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Dear Birlas, Time to Take a Hard Look at How Your Schools Are Run

There was massive outrage against the Principal and staff of both schools, but the proprietors remained shut.

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(Left to right) Manjushree Khaitan, Harsh Lodha and Basant Kumar Birla.
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My school blazer was dry-cleaned and folded neatly into the suitcase, shoes were polished till I could see my face in them and excitement levels were through the roof. As a class 11 student, I was preparing for what was going to be my first “outstation” competition, representing the school in Delhi.

Four hours before my flight, I got a call from school saying that my tickets were cancelled and that someone else would be going in my place. I was heart-broken and more than that very, very confused. When my mother, who usually never involved herself with what I do in school, demanded an explanation from the Principal, she was told that it was because our family was “having financial troubles.”

To this day, I don’t know why the Principal would think that, but more importantly, what does this have to do with me going for a debate? Well, it turns out that another student offered to pay for the teacher accompanying us and that sealed the deal. We were also informed that the school administration was not going to sanction money for the debate, hence you get to go only if you pay. My school was an all-girls Birla school with one of the highest fees in the city. And they had just told a student that she was too poor to participate in an inter-school activity.

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Snapshot

Memories like these kept coming back to me over the last few days as two sexual assault cases were reported in two Birla-run schools in a matter of a week. In both cases, the victims were four years old or younger. Both schools, the GD Birla Institute as well as the MP Birla Foundation, had seen protests every day till the schools reopened on Thursday, 6 December 2017. An FIR has been lodged against the GD Birla Principal who has now been removed. Protests outside MP Birla turned so aggressive on one of the days that the police had to lathicharge the parents to disperse the crowd.

Parents had been protesting in GD Birla for days demanding the removal of the Principal.
Parents had been protesting in GD Birla for days demanding the removal of the Principal.
(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

But as many students of GDB (that’s what we used to call it in school) have pointed out, the most disquieting silence, in all of this, is the one that is emanating from Industry House – the office of the Ashok Hall Group of Schools – a group of three schools of which GD Birla is a part. The chairperson of the group is Manjushree Khaitan, Birla patriarch Basant Kumar Birla’s younger daughter. On the other hand, Harsh Vardhan Lodha, the chairman of the Birla Corp which runs the MP Birla Foundation has not said a word yet.

In the midst of it all, there were social media testimonials of many students who narrated stories of moral policing and slut shaming in their schools. Speaking about a similar case that happened in the school in 2014, GD Birla students have said that they were made to believe by the administration that the case was false and made up. Their stories don’t only talk about the patriarchy that was prevalent in all schools of the time, but also of how a hands-on management systematically controlled the students and faculty.
Former students are seeking answers from Majushree Khaitan and the Ashok Hall Group.
Former students are seeking answers from Majushree Khaitan and the Ashok Hall Group.
(Photo: Facebook/Screenshot)

After having spent 13 years in school experiencing a similar Birla-run management, this kind of stony silence from the proprietors of both schools was not surprising to me. To the students, who’ve come out with their testimonials against the management, I can therefore say that I sympathise.

My school was (is) run by Manjushree’s sister and B K Birla’s other daughter, Jayshree Mohta. As a part of many extracurricular clubs in school, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Ms. Mohta quite a few times. The school would be decorated every time she came to visit (which was often), and there were teachers put on duty in the corridors to ensure that students don’t “loiter.” There were times when she met specific students and asked them for feedback on the teachers, Principal et al. Now that I think back, there were so many incidents in school that were blatantly wrong but had the sanction of the management, while the Principal and the teachers under Mohta were expected to be the face of it all. The teachers who didn’t toe the line were removed, or at least, not held in very high regard.

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My school, the Mahadevi Birla Girl’s Higher Secondary School in Kolkata, which was later renamed Mahadevi Birla World Academy.
My school, the Mahadevi Birla Girl’s Higher Secondary School in Kolkata, which was later renamed Mahadevi Birla World Academy.
(Photo Courtesy: The Telegraph)

For example, in class 11 a couple of film club students were taken by Ms Mohta and our teacher-in charge to a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s ‘Ram Ke Naam’ – a documentary on the events that led to the Babri Masjid demolition. In a panel discussion after, a friend, who happened to be an ‘Agarwal’, asked a couple of critical questions about the Kar Sevaks, in the process, also criticising the concept of Ram Janmabhoomi.

We were all rounded up by Ms Mohta after the event and the girl was reprimanded for “being an Agarwal and asking such questions”. “You should know that this is not Marwari culture”, she said. She then proceeded to ask if the teacher-in-charge of the film club at that point was “teaching us to be atheists.” All because a student questioned those who were the perpetrators of one of the worst riots in Indian history.

In another instance there was a huge “Hanuman Hawan” organised on our school field, for which all our parents were invited and the students were asked to volunteer. Notwithstanding how non-secular this was in a school that has students from so many different faiths, we were more concerned about losing our beloved field. A bunch of us did muster the courage to raise the issue with the Principal but “Mr and Mrs Birla are coming”, is all that we got as a response. Since then, till the time that I graduated – a good 3 years – the school field was mucky and unusable. We had lost our PT periods to bamboo stakes and burning grass.

Me, and a couple of my friends in front of the school ground on the last day of school. As is evident, the grass cover of the field was completely gone.
Me, and a couple of my friends in front of the school ground on the last day of school. As is evident, the grass cover of the field was completely gone.
(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri)

One incident that really stands out, in retrospect, is the appointment of bus monitors when we were in class 9. There was one student appointed for each bus.

I was happy when I was appointed as one, but was never told my exact duty or purpose. A teacher I was close to let it slip that an “incident” had occurred in one of the buses, but the students and parents were kept blissfully unaware. Lack of proper investigation and social media made it effortless for the administration to successfully hush it up.

This makes me wonder about the numerous problematic practices that were normalised and ingrained in us as students, like the monitor being made to check if everyone was wearing a slip/bra in the morning. This is not to say that I didn’t have a wonderful time in my school or that my teachers were terrible, because they were (few of them, anyway) in fact amazing. Infrastructurally also, the school was always top-class. But an incident like the inter-school debate that I’d mentioned earlier, really shattered my confidence.

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The point of saying all this is not to say that the Birlas have failed as administrators. They cannot be demonised as a collective either, because each school is managed by a different branch of the Birla family. But if the management controls so much of what is happening in the school, it is only fair that they take responsibility when things go wrong. It should be the Khaitans and the Lodhas who get mobbed by the media and not just the Principals who, at the end of day, were simply taking orders.

Sharmila Nath, former Principal of G.D. Birla school who was hounded by the press and parents of students, before she was “relieved from her duties” by the management.
Sharmila Nath, former Principal of G.D. Birla school who was hounded by the press and parents of students, before she was “relieved from her duties” by the management.
(Photo: ANI)

The massive outrage and successive scapegoat-ing of certain members of the staff by the media after the cases were reported, made me feel helpless. Because in it all, I could see that just like in my school, this was another attempt by the Birla-run administration to shield themselves from all the muck coming the school’s way.

Dear Birlas, these are your schools and maybe it’s time you stop shirking responsibility and take one hard look at how they are run.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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