Aside from closing down most schools, the Maoists have intensified the forced indoctrination of children in west Nepal as part of a recruitment campaign. Thousands of students had fled Gulmi after rebels made it mandatory for one person from each family to join their force so they could make a brigade. Most fled to Bhairawa, Butwal or to India to find work, giving up their studies altogether.
Now, it is Palpa's turn. Last month, local Maoists forced over 300 students from western Palpa to attend the second district level meeting of their student wing and listen to political indoctrination.
Journalist Khimraj Adhikari in Gulmi says the only students left in schools in his district are the physically handicapped, or those below 14. Worried that the exodus will further deprive them of recruits, the rebels recently issued an order banning anyone from leaving the district, but many children are still fleeing under the cover of darkness and through less-used forest paths. It looks like the Maoist 'strategic offensive' phase is running into the problem of lack of manpower, since many activists have deserted, been captured or killed in action.
Maoist leader Netra Pandey in Palpa denies the students are being forced. "They have voluntarily offered to join the militia some students will commit suicide if they are not allowed to join the war," he told us. But the students tell a different story. They are supposed to get 'people's education', but in most cases they are made to drill instead. Students abducted a month ago in Argeli say they were forced to listen to political speeches and shout slogans.
Selected students from each class were taken for closed door sessions, where they were urged to take an active part in the 'people's war'. Netra Pandey and Sita Baudel, members of the local Maoist student wing, urged the 300 students to throw away their books and pencils and take up arms instead. "What is the use of an education that doesn't get you a job?" students quoted Pandey as saying. "This is the time to carry guns, you have your whole life ahead of you to study."
The Maoists' strategy seems to be to brainwash the children and prepare them psychologically to take up arms. This goes hand-in-hand with the policy of destabilising the educational environment and spreading disenchantment with the school system. The children are young and impressionable and the slogans do have an effect on some. Teacher Sridhar Bhattarai in Argeli recalls that after re-education, some students have demanded that English be scrapped from the curriculum.
On 20 September, a group of journalists went to visit Adarsha Higher Secondary School, where students from half a dozen schools in Palpa were celebrating Children's Day with the slogan 'Children are zone of peace'. The students began to run away, mistaking the journalists for Maoists coming to take them away. Teacher Gyanendra Bastakoti told the journalists his pupils are terrified of being abducted.
Last month, when the Maoists were forcing Om Prasad Pandey of Grade 10 from Saraswati High School in Palpa into a jeep his mother Binda Pandey managed to rescue him. "They tried to take my son away, now I'll send him to Butwal to study." Priti Maharjan stopped going to school after hearing about the abduction of students in other schools, but that didn't save her. The rebels came to know about her and as punishment, declared her the unit chairman of their ANFSU (Revolutionary) student wing. It is doubtful Priti will go back to school. She is just too scared.
The local administration is helpless and clueless. CDO Ramji Gyawali says resignedly: "The rebels have convinced the students to join them and the education sector has been hit badly." But teachers say even this is not true, out of 300 students abducted last month all have returned and none of them want to take up arms. In the whole of Palpa, they say, there are only two high school students who have joined the Maoists. Still, the young students are apprehensive. "If they come again and force us to join their army, I don't think we will be in a position to say no," says Puja Pandey of Grade 12 in Tribhuban High School.
When we asked what her message would be to the government and the Maoists, Puja says without hesitation: "We don't need guns, we just want to study. Leave us alone."
Maoists open school, then bomb it
The day the Maoists lifted their six-week forced closure of schools in 17 central Nepal districts this week, they bombed the non-profit St Joseph's School in Gorkha on Sunday night.
The attackers forced the principal, Fr Dennis D'souza, to open the classrooms, looted the best computers and then exploded a pressure cooker bomb, destroying computers and damaging the school building. The rebels left saying the attack was to "teach India a lesson". The school denies it has any Indian connection, and says it is 100 percent Nepali.
The attack on a model school that charged minimal fees and provided scholarships to minorities and indigenous groups has cast doubts over the rebels' sincerity about making schooling more egalitarian and, more importantly, has raised suspicions that local cadre are out of the party leadership's control.
On Tuesday, UNICEF welcomed the lifting the schools closure, asking all parties in the conflict to work actively to stop Nepali children from suffering further. UNCIEF's Nepal representative, Suomi Sakai, said: "One out of five children in Nepal is not in school. This means even without closures, more than 500,000 children are getting no education at all."