The latest incident that took place last week, was of three young school children killed by a grenade that landed in their school. Eight other children are struggling to recover at a local hospital. The children were all students at Adivasi Ashramshala, a residential school in Sawargaon, on the Chhattisgarh-Maharashtra border. The first such incident in Gadchiroli, on the Maharashtra side, but not so uncommon in Chhattisgarh.
Who are we going to blame? The Maoists who the security forces say, lobbed the grenade? Or the security forces who are accused of opening fire in the direction of the village, or more often, of taking shelter in schools, putting children directly in the line of fire, literally? The blamegame can be endless.
Two months back, I was at Edka village in Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh, one of the naxal-affected districts in the Bastar region. When we reached there, a young lad jumped out of the branch of a nearby tree, curious to watch and follow us around, leading his friends. It was mid-afternoon. So I asked the children, why were they not in school?
What happened? I asked pointing to the rubble.
“Yeh aapka school tha?”
“Haan. Isliye school chod diya.”
The irony is that Maoists who claim to work for the welfare of the tribals, the most marginalised, had blasted the school building, reportedly to ensure security forces don’t use the structure as a shelter or a firing post. Like they have done in the hostel next door that has become a CRPF base camp. Someone must pay the price for `revolution’.
Out of school, exposed to the vagaries of the happenings around, I can’t help but wonder if a Balram and others in the little gang are not potential recruits for a rebel army, to fight the “injustice of deprivation”, who will one day become part of the brigade described famously as the `gravest internal security threat’ for the country.
A middle-level officer justified that one can’t blame the paramilitary forces either. There are no military barracks. On terrain like this, concrete structures are few and far between, And when its war, lessons inside a classroom perhaps don’t appear as critical or even an immediate priority.
A local activist points out that there are at least 640 villages in the highly naxal-affected region and says the presence of the security forces and even the salwa judum campaigners in school buildings is a major factor that drives thousands of children out of schools every year.
The government’s own data says that more than 75,000 school students between 6 and 14 years left school in 2006-07. That’s 45 per cent of students who registered. Notably that was even before `Operation Greenhunt’ formally began.
The government and the local administration have blamed the Maoists for damaging the school education system in the region. They point out that in just two years, extremists had blown up around 250 school buildings in the area.
A local college student in Narayanpur, Sachin, tells me local schools never have teachers. Fear is only part of the story, his friend adds. One in five posts are not even filled. Chhattisgarh has 1.76 lakh sanctioned posts of teachers at elementary level, more than 34,000 posts are vacant.
At least 440 school buildings in Bastar region have been bombed by Maoist rebels after the government started to use the buildings as temporary shelters for security men. Officials estimate that Maoist militancy has denied at least 100,000 children access to primary education since 2005 in Bastar, especially after the government-backed controversial civil militia movement, Salwa Judum, started against the guerrillas in June that year.
Admitting that unabated Maoist violence has hit its education system hard, the Chhattisgarh government this June sought Central aid in the form of a special package to revive it in six most affected districts. The five Bastar districts and Rajnandgaon.
The mineral-rich Bastar region, termed the nerve centre of Maoist militancy in India, is made up of Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Bastar and Kanker districts. Police admit the government has no presence in an estimated 450 to 500 villages of the region where 1750 people have lost their lives in Maoist violence since 2005. Of the sprawling 40,000 sq km thickly forested interiors in Bastar, up to 25,000 sq km is said to have been intensively mined by the guerrillas.
A PIL filed in the Supreme Court had raised issues about the militarisation of schools. The state government denied the charge in court, saying the forces have been relocated. Anyone here will tell you that is not true on the ground.
The international community is watching as well. But we prefer to live in denial, at least in our pretences to the world. But we can’t deny that for the first time India has appeared in the Secretary-general’s report to the UN Security Council about the use of children in armed conflict around the world. In May this year, Secretary-General Ban ki Moon has commented extensively on the use of children in the “long-running Maoist conflict”.
“Both the security forces and the Maoists in India are exploiting and harming children, destroying their chances at an education and causing damage that will affect their entire lives,” said Bede Sheppard, Asia researcher on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
“The Security Council should be prepared to take action if the Indian government and the Maoists do not act to better protect children. Having security forces occupy school grounds puts children and their education at unnecessary risk. Now this practice is putting India’s reputation on the world stage at risk,” added Sheppard.
A Human Rights Watch report in 2009, `Sabotaged Schooling’, observed that “security forces, both police and paramilitary police, occupy school buildings as bases for anti-Maoist operations, sometimes only for a few days, but often for periods lasting several months and even years, with students trying to carry on their studies in the remaining space, often under distracting and even frightening circumstances.”
Both the Secretary-General and the Human Rights Watch have indicted Maoists even more severely. The secretary-general’s report describes how the Maoists, particularly in Chhattisgarh state, have “carried out systematic attacks on schools to damage and destroy government structures and to instil fear among local residents”.
The second aspect of the Secretary General’s indictment observes that the Maoists “are recruiting and using boys and girls in their ranks”. Human Rights Watch released a book in July 2008, titled “Being Neutral Is Our Biggest Crime”, that documented how Maoists deploy children as informers, to gather intelligence, for sentry duty, to make and plant landmines and bombs, and to engage in hostilities against government forces.
As expected, India has protested against the UN report that called the rebellion of Naxals an “armed conflict”, saying the violence of the rebels was “abhorrent and condemnable”. India’s envoy to UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, told the Security Council that the activities of Maoist groups did not fall into the realm of an “armed conflict as defined by international law”.
As we drove back from Chhattisgarh to Andhra Pradesh, an image caught my eye. A teacher teaching lessons to children sitting on the steps of what must once have been a building. The structure behind had no roof and one could see the rubble inside and a few walls still standing. It looked very unreal and symbolic to me. What gateway are we leading our children into? That image has stayed on in my head.
All the three children killed and eight others injured in Gadchiroli last week had left their homes to live in a residential school because their poor tribal parents hoped they would not have a future similar to their desperate present. It is not easy for a parent, howsoever poor and desperate, to send his child away from the everyday care and affection he can get at home to a faraway location in the hope of a better future, for which there are again no guarantees.