Paper leak in NEET UG 2024 is an undisputed fact, says Supreme Court; directs NTA to disclose exam details by 10 July

The Bench will decide if a retest of the NEET UG 2024 is essential based on the NTA’s report

On 8 July 2024, a Division Bench of Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra heard petitioners seeking relief against the alleged mis-management of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), 2024, for undergraduate medical admissions. 

Over 20 petitioners appearing before the bench sought varying degrees of relief. Some sought a complete cancellation of the examination, others pleaded for s individual retests in specific instances. A group of candidates from Gujarat, who had successfully cleared the NEET exam this year, moved the Court pleading that no retest be conducted.

The day’s hearing was chaotic from the get go. More than a dozen advocates representing aggrieved candidates from different parts of the country crowded the counsel’s stand. On 20 June, a Vacation Bench of Justices Vikram Nath and S.V. Bhatti had stayed all ongoing proceedings pertaining to grievances surrounding NEET and transferred all matters to the top Court. The case included twenty-three tagged matters.

On the outset, CJI Chandrachud, to bring clarity within the chaos, declared the hearing would be conducted in four stages – first the petitioners seeking cancellation on the ground that a paper leak had taken place would be heard, since theirs was the broadest level of relief sought.

This included petitioners seeking other types of relief such as candidates from Meghalaya who alleged that they were handed the questions paper and answer sets late but were denied compensatory time. The candidates pointed out that they were not included within the 1,563 candidates who appeared for a retest in pursuance of the top court’s order on 23 June 2024. After that, the Chief noted, petitioners arguing against a retest would be heard. Lastly, the Union of India, and the National Testing Agency (NTA), responsible for conducting the NEET exam would be heard.

CJI Chandrachud: Crucial to identify the “red flags”

In yesterday’s hearing, the Court’s focus was on candidates seeking an absolute retest for all candidates. Notably, 23 lakh students appeared for the NEET UG 2024 examination. Counsels hinged their argument on the following parameters to justify a retest:
1. Whether an alleged breach has taken place at a ‘systemic level’ i.e. whether the leak was on a large scale?

2. Whether the breach affected the integrity of the entire examination process?

3. Whether it is possible to segregate the “beneficiaries” of the fraud from the untainted students?

CJI Chandrachud observed that the paper leak is an admitted and undisputed fact. He suggested that it would be wise to identify the abnormalities, or what he described as “red flags” in how the exam was conducted. “Let us not be in self denial. Self denial is only adding to the problem, because everybody now knows there was a [paper] leak,” CJI Chandrachud said.

Some of these red flags would include the fact that an unprecedented number of students obtained first rank in the exam. The court also wanted the Union and NTA to identify cases where students have changed exam centres and received high marks, andcases of high disparity between different subject scores in NEET.

On retest however, the mood of the Court was cautious. CJI Chandrachud reminded the Court that the careers of nearly 23 lakh students were at stake, “We are dealing with the most prestigious examination – every middle class parent wants their kids in medical or engineering,” he remarked.

To conclusively decide on the retest, the nature and extent of the leak had to be decided. If indeed a paper leak had happened on the morning of the exam, then perhaps the leak was only limited to certain groups. The leaked documents would not have circulated as extensively, the Chief explained. However, if the leak had happened earlier, particularly through electronic media such as through WhatsApp or Telegram, then it would have spread like “wildfire”, in which case it may be said that integrity of the entire NEET was vitiated, and the problem really was at a systemic level. To determine the extent of the leak, the Chief pointed out a barrage of granular questions; When were the question papers prepared by the group of experts who wrote them? When did the group of experts forward the paper to the NTA? Where were the printing presses located? What was the transportation arrangement? How many sets of question papers were printed? And many others.

Petitioners: Historic number of students scored 100% marks in NEET UG 2024, paper leaked on Telegram

The petitioners pointed out concerning observations. First, they submitted that between 2020 to 2023, a total of seven students had scored 100% marks (720 out of 720). However, in NEET 2024, a staggering 67 students obtained full marks in the exam, of which six students belonged to the same centre.

Further, the petitioners focused on a First Information Report from Patna, Bihar where the police arrested six persons in connection to an alleged paper leak. They referred to an alleged status report filed by the Economic Offences Wing of the Bihar Police, which stated that leaked copies of question papers were circulated on the Telegram mobile application on the morning of the NEET exam. They contended that “groups of students” memorised the answers that morning. 

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, arguing for the Union, objected contending that out of the six FIRs registered in the NEET UG controversy, only the FIR from Bihar alleged a paper leak. “Rest are for local malpractice,” he stated. Mehta then argued that the status report, as relied on by the petitioners, was not an official report by the Bihar Police. He read out a clarification issued on the same day as the alleged status report. “No official press release has been issued. It was an irresponsible act of correspondence,” the clarification said.

Some petitioners were visibly jarred. “This is a cover up!” exclaimed Senior Advocate Mathews Nedumpura, not once but at least five times interrupting Mehta’s submissions.

Bench: NTA must make full disclosures

The Bench directed the NTA to make disclosures regarding three aspects by Wednesday (10 July):

1. The nature of the leak

2. The places where the leak took place

3. The lag of time between occurrence of breach and conduct of exam

For this, he said NTA has to answer the following questions:

1.When did the leak of the question papers take place?

2. What was the manner in which the leaked question papers were disseminated?

3. What was the duration between the occurrence of the leak and the actual conduct of the examination?

Some of the petitioners had also requested the Court to direct the Central Bureau of Investigation, which has been investigating the paper leak in Bihar to provide updates on the status of the investigation. The Chief, in agreement, directed the Investigating Officer of the CBI to file the status report containing all “material gathered during investigation which will have bearing on when leak first took place and modalities by which leaked papers made available.”

CJI Chandrachud further directed the NTA to apprise the Court of the following developments:

1. What were the steps taken by the NTA to identify the centres or cities in which leaks took place?

2. What modalities were followed to identify beneficiaries of the leak?

3. What was the number of students identified so far as beneficiaries?

When Mehta interrupted that disclosing the identity of the beneficiaries may not be within NTA’s domain, CJI Chandrachud remarked that he would direct the Ministry of Home Affairs to do this in the written order. In the final order, the Court directed the NTA to disclose the details of the beneficiaries. 

The Chief also asked the NTA whether the cyber forensics department or a team of experts can use data analytics to identify “suspect cases” and “segregate the tainted from the untainted students.” Considering the bigger picture fall out of the hearing, CJI Chandrachud also directed the Union and NTA to explain what steps are being taken to ensure that mishaps in the conduct of NEET, as it happened this year, does not happen again. 

The Court will hear the matter next on 11 July 2024.