In Bastar, a fear that school shutdowns help Maoist recruitment
In the last of its five part series on the pandemic, school shutdowns and its effects on India’s children, HT travelled to Bastar to find that not only could this mean the usual learning loss, or problems with the lack of connectivity, but a deeper, more worrying malaise.
There is a main road that runs close by, but the government school in Bhairamgarh is hidden from view. The campus is surrounded by Bastar’s staple mahua and tendu trees. On each window are clotheslines, and clothes, many tattered. The school is residential, catering to students from classes 1 to 10 in the Bijapur district of Bastar, one of the epicentres for of India’s Maoist conflict.
The winter sun is high and the field, which has more stones and thorns than grass, is abuzz with activity. Not of children playing, but of them washing their own steel utensils at the one handpump in the school. It is the Sunday of December 12, and there is one teacher managing affairs, the Superintendent having travelled home to meet his family. But apart from the mischief that he must keep an eye out for, the lone 26-year-old old teacher glances anxiously at his wards, and speaks of a much greater worry. Schools in Chhattisgarh opened after 18 months of closure on March 2020, but almost a fourth of his students have not returned. “There are a total of 370 children in the school. Only 280 have come back.”
In Bastar, that the absence is especially worrying. The Bhairamgarh School has students from three districts, Dantewada, Bijapur and Narayanpur. While Dantewada and Bijapur are districts that have seen great violence over the past few decades, and dotted with villages that have little connectivity and no roads, it is Narayanpur that strikes greater fear in the teacher’s heart. .
Around 25 kilometres away from Bhairamgarh is the river Indravati, and across it lie the densest forests in Bastar, in an area called Abhujhmaad, part of Narayanpur district. The words ‘Abhujh’ and ‘Maad’ mean “the unknown hills” in Gondi, running across 4,000 sq km, with an estimated 233 villages and 34,000 residents, but yet, remains an area unmapped by the Indian government.
This is what makes Abhujhmaad the firmest citadel of the Maoists, where they are safest from security forces, and where the top leadership of the party, its Central Committee lives, operates and recruits. And it is from here, from across the Indravati, that the 90 missing children come from. The teacher does not want to be named, because in Bastar, a misspoken word is the difference between life and a kangaroo court. But the insinuation is clear. It is likely that the children may have been recruited by the Maoists. “Only those kids who were from Abujhmaad have not returned thus far. The children who are from less Maoist-affected regions have come back. Our teams have tried to contact their parents but in vain. We are still trying but we all know why they will not come.”
In the last of its five part series on the pandemic, school shutdowns and its effects on India’s children, HT travelled to Bastar to find that not only could this mean the usual learning loss, or problems with the lack of connectivity, but a deeper, more worrying malaise. Children being back in their inaccessible villages for over a year and a half, means they are more susceptible to Maoist recruitment.
Recruitment and the broken link between school and distance from conflict
Around 100km away from Bhairamgarh, in another village in Sukma district, is another school which has primary classes from 1 to 3. This school is not residential, and like the others, only opened in September after a gap of over 18 months. But its 30-year old teacher seconds what the teacher in Bhairamgarh says.
She has taught here for four years, and knows each and every child in the village, both among the thirty in her school, and the elder ones that have returned from residential schools. She has been watching them being recruited by the Maoists. “It is not as if they have an option if the Maoists come to their families and ask them to come with them. The option to say no doesn’t exist. Moreover, there is so much news swirling around, like the allegations of the killings at the Silger protest in May, where 5,000 tribals protested a camp (being set up by THE CRPF- AND STATE POLICE) and four of them died. There may be no connectivity, but many have mobile phones now. They climb hills, find signal, download videos and come back. All of this makes it more likely they will join the cadre,” the teacher said.
The link between keeping students in educational institutions, and keeping them away from violence has long been acknowledged in Bastar. In fact, it is the genesis for the development of so-called “potacabin” (a play on portacabin) residential schools in the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma beginning 2011. These are large residential schools, sometimes housing over 500 students, where the buildings are made of bamboo, or pre-fabricated temporary material. The rationale was two-fold. One that Maoists attacked cement government structures, even schools, believing that they would eventually be used as camps for security forces. Second, that children living in hostels the year round would be well fed, the word ‘pota’ means stomach in Gondi, and that education could be ensured through the year, minimising the risk of recruitment in remote villages.
