Therefore, in the facts of this case, segregation of tainted and untainted candidates is not possible.
Court’s Assessment: Perusing the facts and contentions of the case, the Court framed the following points for consideration and answered them thusly-
Whether segregation of tainted and untainted candidates is possible?
Delving into the examination process, the Court noted that nearly 54,000 candidates have appeared for the written exam on 03.10.2021 held in 92 centres across the State. Candidates appeared for both descriptive and objective papers on the same day.
The Court also took note of the irregularities which were done to the OMR answer sheets. Taking note of the description of irregularities as provided in the investigation reports, the Court was of the view that these suggest prima facie that there was tampering. “The Advocate General is right in his submission that trust and confidence upon the Police by the general public is also of paramount importance”.
Vis-à-vis usage of Bluetooth device in the examination hall, the Court noted that using a Bluetooth device in an examination hall would typically involve coordinated effort between the candidate writing the exam and an external party assisting with the transmission of information. The Court further pointed out significantly that in the instant case, the objective paper consists of 100 questions and the time allotted to finish the examination is 1 hour 30 minutes, that means, a candidate would get less than one minute to answer a question. “This leads to an irresistible inference that the person conveying the answers through a smart phone and Bluetooth had access to the question paper in advance to relay the answer to the candidate through the Bluetooth device”.
The Court further inferred that either the candidates were given early access to the question paper, or the question paper was leaked before the examination. Otherwise, it is highly improbable that the external party could relay the answers within time. “It is also highly probable that such leaked question paper may have been circulated widely. In such a situation, it is difficult to record a specific finding whether the candidates had early access or the question paper was leaked. But in any event, it is not in dispute that a scam has taken place with the involvement of several persons including an ADGP”.
The Court opined that in the instant case, the segregation of tainted and untainted candidates is not possible for following reasons-
conveying the answers to the beneficiaries through Bluetooth device in the examination hall is impossible if the candidates or the external party did not have the access to the question paper and the ‘version’ of the question paper prior to the examination.
Involvement of the ADGP who heads the Recruitment Wing and through whom OMR answer sheets were accessed and tampered, erodes public trust and confidence.
53 selected candidates have been charge-sheeted and 52 out of them have been debarred. Since the Court found that conveying answers through Bluetooth device would have been impossible without leakage of questions, petitioners’ prayer to complete the selection process of untainted candidates is untenable because petitioners’ results are also not free from suspicion. The Court opined that the probability of leakage of questions is almost certain because without knowing the questions earlier, the external party could not have conveyed answers within 90 minutes, particularly when transmission was only one way.
Purity in conducting the examination is a sine qua non to build a robust, efficient and honest public service and particularly, the disciplined uniformed force like the Police.
Whether the Government order dated 29-04-2022 passed by the State Government calls for any interference?
Answering the question in negative, the Court stated that the investigation report and the charge sheet filed before the Criminal Courts and the allegation of Head of Recruitment Cell being involved in the scam, the Court was of the view that the option exercised by the executive to cancel the examination and to order for re-examination is based on a sound reasoning and to maintain the purity of examination.
Whether the impugned orders passed by the KSAT calls for any interference?
The Court answered this question in negative as well.
Thus, with the afore-stated assessment, the Court upheld the decision of the State Government to cancel the provisional selection of 545 candidates and conduct a re-examination for the post of Police Sub-Inspector (Civil).
[Chandan NV v. State of Karnataka, 2023 SCC OnLine Kar 73, decided on 10-11-2023]
*Order by Justice PS Dinesh Kumar
Advocates who appeared in this case :
For petitioners- Santosh S. Nagarale, Advocate; P.S. Rajagopal, Senior Advocate for Muhammad Shamil, Advocate; D.R. Ravishankar, Senior Advocate for Siri Rajashekar, Advocate; Varun Gowda, Advocate; K.N. Phanindra, Senior Advocate for Arnav A. Bagalwadi, Advocate; Raghu, Advocate.
For respondents- K. Shashikiran Shetty, A.G. A/W Reuben Jacob, AAG and Vikas Rojipura, AGA.