In a major relief to 25,753 teachers and non-teaching staff of West Bengal, the Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the order of the Calcutta High Court order invalidating their appointment made by the state's School Service Commission (SSC) in the state-run and state-aided schools.

The top court, however, permitted the central probe agency, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to continue with its investigation and said it may probe even the members of the state cabinet if needed.

While granting the relief on the pleas, including the one filed by the state government, a bench comprising Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra asked the CBI not to take any precipitative action like any arrest of any suspect during its ongoing investigation.

The top court, however, made it clear that the teachers and non-teaching staff of the state, whose appointments were cancelled by the high court, will have to refund the salaries and other emoluments if it reaches the conclusion that their recruitment was illegal.

"We are of the view that an expeditious disposal of the matter will be in the interest of justice. We accordingly direct that the proceedings be listed for hearing and final disposal on July 16, 2024.

"In the meantime, we are inclined to continue the ad-interim protection granted by this Court in the order dated November 9, 2023, subject to the express stipulation that any person found to have been appointed illegally and has continued as a consequence of the present order shall undertake to refund the entire amount of the salary which may be paid from the date of this order and the final judgement of this court," the bench said in its order.

It said the issue which would merit closer analysis is whether the appointment which suffers from tainted can be segregated (with the genuine ones). If such is possible then it would be wrong to set aside the entirety of the process, the bench said.

The court should also be mindful that a large number of teachers for class 9-10th would be effected. Assuming that such a segregation is possible, this court has to set out the modalities to determine the segregation, the bench said in the order.

Earlier in the day, it termed the alleged recruitment scam in West Bengal as "systemic fraud" and said the state authorities were duty-bound to maintain the digitised records pertaining to the appointment of 25,753 teachers and non-teaching staff.

"Public job is so scarce... Nothing remains if the faith of the public goes. This is systemic fraud. Public jobs are extremely scarce today and are looked at for social mobility.

"What remains in the system if their appointments are also maligned? People will lose faith, how do you countenance this?" the CJI asked the lawyers representing the state government.

The bench said the state government has nothing to show that the data was maintained by its authorities and asked about its availability.

"Either you have the data or you do not have it... You were duty-bound to maintain the documents in digitised form. Now, it is obvious that there is no data.

"You are unaware of the fact that your service provider has engaged another agency. You had to maintain supervisory control," the bench told the state government's lawyers.

The top court said expeditious hearing was needed in the matter and listed the pleas for hearing on July 16.

It took note of the submissions of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that the order staying the high court judgment may hamper the ongoing CBI probe and clarified that the investigation by the central agency will continue without any coercive action against the government officials and others.

Senior advocates Rakesh Dwivedi and N K Kaul, representing the state government authorities, argued against the cancellation of the appointments by the high court.

During the hearing, senior advocate Dushyant Dave made comments against former Calcutta High Court judge Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay and sought a stay of the high court order.

"Mr Dave, we are not on conduct of Mr Gangopadhyay. We have been here and listening the nitty-gritty of the case since morning. Please show some decorum," the bench said.

The CJI, once during the hearing, got irked and said he will issue notice and keep the case for hearing in July if the orderly hearing is allowed to take place.

"We are not here to scrutinise the conduct of Justice Gangopadhyay," the CJI said, adding that the lawyers should be concerned with the legality of the case and levelling allegations against the high court judge will not lead anywhere.

The bench, in its order, said, "We are of view that submission of petitioners (state government and others) merits further consideration." The top court was hearing a batch of petitions challenging the Calcutta High Court's April 22 decision that invalidated the appointment of 25,753 teachers and non-teaching staff in state-run and state-aided schools of West Bengal.

Besides cancelling the appointments, the Calcutta High Court had also directed the CBI to probe into the appointment process and submit a report in three months.

Over 23 lakh candidates had appeared for the State Level Selection Test (SLST)-2016 for 24,640 vacant posts. A total of 25,753 appointment letters were issued against 24,640 vacancies, Firdaus Shamim, a lawyer for some of the petitioners who had alleged irregularities in the selection process, had said.

The court also instructed those appointed outside the officially available 24,640 vacancies, appointed after the expiry of the official date of recruitment, and those who submitted blank Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheets but obtained appointments to return all remunerations and benefits received by them with 12 per cent per annum interest, within four weeks.