In 2015, a Niti Ayog report on the success of the potacabin programme, said, “The initiative has helped reduce the number of out-of-school children and improve enrolment and retention of children since its introduction in 2011. The number of out-of-school children in the 6-14 years age group reduced from 21,816 to 5,780 as the number of Pota Cabins rose from 17 to 43 within a year of the initiative. These residential schools help ensure continuity of education from primary to middle-class levels in Left Wing Extremism affected villages of Dantewada district(in 2011, undivided Dantewada comprised of Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma districts), by providing children and their families a safe zone where they can continue their education in an environment free of fear and instability. “
But prompted by the pandemic, for over a year and a half, all schools, including residential ones in Bastar were shut, and this link was broken. Government records in Bijapur’s education department show that 15800 students from around 100 villages studied in its 34 potacabin schools. Only 8000 have returned. “The 45% that hasn’t come back is from core (Maoist) areas like Basaguda, Gangaloor, Pamed and others. We are helpless because we can do nothing,” said a senior officer posted in Bijapur . In Sukma, of a total 7892 students that study in these schools, around 800 have not returned.
Human rights activists and tribal leaders that HT spoke to, acknowledged the problem of possible Maoist recruitment but said that this was the result of “government failure.”
“Why didn’t the government facilitate their education like it has done in urban areas? Students were earlier enrolled in school and had a dream. Now suddenly when schools were closed, they returned to their villages. They are also being exposed to the protests against police camps, and alleged killings. If the child is idle in the forests and some jan-adalat is occurring, he will go out of curiosity. This increases the chance of them joining the Maoists, “said Soni Sori, tribal rights activist from the area.
But Sori also said that questions must be asked of the Maoist leadership. “Why are they taking advantage of the situation? Why are you not letting children study? These questions must be answered by them.”
Rajendra Katara, District Magistrate Bijapur said attempts were being made to bring back the missing children. “Our volunteers are working hard to contact the parents of the children but many places are unreachable. It is a fact that many children came into contact with the Maoists because they were in closer touch with them than we were.”
These challenges are of course compounded by the lack of any possibility of online education when schools are shut in Bastar. Ashish Shrivastava, the founder of Shiksharth, an NGO that works in the area of education in Bastar said that with schools shut, children have been struggling to learn and be constructively engaged. “Unlike in urban areas, online education has not been successful in rural and tribal areas which has led to a huge digital divide. This may also lead to a lack of confidence among children about returning to school and resuming where they left off.
RK Vij, former Special Director General of Police Chhattisgarh, who headed the state’s anti naxal wing for many years said that this limited connectivity, both mobile and road, presents practical problems. “The tracking and tracing of children is a practical problem in this terrain. Therefore, with the closure of schools and ashrams, the probability of students being allured by Maoists into their frontal outfits like the Baal Sangh, Chhatra Sangh or Chetana Natya Manch (CNM) is imminently possible. Looking at the shrunken size of Maoist formations and dried up recruitment in recent years, they will try and get children on their side. Parents must be counselled to resist,” Vij said.
29 year old Raghu Madvi, was once a Maoist who actively recruited the youth into the organisation, before his surrender to the Chhattisgarh Police in November 2021. Madvi told HT that as a first step, the youth would be recruited into “Chhatra Sangathan(youth wings) of the CPI(Maoist). “Their jobs are to keep a track on everyone moving in the villages including security forces. Some areas have mobile networks now, so they act as an advance alarm system for the Maoists, “ Madvi said.
A senior IPS officer, presently working in Bastar said often, even if a child didn’t want to join the left wing rebels, there were few or no options before them. “Since schools were closed, most children lost contact with their schools. If some children fled back to town without taking permission, they run risk of being branded police informers,” the official said. He added that even for those children who have returned from particularly sensitive villages, “sustained de redicalisation programmes” are the way ahead.
THE SECURITY VIEW
Inspector General of Police, Bastar Range, Sunderaj P told HT that it was true that the “situation was conducive” for Maoists to contact students and compel them to participate in their activities. “But security forces have conducted regular operations as well as community outreach programs to discourage such plans.”
While the IG said that there were no concrete numbers on the scale of school dropouts, the police will remain vigilant. “Few students and parents may be apprehensive of sending back their children to schools and hostels fearing the third wave, whereas some may have found other sources of income. These are the challenges but we are prepared to handle them,” he said.
Privately though, security officials in Bastar are worried, even if the Maoists were unlikely to use children immediately in the PLGA, the military wing of the CPI(Maoist) just yet. A concerned intelligence official said, “ Whatever recruitment there has been, even if 10% graduate to joining the PLGA later, that will present a huge problem for us. The results of this recruitment will become visible over the next two years. We are sitting on a ticking timebomb which people in Raipur and Delhi are paying little attention to.”