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Manav Bharti University Shimla, Fake Degrees Scandal Case: Ram Kumar Rana v/s State of Himachal Pradesh

"When education is reduced to a business, it becomes a mere transaction, stripping away its noble purpose and tarnishing the pursuit of genuine knowledge."... Vishal Banga and Parush Negi

This case law examines the judicial proceedings in the case of Ram Kumar Rana @ Raj Kumar vs. State of Himachal Pradesh, wherein the petitioner, the Chancellor of Manav Bharti University, sought bail under Section 439 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). The petitioner was accused of involvement in a scam to sell fake degrees. , This article aims to present a thorough analysis of the judgment and its implications on legal practice.

Introduction
In the judgment dated November 18, 2020, the High Court of Himachal Pradesh at Shimla addressed the bail application of Ram Kumar Rana @ Raj Kumar, the petitioner, under Section 439 CrPC. The petitioner was accused in FIR No. 27 of 2020 under Sections 420, 467, 468, and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), relating to the issuance of fake degrees by Manav Bharti University.

The case emerged from a complaint by the Himachal Pradesh Private Education Institutions Regulatory Commission, alleging that Manav Bharti University had issued 103 fake degrees/diplomas. The petitioner, serving as the Chancellor of the University, was implicated based on the university's denial of issuing these degrees. Investigations revealed that the petitioner was running two universities and was allegedly involved in selling fake degrees through dubious means.

During the investigation, it was found that the fake degrees were sold outside the state through agents for Rs 1-3 lakh in cash deals in the majority of the cases.

Manav Bharti University (MBU) is in the limelight after a number of fake degrees sold by the varsity crossed the 45,000 mark. As per the investigation agencies, over 45,000 fake degrees and digital evidences have been found, and around 5,000 are still under verification. The special investigation team (SIT) of the CID had revealed that it has recovered 55 hard disks that are being scanned. While speaking about the same, the official sources told The Tribune that the investigation has now reached its conclusive stage and the number of fake degrees could mount further as the process of scanning the retrieved data is still underway.

Case in High Court Shimla
The case of Ram Kumar Rana @ Raj Kumar vs. State of Himachal Pradesh revolves around a high-profile scandal involving the issuance of fake degrees by Manav Bharti University only. The petitioner, Ram Kumar Rana, also known as Raj Kumar, who served as the Chancellor of the University, sought regular bail under Section 439 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

This request was made in the context of his involvement in an ongoing investigation, where he was accused of serious offenses under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), specifically Sections 420 (cheating), 467 (forgery of valuable security), 468 (forgery for the purpose of cheating), and 120-B (criminal conspiracy). This case is significant as it touches upon various aspects of criminal law, administrative oversight in educational institutions, and the balance of individual rights against the need for rigorous legal accountability.

Facts of the Case
The facts of the case are rooted in allegations of systemic fraud and corruption within Manav Bharti University, located in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. The university, a private institution established under the Manav Bharti University (Establishment and Regulation) Act, 2009, came under scrutiny following a complaint from the Himachal Pradesh Private Education Institutions Regulatory Commission. The complaint, dated August 16, 2017, was addressed to the Director General of Police, Himachal Pradesh, and highlighted that 103 degrees/diplomas issued by the university were found to be fake upon verification. This complaint set off a chain of events leading to a detailed investigation.

Initial Complaint and Investigation
The complaint from the Regulatory Commission pointed to a severe breach of trust and administrative lapses at Manav Bharti University. The Commission, which serves as a regulatory body to ensure appropriate standards of admission, teaching, examination, and research in private educational institutions, received a request from the Directorate of Higher Education for verification of the degrees in question. The university's response to this verification request was a denial of having issued any such degrees or diplomas, which raised immediate red flags about the authenticity of these documents.

Ram Kumar Rana, the petitioner, was not just the Chancellor of Manav Bharti University but also a central figure in the Manav Bharti Charitable Trust, which established the university. The investigation revealed that he was deeply involved in the operations of both Manav Bharti University in Solan and another institution, Madhav University, in Sirohi, Rajasthan. Both institutions were found to be engaged in the sale of fake degrees through various dubious means.

Evidence and Arrest
The investigative process uncovered substantial evidence pointing towards the petitioner's involvement in the fraudulent activities. One significant piece of evidence was the disclosure statement made by Pramod, an employee of Manav Bharti University, under Section 27 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Pramod's statement led to the discovery of approximately 1,500 fake degrees, stamps, and other incriminating materials at another unit of the petitioner's operations in Sirohi, Rajasthan. This discovery implicated the petitioner as the mastermind behind these fraudulent activities.

