It had seemed for a while that the threat by the Maoist students union-the All Nepal National Free Students Union (Revolutionary)-to disrupt schooling by calling a one-week closure of schools starting 14 May had been withdrawn. With that came hope that their attempt to bring all private "boarding" schooling to a grinding halt would also be put on the back burner.
This hope came from a promise made by Devendra Parajuli, Kathmandu-based above-ground president of the ANNFSU(R), at an all-party public hearing organised this week. "There will be no one-week school bandh starting 14 May," he told the gathering. The administrators of private schools had expected that this assurance held some weight, particularly because of his reasonable demeanour and the pressure exerted on him by the other politicos at the meeting (organised by INHURON, and led by journalist and activist Shova Gautam).
However, the attacks by Maoist student groups on two prominent schools in Kathmandu Valley Tuesday morning put everything back. Elites Co-ed in Lamatar in the Valley's south-east rim, and Rupy's International in Kalimati had property damaged and torched by the weapon-wielding visitors. Neena Morada, the founder principal of Elites, was manhandled and her faced smeared with grease, while the founder principal of Rupy's even had kerosene sprinkled on her with the threat of setting her on fire.
With the Maoists on a rampage, and the government unable to provide security, private schools are unlikely to open now. The loss to national education is irreparable. Private schooling is one area where the country has made strides in the last decade, with investments in the last ten years amounting to Rs 8 billion according to one estimate. The trend of Nepalis going to Indian schools in Delhi, Dehradun, Darjeeling and Nainital, had quietly been reversed in the last few years saving precious money draining out of the country. In the future, it seemed, Nepal's private schools might actually attract students from India and thus provide a great boost to the national economy.
Instead, off-the-cuff demands for school closures and reduction of fees by 50 percent is rolling everything back. Across the hinterland, hundreds of private schools have already closed. Notre Dame, a school funded by Japanese nuns in the hilltop town of Bandipur, possibly the best public school in the Nepali midhills and one that served the rural populace with world-class schooling at subsidised rates, has already announced closure after a decade of operation.
Meanwhile, parents and guardians in the hills are desperately seeking schools in Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara. But with the Maoists targeting even these areas, Nepalis who can afford it are heading out to India again. Flights to Bhadrapur are filling up with guardians making exploratory trips to Darjeeling.
The 7 May meeting was called to address these alarming trends and what the assembled leadership had to say was heartening. The stalwart of the CPN (UML) Jhalanath Khanal said courageously that he would, under present conditions, continue to send his child to a private school, but would give his life if necessary for the improvement of education in Nepal. Devi Prasad Ojha, another front-rank Left leader, said that private schools should be monitored, but not closed. More than one leader pointed out that reduction of fees in private schools in fact helped the relatively rich, whether in the villages or in the towns and that the real focus should be to improve public education rather than try and kill private education.
But the latest action indicates either that the Maoist leadership is not in charge of its ground-level cadre, or that the leadership is no different from other political parties-saying one thing and doing another. The promise made by Devendra Parajuli certainly does not look like it was made in good faith.