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Troops occupy, Maoists demolish schools

Caught in crossfire
School buildings in Barha and Chhakarbandha villages in Gaya blown up by Maoists after they were converted into CRPF camps. In Chhakarbandha, classes are now being held in an under-construction building on the campus. Pictures by Balram Bhagat

Enter, schools as theatres of war. The continuing conflict between government forces and Maoists in the border regions of Bihar and Jharkhand has turned school buildings into unwitting battlegrounds.

Centre-state joint forces have occupied most of these buildings, often the only planned and concrete structures that break the grey monotony of mud houses interspersed with a few brick-and-mortar experiments on a dusty landscape.

Turned into forward posts by the forces, these structures have become targets of Maoist dynamites in their “resistance against the government’s repression”.

Residents bear the brunt of the stand-off.

According to Jharkhand police, Maoists demolished 30 schools in 2011 and five till October last year. Gaya and adjoining districts of Bihar reported four demolitions, state police said.

Blame game

The Maoists blame the government for forcing them to target these schools.

“Governments have violated the sanctity of school and health centres by turning them into hubs of torture and occupation,” said Prasant alias Manas, spokesperson for the CPI (Maoist) in Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern Chhattisgarh.

“What about government forces setting on fire schools that were run by us?” he added, referring to the destruction of rebel-run schools in neighbouring Aurangabad district and elsewhere.

S.N. Pradhan, IG (law and order), Jharkhand police, and N.H. Khan, DIG (Magadh Range), Bihar police, said most of the schools the forces had occupied have been vacated following a Supreme Court directive. “Although in places villagers complained of abandoning them, we have complied with the court order,” Pradhan said.

The order had followed a public interest petition that Sashibhusan Pathak, a leader of the rights outfit PUCL, had filed in 2008 in Ranchi High Court against the presence of camps of the joint forces in over 60 schools in Jharkhand.

“It became inevitable to occupy schools with forces engaged in operations for days. However, we too have shifted camps from most schools and colleges in extremist-infested areas,” DIG Khan said.

Pathak contested the claim, saying such camps were still there in places like Netarhat, Banari, Tamar and elsewhere. “In other places, the police had technically vacated schools only to build camps adjacent to them,” he said.

Pradhan said the Jharkhand government was constructing buildings to house forces in remote villages with central assistance.

Land for 17 buildings has been identified in the Saranda forest alone with the concurrence of gram sabhas, as the 2006 forest rights act stipulates. The security forces have recently reclaimed the forest, long known as a Maoist citadel.

Khan said Bihar police, too, were building permanent structures with central assistance to put up forces.

Public anger

The only positive in this blame game is that the number of schools demolished had come down from around 30 in 2011 to five till October 2012. “The decreasing number of demolitions suggests that the Maoists too have sensed the public anger,” Pradhan said.

However, in Magra Bazar, a small town in Gaya, the local government-run secondary school building still look likes a garrison with the classrooms teeming with CPRF jawans.

The Maoists had not struck here yet, but an overturned multi-wheel truck, blasted off the road, indicated the presence of the rebels.

In Barha village, at the other end of the hilly forest road, the sprawling compound of a government-run middle school presented a picture of destruction.

Three buildings, now in ruins, had been blasted with powerful explosives and then half-demolished in successive Maoist raids. The smallest of the buildings was a daytime centre for pre-school children, local residents said.

Classes are being held in a new building that has come up recently. But the villagers, unsure when CRPF jawans will come marching in again, are keeping their fingers crossed.

“Police occupation of schools and anganwadi centres attracts the wrath of the Maoists. So the government should arrange for different accommodation for its forces. Otherwise, the education of our children will continue to suffer,” Kailash Yadav, a middle-aged resident, said.

Teachers recounted the horrors of living in a conflict zone. Suresh Kumar, a para-teacher, is on bail after spending four years in jail in a Maoist-related case.

Kumar said he was arrested when he tried to save two cowherds, Dillu and Shambu Yadav, from security forces in the aftermath of an encounter in a nearby jungle in October 2008. The gun battle had led to the death of a policeman.

‘Like a football’

But voices against destruction of schools have been heard, too. A student demonstration opposing demolitions in Latehar, Jharkhand, a few months ago summed up the popular mood, local observers said.

In Muslim-dominated Vaisadohar village, the two-storey building of an Urdu-medium middle school was targeted and destroyed a few years ago after CRPF troopers had moved in there.

Some elementary classes have resumed recently in a new building. “The (Maoist) party had initially opposed the construction of a new school building fearing reoccupation by the police,” said Nadim Ansari, a college student.

His neighbour, Md Jabaid, summed up their situation. “We are like a football between the government and the Maoists,” he said, standing beside the wreckage of the old school building.