Verghese Kurien is in the news again, eleven years after his death, thanks to a tweet put out by Sanjeev Bikhchandani, founder of Naukri.com, who says India’s milkman delivered a “downright rude” convocation address at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) in 1988. Bikhchandani, who graduated from the IIMA in 1989, says Dr Kurien, who was then the chairman of the National Dairy Development Board and GCMMF (owner of the Amul brand) taunted the graduating class and was caustic, condescending, sarcastic and insulting. “Throughout his speech he repeatedly used the term ‘shampoo salesmen’ derisively to describe the graduates of IIMA,” says the tweet.
VO! asked Nirmala Kurien, Dr Kurien’s daughter, what she thought of the accusation. “My father was blunt, but never insulting and rude,” she says. “He was on the IIMA Board briefly, and did believe the institute was a waste of national resources since its graduates went to work for multinationals. Ravi Mathai (the first Director of IIMA), was my father’s cousin and told him he would never get IIMA graduates to work in the co-operative sector. That is why my father founded IRMA (Institute of Rural Management Anand).”
In a reply to Bikhchandani’s tweet, former GCMMF managing director RS Sodhi says: “I just read Dr Kurien’s speech, delivered at the IIMA. He conveyed the message described by Mr Bikhchandani, but in polished way, not rudely. The Milkman can never be rude.”
Though the “shampoo salesman” bit is there, the official version of the speech, is indeed quite mild. According to Bikhchandani, Kurien went off-script and said things that left “his ears burning.” On forum discussions, IIMA graduates of the 1988 and 1989 batch, who heard Kurien’s speech, do recall it was much more hard-hitting than the official version available with the IIMA and GCMMF, “otherwise, we wouldn’t have remembered it 35 years later.” Ravi Sreedharan of the IIMA batch of 1889 says: “That speech had a huge role in my switching from a corporate career to social work.”
In his tweet, Bikhchandani does say Kurien’s speech was impactful, unlike the speech delivered by V Krishnamurthy, the chief guest at his own convocation in 1989. “I don’t remember a word he (Mr Krishnamurthy) said and I don’t think what he said made any difference to the lives of any of my classmates. The speech did not change anyone’s behaviour or any of the choices we made in our lives,” he says.
Bikhchandani, who is the co-founder of Ashoka University in Delhi framed his Kurien-tweet around the broader subject of the impact of convocation speeches on the minds of students.