Mon 15th Mar 2004


When I arrive at school Shambu the headmaster is sitting out on a chair in the courtyard between the two bare, prison-like school buildings, talking to the parents of some of the children. "Is there school today?" I ask. I'd heard there was a strike, but I had come in anyway to check. "Yes. I am thinking," he says "about what to do."

He has been thinking carefully. Late in the previous week two women Maoists had toured the schools in the area, giving out leaflets and informing them that an education bandh, or strike, was being called on Sunday, to continue indefinitely. The Maoists are demanding the release of several prisoners who they claim are being illegally and secretly held by the government. Shambu doesn't think there's much hope of any of them being released. He thinks some of them have been already killed. Which suggests that the strike may be a long one.

It's speculation of course, but speculation is rife. It's hard to trust the newspapers. In fact, in this district it's hard to even find a newspaper. Strikes are rarely announced in advance in the press and people in remote areas have to negotiate swirling currents of rumour and counter-rumour just to carry on with daily life.

This strike puts Shambu and all the other schoolteachers in the area into a difficult situation. If they keep the school open in defiance of the Maoist strike they may invite reprisals. In this area Maoist support is strong, and teachers who ignore the strike call could create unwelcome enemies within the village or from outside. At the same time, Shambu is paid to teach by the Government. He has been ordered to ignore strikes called by the Maoists - closing the school could theoretically cost him his job. Whilst this is unlikely, there is the much more worrying prospect of any closure being seen by the local Army Commander as proof that he is sympathetic to the Maoist cause - something that could invite harassment, arrest, torture or worse.

Shambu is a conscientious head who has worked hard to increase attendance at this small village school. Kailasi is a Tharu village, and few villagers own their own land. Instead they work as tenant farmers, paying over a chunk of their produce as rent. It's hard to convince parents in the area to send their kids to school rather than have them help in the fields, particularly the girls. Shambu also has to battle against prejudice from local landowners, who are secretly worried that their traditional labour force will educate itself and leave. And his job is made even harder by the fact that he is the only paid teacher at a school with over 250 children. Two local junior teachers help out. They are paid for by contributions from villagers - contributions they can barely afford.

This strike won't help. Strikes or bandhs are the most popular form of non-violent protest in Nepal, and they are widely used. So widely used in fact that on any given day someone, somewhere in Nepal will be on strike. In the past month alone there have been six days of general strike called by the Maoists or affiliated groups, in addition to the innumerable local strikes and sector-specific strikes - such as this 'education bandh'. Then there are strikes called by student groups, on top of strikes called over genuine employment issues by bus operators, teachers, university lecturers and so on.

The strikes are clearly effective when it comes to making life more miserable for ordinary people. Frequent transport strikes have made Nepal's chaotic transport system even more a matter of luck than usual, whilst economic activity bandhs (a ban on buying or selling goods) risk causing real hardship to those who rely on selling their excess produce to survive. But whether they have any impact on the country's rulers in Kathmandu, who have easy access to western goods, private transport and private schooling, is much less clear.

Ke garne? What to do? In the end, Shambu decides to close the school for a week, despite the fact that the children's exams are due to start on Sunday. He suggests that the children can use the week off for revision, and the exams will be moved back a couple of days, or longer if the situation hasn't changed. Central to Shambu's decision is the knowledge that the Police and Army are unable to guarantee the children's safety. Opening the school could expose them to risk. And the nearest army base is five miles away - probably a good thing, as the presence of security personnel is only likely to increase the chances of a confrontation.

Fighting on the playgrounds of Nepal, with or without students present, is sadly not unknown. And neither side, not the increasingly unpredictable Maoists or the increasingly unaccountable Nepalese Army, has a good record when it comes to the intimidation, assault or murder of schoolteachers. This is partly because schools are often used as recruiting grounds by the Maoists. One technique is to hold 'cultural programmes' in schools in areas they control or are trying to consolidate - a mix of direct propaganda and 'Maoist education'. Sometimes this involves what the papers call the 'kidnapping' of large numbers of students for a couple of days (although it's very difficult to tell from a distance whether the students involved are willing volunteers or unwilling hostages. Like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Nepalis, students must learn to show support for the side that has the power to visit reprisals on them).

For their part, the security forces have depressingly few scruples over bringing the fighting into Nepal's schools. In October 2003 security forces entered a school near the city of Nepalganj after a tip-off that Maoists were holding a 'cultural programme' there. In the ensuing crossfire several students were killed. Chillingly, an army spokesman, reported in the pro-government Himalayan newspaper, described the dead students - the youngest of whom was 11 - as 'suspected Maoist cadres'

The Nepali Times recently reported a battle in Kailali District. In the beginning of December 2003 in Khimdi in Nepal's far western hills, three security units moved in to attack suspected rebel training camps in the nearby villages. Two of the units set up camp in the grounds of a nearby secondary school. The school has 400 students and was open when the security forces arrived. At around 4pm most of the children had left for home, but some were still leaving when the Maoist attack came. Around thirty to forty people, all apparently soldiers or Maoists died in the battle, but dozens of students fled in panic into the forest, and some are still missing. If they return they'll find that the army has forced the remaining villagers from their homes, allegedly to prevent them from harbouring any more Maoists.

Similar incidents may or may not be widespread across rural Nepal - the unwillingness of journalists to travel, or to report stories critical of a government happy to arrest them without trial means that it's hard to find the truth.

What is true is the importance that schools and schoolteachers have played in spreading the 'People's War'. Education, although still very basic in most areas of Nepal, is one of the country's few success stories. Pre 1950, under the Rana regime, opportunities for education were actively suppressed by the ruling class. Education, usually at foreign schools or universities, was reserved for members of the Rana elite. Educating the ordinary Nepalese was seen as dangerous: nurturing threats to their power. In 1952, at the fall of the Rana regime, male adult literacy was estimated to be 12.1%; female literacy was estimated to be just 0.7%. But fifty years on up to 55% of men and 40% of women are literate (the figures vary considerably from district to district). But social and economic change hasn't matched this pace, and Nepal has a large number of educated, young, unemployed men and women who have become increasingly disillusioned with the status quo and their lack of opportunity within it, and politicised as a result.

So perhaps both sides realise that the future of this conflict, and of Nepal itself, will ultimately be decided by the nation's schoolkids. All the strikes, the conflict, the bombs and the rallies - they are all about these small scruffy children in torn and darned blue shirts, who cut their fingernails with razor blades, and to whom a new 'fine-point gello permstick schoolpen' is as exciting as a Playstation 2 would be to a kid from the UK. Because in a few short years they will be the students fighting on the streets of Kathmandu, or the new Army recruits slogging through another morning run, or the sixteen year-old Maoist fighters, sleeping rough in the forest by day and moving through the villages only by night.