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Forces occupy India’s schools


melgupta under a Creative Commons Licence

Years ago a grenade took a teenager’s leg and a part of his spleen in an attack on an army-occupied high school in North Kashmir’s Bandipore district.

Lying on his hospital bed far away in the state’s summer capital, Srinagar, the teenager recalled how his friend died in the classroom, asking for water. The school, which doubles as an army camp – like several schools in conflict areas all over India – is heavily guarded and fortified from all sides. The weapons dump within the camp also poses a serious danger.

‘It was revenge for a militant killing of an army man in the village,’ said a schoolteacher.

From the snowy mountains of Kashmir to the dense jungles of Chhattisgarh, incidents such as these are common.

Despite years of proxy war with forces illegally occupying schools, hospitals and homes, successive governments have not shown any effort to alleviate the situation.

In fact, India was not one of the 38 countries that endorsed the new Safe Schools Declaration at the United Nations Security Council debate on children and armed conflict last month. ‘The Safe Schools Declaration provides a concrete way for countries to commit to protecting children’s education, even during armed conflict,’ said Zama Coursen-Neff, children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Last year the UN Security Council encouraged all member countries to ‘consider concrete measures to deter the use of schools by armed forces and armed non-state groups in contravention of applicable international law’.

Since 2005, schools and universities have been used for military purposes by government forces and non-state armed groups in at least 26 countries, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Burma.

Schools have been used as bases, barracks, detention centres, weapons depots and sniper posts. These practices endanger the lives of students and teachers by turning their schools into targets for enemy attack. Students and teachers have been injured and killed in such attacks. The practices also expose students to sexual violence, forced labour, and forced recruitment by the soldiers sharing their schools. Students must either stay at home and interrupt their education or study alongside armed fighters while potentially in the line of fire.

In India during 2010 more than 129 schools were used as barracks or bases across the country, particularly in Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, but also in the country’s north-east, in Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, disrupting education for an estimated 20,800 students.

Last December, a mass grave containing eight human skulls was uncovered at an abandoned Manipur school complex where Indian paramilitary forces had set up a base camp during the 1980s.

Since the Supreme Court order to vacate occupied schools was passed in February 2010 not much has changed. Professor Nandini Sundar, who filed a petition in the apex court against the Chhattisgarh government, explains what is going on in Chhattisgarh: ‘The court ordered the paramilitary forces to vacate the schools; since then, there has been no monitoring of schools to verify if they’ve complied with the order.’ She adds that there are reports of Central Reserve Police Force camps having come up next to schools and girls’ hostels.

‘Both male and female students have been sexually assaulted and harassed, and illegally recruited into armed groups by undisciplined soldiers using their schools or universities. The educational consequences of military use of schools and universities can include high student dropout rates, reduced enrolment, lower rates of transition to higher levels of education, overcrowding, and loss of teaching time. Girls are particularly negatively affected,’ states a 92-page study by Human Rights Watch, ‘Lessons in War 2015: Military Use of Schools and Universities during Armed Conflict’.

Militants attacked some 140 schools in India between 2009-12 and there was widespread use of schools as barracks or bases by government forces, mostly in the east of the country.

The government’s latest resolve to solve political conflicts by offering jobs to youth is indicative of their frivolous approach at giving peace a chance. Moreover, without a sound education, the prospects of youth finding a job elsewhere are dim. Their future lies in the hands of a state which is attempting to eliminate violence and ‘bring peace’ by seizing people’s land and water in the name of development.

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