Nepali Times
Schools on the frontline



FALLING IN LINE: School children in Jumla at morning drill without national anthem or revolutionary songs.
The government requires schools to make children sing the national anthem every morning. But the Maoists have banned it, and ruled that only revolutionary songs be sung.

To avoid getting into trouble, teachers in schools in remote Jumla just let the children recite ditties. The Maoists have forced all students to tear out portraits of members of the royal family from their text books. Every book in every classroom has pages missing.

Like elsewhere across Nepal, teachers and students here in one of Nepal's most remote districts are on the frontline of the conflict, squeezed between the state and the rebels. The government has moved out post offices, agricultural extension and forestry offices from the hinterland. Only the teachers remain.

There might be ceasefires and 12-point agreements with the parties but nothing has changed here. Teachers are still forced to march to Maoist programs, sometimes a roundtrip for a week across rugged terrain. They are still paying the mandatory 'donation'. Now there is talk that all teachers have to come to class dressed in combat fatigues, teach the revolutionary curriculum and follow the rebel calendar with holidays for Mao's birthday. The teachers know this will make their schools targets of security forces but there is nothing they can do about it.

Two years ago, Maoists came to Jumla's Tribhuban Secondary School and abducted the principal and two teachers. The principal was later killed in the forest and the two teachers let go with the warning not to speak against the movement. Once released the teachers were interrogated by the army, and then the police took the two into custody and beat them up.

"We are struggling to stay alive between these two sides," says a teacher, "our students are terrified."

After the Maoists killed the principal, Ghanashyam Bhatta was forced by the District Education Office to replace him. "I resigned twice," Bhatta says, "But they told me I couldn't. I am still afraid."

Jumla CDO Krishna Shrestha takes a hard line on teachers who listen to the Maoists. "Their job is to teach, not do politics," he told us, "besides the military patrols are under standing instructions to treat civilians well."

This lack of understanding of their plight angers teachers caught in the crossfire. "What do they think," asks one teacher, "if we were real Maoist supporters why would they have to abduct us?"

Schools in contested areas on the outskirts of Jumla bear the brunt. The Maoists treat teachers and students as spies, and the army regards them as Maoist sympathisers.

"We're not always afraid," says a 12-year-old school boy bravely, "but we know we have to be careful when there is an army patrol around because that means the Maoists may have planted a booby trap along the trail."

District Education Officer Mukti Singh Thakuri has a pile of applications on his desk from teachers waiting to be transferred out of Jumla. Thakuri himself, like the school inspectors and resource persons, can't venture out of the town for security reasons, so the teachers come to him.

"School inspections are down to zero, that is true," says Thakuri, "I guess now we all have to take our security in our own hands and just go."

But such talk is just theoretical for Mimraj Giri a teacher from Dillichaur who was badly beaten by Maoists who accused him of being a government spy. He hasn't dared go back to his village for the past four years. "They detained me for 23 days, they beat me up and left me for dead," says Giri, "you can still see the holes in my head."

Most teachers don't want to be quoted by name and they whisper: "There are two governments here, one in the village one in the town. If you want to live in the village you have to give them what they ask."

Most teachers admit privately they are paying five percent of their salary to the Maoists. The CDO, DEO and the army in the town know that is going on, but turn the other way. Says one teacher: "They pretend not to know, and of course if you don't pay the Maoists accuse us of being a spy," says another teacher, "some have to pay even half their salary. They weep when they have to hand over the money because they need to feed their families with it."

For the Maoists, the country's school system has become a target because it is the only government entity still left in the villages. And that puts teachers and students directly in the crossfire.

Adapted from a radio feature broadcast on Antenna Foundation.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)