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Neil O’Brien dropped from board of La Martiniere amidst controversy

The La Martiniere for Boys campus is clouded by controversy in its 175th year with two of its senior board members being dropped allegedly because of serious differences over the way things were being run, capped by their demand for action against a teacher accused of extortion by a Class IV boy and a proper probe into the alleged corporal punishment of a Class VIII student preceding his death.

Neil O’Brien, who is also the chairman of the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, and K.S. David, a former managing director of the Goodricke Group, have been removed — O’Brien after more than 20 years on the acting board of governors and David after three years.

Sources said O’Brien and David had been axed for voicing their concerns and standing their ground on several critical issues on the Loudon Street campus. Flashpoint was reached over Rouvanjit Rawla, 13, who was found hanging at home after the principal, Sunirmal Chakravarthi, had allegedly punished him, and the alleged demand by Sanjay Smart for a laptop from Partha Pratim Banerjee as bribe to promote his child Srijan to Class V.

On the issue of Smart, who was arrested on May 17, O’Brien and David had told the principal to take “immediate action” against the teacher long before he was remanded in police custody.

“Senior members of the board had agreed that the teacher should be terminated immediately as he was still on probation and there had been a similar complaint against him a year earlier. But no action was taken by the principal,” said a source.

Why has no action been taken against Smart? “We have not been able to question him. As per the law of the land, we cannot condemn a person without hearing him out,” Chakravarthi told Metro, in school on Thursday afternoon, with Supriyo Dhar, the secretary of La Martiniere, seated by his side.

“An internal probe is on and the report will be submitted to the court on June 9. We cannot terminate anyone without proof,” said Dhar.

What about the principal being a co-accused in the case? “These are allegations that have to be proved,” said Chakravarthi.

Regarding Rawla’s death, sources said the principal had admitted to the board that he had caned the boy, prompting O’Brien and David to insist on “appropriate action”, as inflicting corporal punishment is classified as “gross misconduct” under the standing rules and regulations of the school.

Neither the principal nor the board secretary confirmed or denied on Thursday that corporal punishment was meted out to Rawla.

“A full probe was initiated into the issue as suggested by the board, the report was submitted and appropriate steps have been taken as per the service rules and regulations,” said Dhar, refusing to elaborate on the “appropriate steps” taken.

What is being seen as anything but “appropriate” by many Martinians old and new is the removal of Neil O’Brien.

The grand old man of education and quizzing in the city was reticent when Metro contacted him on Thursday. “I have always kept the best interest of the schools in mind, and I stand by certain principles. I can only assume that my views and suggestions may not have been in sync (with the present management of the La Martiniere for Boys). Let it be at that.”

David was a little more forthcoming: “As senior members of the Christian community and being experienced in our own fields of work, we both did our best to instil a degree of good governance and fiduciary integrity in the functioning of the schools and the board. Obviously, our stand may not have been compatible (with the present management of the La Martiniere for Boys).”

The school secretary, however, denied the link between the Smart-Rawla cases and the change of guard. “The probe into the unnatural death of Rawla or the Smart matter happened before the board members were changed so it has nothing to do with it. The constitution of the school provides for four acting governors along with the permanent board members and these acting members are elected annually. The decision (to remove and appoint members) is solely at the discretion of the permanent members,” said Dhar.

But why suddenly drop someone who has been on the board for two decades? “Maybe they wanted to give others a chance,” said Dhar.

After the two removals, La Martiniere was reduced to a three-member board comprising two permanent members — Ashok Biswas, the bishop of Calcutta, and the presbyter of St Andrew’s Church, Rev. Simick — along with Shireen Mondol, a history professor.

Dhar said three new members — Lt-Gen. John Mukherjee, Anand Nayak of ITC Ltd and David Howard, the secretary of St Thomas School — had been inducted into the school board.

The last word is reserved for arguably the most vocal Martinian around, Suhel Seth. “What is happening in La Martiniere is a great tragedy. And now, a person of Neil O’Brien’s calibre has been been asked to step down. All I can say is it is a very ‘unholy’ decision... and God help La Martiniere!”

Bishop Biswas, the chairman of the La Martiniere board, was unavailable for comment and his office is closed for summer till May 30.

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