Education at the Mercy of Political Violence by Rajaram Gautam
Sharada Higher Secondary School in Mudbhara VDC, Doti district, has been transformed into a cemetery. A clash on October 3, 2003, between a Maoist group eager to force school children out of their classrooms and make them watch a cultural program in the open and a security forces patrol which reached the spot at that very moment left not only some Maoists dead. Four innocent students also lost their lives. Half a dozen others were injured. Following that incident, at least 18 other schools in the district closed down because of insecurity.
The locks at 76 schools in Bajura in Far Western Region have not yet been opened a month after the end of the October Dasain/Tihar holidays. This situation has arisen as the school teachers, terrified by the Maoists, have moved to the district headquarters. And when the Maoists issued an order requiring all teachers to submit one month’s salary as donations, 112 teachers in the district applied to the district education office to be sent elsewhere on assignment.
On November 5, Maoists torched the zonal level primary teachers training centre at Bhojpur district headquarters and razed it to the ground. This arson attack on the center which trains teachers from the eastern hill districts of Sankhuwasabha, Khotang, Bhojpur and Solukhumbu caused damage estimated at five million rupees minimum.
The armed conflict raging in the country since the past eight years has hit the educational sector hard. Especially after the second breakdown of the ceasefire in August, the battle ground has extended to the educational institutions. Incidents of Maoists killing and abducting teachers on allegations of espionage, and government security forces also accusing teachers and students of being Maoists and subjecting them to torture have since long become commonplace. Things have now reached the point where schools in the countryside are commonplaces for clashes between rebels and the army. Senseless killings of children on their way to school have not stopped, and many children have come under the grip of psychological trauma. Schools are closing down one after another. Thus education in the countryside has been thrown into chaos.
In the past year alone, the Maoists have torched and destroyed at least 41 educational establishments. These include the offices of school resource persons and teacher training centres. One hundred and nine teachers engaged in their work have fallen victim to violence perpetrated by the state and the Maoists. According to figures from the human rights organisation Informat Sector Service Center (INSEC), 240 children have so far lost their lives in the course of the armed conflict. The state is responsible for the deaths of 156 children and the Maoists for another 84. More than two-thirds of these children, who perished in two-way clashes or through booby traps, were school students. Just two months ago, Deepak Gurung, a 12-year-old school boy in Kathmandu, was killed in an explosion set off by the Maoists. These figures on the directly observable impact of the armed conflict will increase further in the days to come, but already, education as a whole has experienced a big set back.
Displaced by fear
Another example: The Maoists looted the entire property of Krishna Datta Pant, principal of Durga Secondary School in Maharudra Village Development Committee far away from the headquarters of Baitadi district, and expelled his family of 11 members from the village. The family, including his 81-year-old mother, has been living at the district headquarters as refugees for the past month. The Pant family is not the only family to be displaced by fear of the Maoists. Many teachers, students and their guardians have taken to working as labourers in Nepal’s larger cities and towns or in India in order to escape the dual menace of government forces and Maoists. In particular, teachers and students have fled their home places by fear of being abducted if they fail to make donations to the Maoists or being killed on accusations of spying. School children displaced from districts like Rolpa and Rukum which are badly affected by the Maoists can easily be found working as labourers at brick kilns inside the KathmanduValley.
Caught between Maoists and government forces
While some have been displaced by fear and now live a life of want, others have had guns thrust into their hands instead of school texts and copybooks. Tenth grade student Prem Oli of Srikrishna Secondary School in Ghartigaon of Rolpa district gave up his studies and became a guerrilla five years ago. Two years later, his path was followed by seventh grader at the same school Man Bahadur Gharti, who took up the gun. Today he is known among the Maoists by the nickname “tiger”. Sapana Ghartimagar of the same village, who is also known as Jeevika, joined the Maoist cultural group while studying in ninth grade. These are just some examples. Students and teachers are used for political ends either voluntarily or under pressure from the Maoists. It is said that the number of callow Maoist combatants who have dropped out of school is considerable. CWIN, an NGO working on child labour issues, estimates that at least 4,000 children aged 14 to 18 have taken up arms for the Maoists. INSEC chairman Subodh Pyakurel says the percentage of child soldiers among the total Maoist guerrilla force could be around five.