Further evidence included the continuous employment of individuals known to be involved in the preparation and sale of fake degrees. The petitioner's failure to take corrective action against these individuals suggested his active participation in the fraudulent scheme. Additionally, investigations at Madhav University in Rajasthan from June 23 to June 25, 2020, further corroborated these findings.

Legal Proceedings
Following these revelations, an FIR was registered, and the petitioner was arrested on June 19, 2020. His application for anticipatory bail under Section 438 CrPC was initially rejected by the court. Subsequently, his application for regular bail under Section 439 CrPC was also dismissed by the Additional Sessions Judge-II, Solan, on August 7, 2020.

The petitioner's counsel argued that the petitioner's role was limited to his ceremonial position as Chancellor and that the day-to-day administrative functions were managed by other officials, such as the Vice Chancellor, Registrar, and Controller of Examinations. Despite these arguments, the court found sufficient prima facie evidence to implicate the petitioner in the fraudulent activities.

The investigation into the case was extensive and involved multiple agencies, including a Special Investigation Team (SIT) with representatives from the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Income Tax Department. This team was tasked with conducting a thorough forensic audit of Manav Bharti University's operations since its inception. The investigation led to the freezing of the petitioner's bank accounts and those of his family members, and significant material evidence was seized.

The status report indicated that the police had filed a charge sheet under Sections 420, 467, 468, and 120-B IPC. Despite the petitioner's assertions of innocence and the procedural defenses raised, the court noted that the seriousness of the allegations and the ongoing nature of the investigation warranted further judicial scrutiny.

Legal Implications
The legal implications of this case are multifaceted, involving issues of fraud, forgery, and the responsibilities of individuals in positions of trust within educational institutions. The court's handling of the bail application reflects a careful balancing act between the petitioner's right to liberty and the necessity of ensuring that the investigation proceeds unimpeded.

Precedent and Judicial Reasoning
The court's decision drew upon several key precedents in Indian bail jurisprudence. In Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court emphasized the need for judicial discretion in bail matters, stressing that bail should be granted unless there are compelling reasons to detain the accused. Similarly, in Kalyan Chandra Sarkar v. Rajesh Ranjan @ Pappu Yadav, the court highlighted that bail could be granted even in serious cases if the prosecution fails to establish a prima facie case or if the court finds sufficient reasons for release.

In the present case, Justice Anoop Chitkara underscored the principles of fairness and justice, noting that the petitioner had been in custody for a significant period (approximately five months) and that the investigation, though ongoing, had already led to the filing of a charge sheet. The court recognized the need to prevent undue infringement on the petitioner's liberty while also safeguarding the integrity of the investigative process.

Bail Conditions
The court's decision to grant bail was contingent upon several stringent conditions designed to mitigate any risk of the petitioner fleeing or tampering with evidence. These conditions included the surrender of the petitioner's passport, the furnishing of a substantial personal bond (INR 10,00,000), and the provision of either local sureties or fixed deposits of equivalent value. Such conditions aimed to balance the petitioner's right to liberty with the need to ensure his presence during the trial and compliance with judicial proceedings.

During the investigation, it was found that the fake degrees were sold outside the state through agents for Rs 1-3 lakh in cash deals in the majority of the cases. Properties worth Rs 194.74 crore out of Rs 440 crore were found to be linked to the crime proceeds were attached.

Raj Kumar Rana, chairman, Manav Bharti Charitable Trust, has been named as the main accused. The extradition process to bring back his wife, son and daughter from Australia was made. Various teams were looking into financial transactions, land deals, digital evidence and interstate links as well as the identification of fake degrees. A case under Sections 420, 467, 468, 471 and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) has been registered against university officials on March 3, 2020. In January 2021, as many as 36,000 fake degrees were detected.In 2019, the higher education regulator, University Grants Commission (UGC) had pointed out that two private universities allegedly sold about 5 lakh degrees and asked the authorities concerned to conduct a thorough inquiry into the allegations against Alakh Prakash Goyal (APG) University (Shimla) and Manav Bharti University (Solan).

The probe revealed that each degree related to technical subjects was sold to students within and outside Himachal Pradesh from ₹1 lakh to ₹3 lakh. The SIT team during the investigation rounded up a Jammu-based agent of the university who struck deals locally for selling the fake degrees. The SIT headed by additional DGP (CID) N Venugopal has four teams looking into the financial part -- land procurement, digital evidence, inter-state linkages as well as identification of fake degrees.

