Christian school heads among 20 arrested in Madhya Pradesh over 'exorbitant' fees

Christ Church Boy's Senior Secondary School, Jabalpur. (Photo: Christian Today India)

Authorities in Madhya Pradesh's Jabalpur district have arrested 20 individuals, including principals of several prominent Christian-run schools and Rt. Rev. Ajay Umesh Kumar James, the Bishop of the Church of North India and Chairman of Christ Church Schools. They are accused of violating fee regulations and overcharging students exorbitantly. Some Christian leaders have decried the arrests as a targeted crackdown on their educational institutions.

The arrests were made after a district-level investigation found 51 persons affiliated with 11 private schools culpable of breaching the state government's norms on fees chargeable by private educational institutions, according to Aditya Pratap Singh, the Superintendent of Police in Jabalpur. FIRs have been filed at 11 different police stations in the Jabalpur district under Sections 409, 420, 467, 468 and 120-B against these schools. The accused include 30 members of various school managements, as well as five bookstore owners and proprietors of 16 publishing houses.

The schools where arrests were made include the prestigious St. Thomas Church Diocese's Stemfield International School in Vijay Nagar, three branches of Christ Church schools in Ghamapura, Civil Lines, and Saliwada, and two branches of the St. Aloysius schools in the Polipathar and Sadar areas. Others booked include Gyan Ganga Orchid International School, two branches of Little World schools in Katanga and Tilwara, Christ Church Boys and Girls ISC school, Shri Chaitanya Techno School in Dhanvantari Nagar and St. Aloysius School in Rimjha locality.

Five catholic priests from the influential Jabalpur Catholic diocese have been named in the cases but were not among those arrested on May 27, though one priest was called for interrogation by the authorities.

Those arrested so far include Nilesh Singh (Manager, Christ Church Co-Ed School Saliwada), Shitij Jacob (Christ Church School Saliwada), Alok Indurkhya and Ram Indurkhya (New Radhika Book Palace Vijay Nagar), Manmeet Kohli (Principal, Stemfield International School), Shaji Thomas (Principal, Christ Church Boys and Girls ISC), L.M. Sathe (Manager, Christ Church School), Surya Prakash Verma and Shashank Shrivastava (Children's Book House Naudara Bridge), C.S. Vishwakarma (Shri Chaitanya Techno School), Soma George (St. Aloysius School Polipathar), Bhartesh Bharill and Deepali Tiwari (Gyan Ganga International School), Chitrangi Iyer (CEO, Little World School), Subodh Nema (Manager, Little World School), Paridhi Bhargava (Principal, Little World School), Atul Anupam Ibrahim and Ekta Peter (Members, Christ Church Senior Secondary), and Lalit Salomon (Manager, Christ Church Diocesan School).

According to District Magistrate and Collector Deepak Saxena, the comprehensive investigation revealed that these 11 private schools were found to have illegally hiked fees by a staggering Rs 81.30 crore (over $10 million) and collected an additional Rs 4.12 crore in commission from the sale of books and uniforms in violation of norms.

Local Christian leaders have alleged that the arrests are part of increasing harassment faced by their community in Madhya Pradesh, which has enacted stringent anti-conversion laws in recent years.

A Christian leader from Jabalpur who spoke to Christian Today on condition of anonymity confirmed that the CNI bishop had indeed been arrested but said that the police actions could have been prejudiced and intended to tarnish the reputation of Christian-operated schools. He highlighted that the district has numerous private schools, many of which charge significantly higher fees when compared to church-run institutions.

A Christian professor while speaking to Christian Today expressed her sorrow at the development while stating that the Church based institutions should have been more careful.

Saxena, however, has justified the crackdown, stating it was part of a statewide drive against private schools charging excessive fees. He warned that all 1,037 private schools in Jabalpur have been directed to refund hiked fees to students within a month or face further administrative action and potential penalties.

The arrests followed a comprehensive probe by the district administration involving eight Sub-Divisional Magistrates, 12 revenue officials, 25 education officers and 60 other staffers. Open hearings were held to allow parents to voice complaints and schools to present their side before cases were registered.

Saxena said many schools failed to upload mandatory annual audit reports, while others were found to have manipulated financial records. Some had raised fees by over 15% without approval, concealed fee hike information from parents, or hiked fees over 10% without requisite permissions - all violating state regulations.

The accused, who also face charges of forcing parents to purchase textbooks and uniforms from selected vendors at inflated rates, have been remanded to judicial custody as the investigation continues into the alleged Rs 240 crore scam perpetrated by private schools across Jabalpur.