- While the number of those who actually carry guns may not be large, those who take messages back and forth and play an active part in the cultural troupes could be quite numerous, he says.
And it is not just students; teachers in the hill villages have also joined the Maoists. Those in leadership positions within the Maoist movement tend to have teaching backgrounds. This is easily borne out if we take Rolpa, a district under very high Maoist influence, as an example. Maoist leaders from Rolpa such as Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Jhakku Subedi, Nandakishore Pun, Santosh Budha and Harshaman Pun were all active at one time or other as school teachers. It is because of the teaching background of most Maoist leaders that the state now tends to look with suspicion on those engaged in the teaching profession in the affected districts. At the same time, teachers are also subjected to abductions by Maoists or are even being killed on charges of spying. Nepal National Teachers Organisation General Secretary Baburam Adhikari says, “Teachers have suffered most from the impact of the conflict raging in the country. Impacting on teachers means impacting students, guardians and the educational system as a whole.”
As it is, our educational system is already riddled with shortcomings, and there should have been a movement towards setting things right. But the political violence that commenced in February 1996 has only made matters worse. The problems of this sector in Maoist affected areas include obstruction of school inspection and monitoring activities, obstruction at school buildings, resource centres and in school mapping, declining number of students, accusations of spying levelled at teachers and resource persons, inspiring of students to become guerrillas, the use of educational premises for political programs, and many more. This is apart from the forced participation of students and teachers in Maoist political activity. What will be the impact of all this on impressionable young minds? It is something to be pondered on.INSEC chairman Pyakurel speaks of psychological trauma among students resulting from political violence. He asks, “When children going to school see one of their friends being hit by a bullet and dying before their very eyes, what kind of effect will it have on the rest of them?”
Professor Ananda Aditya feels that the psychological trauma of students, guardians and teachers caused by political violence has had a negative effect on education as a whole. These traumas among teachers and students, the death of children in bomb explosions, the upsetting of school calendars and school lock-outs have to be put up with by educational establishments in rural and urban areas equally. But schools in the remote hill districts have borne the brunt of violence over the past eight years. Although private schools in cities are subjected now and then to lock-outs because of the educational demands and donation drives of the All Nepal Revolutionary Maoist fraternal organisation, academic activity has not been brought to a halt over long periods of time. Well to do urban families started sending their children to school in India or elsewhere once the upheaval in education commenced. Those falling prey to political violence are mostly lower middle class rural families.
Schools as zones of peace?
Voices have indeed been raised for declaring the educational sector a zone of peace. Once political violence in Nepal began to escalate and impact seriously on education, human rights activists within the country and various donor organisations started calling for such a declaration. This demand has been made by Unicef, the Danish, Finnish and Norwegian aid organisations, the World Bank, ADB, JICA, the European Union and others which expressed their anger over the Mudbhara incident in Doti1. In principle, both the Maoists and the government agree to the idea of keeping the educational sector a peace zone. But neither side has implemented this in practical terms. Insec’s Pyakurel says: “Children are a symbol of peace. At the very least, violence should be kept away from where they study and play.”
With children getting used to incidents of violence and murder, people have started talking about the need to include in the school curriculum informative lessons on the insurgency. Examples abound of children mistaking explosive substances placed indiscriminately by the Maoists for toys and losing their lives while playing with such things. That is why Pyakurel says that at the very least, the curriculum for grades eight to 10 should contain lessons on weaponry and explosives used by the Maoists and the security forces along with instructions on ways to keep safe from them.
The educational sector will produce qualified manpower only if it is rendered free of violence. Any society or nation needs qualified manpower if it is to make progress. There is an urgent need for Maoists and government security personnel to understand this.