The sleuths scanned more than 60 hard disks to acquire information.Forensic Lab in Junga have conducted a thorough examination, confirming the direct involvement of these individuals in the issuance of fraudulent degrees. This finding adds a new layer of complexity to the case, casting a shadow of doubt over the credibility and reputation of the university.

According to the forensic report, the signatures of the university's own employees were identified and verified. The forthcoming charge sheet, expected to be filed in the Solan court later this month, is anticipated to expose the individuals responsible for perpetrating this widespread fraud.

Among the university's total issuance of 41,470 degrees, 5,455 were confirmed to be genuine according to the records of the Himachal Pradesh Private Institutes Regulatory Commission.The number of fake degrees allegedly sold by Manav Bharti University (MBU), Solan, is all set to cross the 50,000 mark. The investigation agencies have detected over 45,000 fake degrees and digital evidence in respect of another 5,000 is being verified.The number of fake degrees allegedly sold by Manav Bharti University (MBU), Solan, is all set to cross the 50,000 mark. The investigation agencies have detected over 45,000 fake degrees and digital evidence in respect of another 5,000 is being verified.The investigation pointed out that fake degrees were sold outside the state through agents for Rs 1-3 lakh in cash deal in majority of the cases.

The Properties worth Rs 194.74 crore out of Rs 440 crore linked to the crime proceeds were attached. Raj Kumar Rana, chairman, Manav Bharti Charitable Trust, is the main accused. The extradition process to bring back his wife, son and daughter from Australia is in progress. Various teams are looking into financial transactions, land deals, digital evidences and interstate links as well as identification of fake degrees. A case under Sections 420, 467, 468, 471 and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was registered against university officials on March 3, 2020. As many as 36,000 fake degrees were detected in January last year.

The primary issues in the case were whether the petitioner should be granted bail, considering the severity of the accusations and the potential risks of his flight or interference with the investigation.

Petitioner's Arguments
The petitioner, through Senior Advocate Nareshwar Singh Chandel, argued that as the Chancellor, he was not responsible for the administrative functions of the university. He emphasized that the petitioner had no prior criminal history and proposed to surrender his passport to mitigate any flight risk.

Respondent's Arguments
The State, represented by Advocate General Ashok Sharma, countered that the petitioner was a key figure in the university's trust and thus heavily involved in the fraudulent activities. The respondent highlighted the petitioner's dual roles in the university and the trust, contending that the petitioner posed a flight risk as his family had already relocated to Australia.

The court examined various precedents and legal principles regarding bail, including the need for pre-trial incarceration, the balance of stakeholders' interests, and the judicial discretion in granting bail. References were made to landmark judgments such as Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia v. State of Punjab and Kalyan Chandra Sarkar v. Rajesh Ranjan @ Pappu Yadav.

The court relied on precedents that emphasize the importance of balancing the rights of the accused with the need to ensure justice. The judgment drew parallels with cases where the accused were granted bail despite serious charges, provided stringent conditions were imposed to prevent flight and tampering with evidence.

Court's Reasoning
Justice Anoop Chitkara reasoned that the petitioner had been in custody for approximately five months, and further incarceration was not justified. The investigation was still ongoing, and a charge sheet had already been filed. The court noted that the petitioner's liberty could not be curtailed indefinitely without substantial evidence warranting continued detention.

Conclusion
The court granted bail to the petitioner, subject to strict conditions, including the surrender of his passport, furnishing of a personal bond of INR 10,00,000, and compliance with all investigative requirements. The judgment emphasized the balance between ensuring justice and protecting the petitioner's fundamental rights.

This case serves as a significant precedent in the domain of bail jurisprudence, especially concerning white-collar crimes in the education sector. It reiterates the principles of justice, fairness, and the necessity of safeguarding individual liberties while ensuring that the legal process is not undermined. The court's meticulous analysis and balanced reasoning provide valuable insights into the complexities of bail applications in similar cases.

The case of Ram Kumar Rana @ Raj Kumar vs. State of Himachal Pradesh highlights the complexities of dealing with white-collar crime in the educational sector. It underscores the critical role of judicial discretion in bail matters and the need to balance individual rights with the broader interests of justice.

The judgment serves as a precedent for handling similar cases in the future, emphasizing the importance of thorough investigations and the imposition of appropriate conditions to prevent misuse of the bail process. As the legal proceedings continue, the case will likely provide further insights into the challenges of regulating private educational institutions and addressing fraud within this sector.

Written By:
  • Vishal Banga &
  • Parush Negi (Advocate District Court Kullu) H..P.

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