School’s out! In Kerlapal, Dantewada, battle-weary soldiers of the B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force peer over barbed-wire fences as skinny schoolboys in sky-blue shirts play cricket. The force has occupied the senior school and with it the basketball court and part of the playing field; but the game must go on.
As paramilitary troops pour into Chhattisgarh to fight the Maoists, the absence of military barracks has forced soldiers and children to share the only concrete structures in the countryside — the village school.
A PIL filed in the Supreme Court has drawn attention to the militarisation of Chhattisgarh’s schools, but the State government is in denial. On February 18, 2010, the counsel appearing for Chhattisgarh told the Supreme Court that all schools occupied by security forces had been vacated. To quote from the Supreme Court order of February 18: “It is also stated by learned counsel appearing for the State that the schools, hospitals, ashrams and anganwadis have already been vacated and they are no longer been used for camps or places for shelter of the police force.”
However, an investigation by The Hindu in the three districts of Dantewada, Narayanpur and Bijapur found numerous sites where the security forces continue to occupy school land or have simply appropriated school land for their barracks. These findings contradict the claims made by Chhattisgarh in the Supreme Court, suggesting that the counsel for the State was either dangerously misinformed, or guilty of making false statements in India’s highest court.
In Dantewada district, The Hindu found security forces operating out of a senior school in Kerlapal, a junior and middle school in Karli and a tribal girls’ hostel in Bhusaras.
In Narayanpur district, the G-company of the 39th Battalion of the CRPF moved into the middle school and gram panchayat building of Bhatpal village as recently as on February 10 — a week before Chhattisgarh’s counsel made his submission in court. Officers at the site said a portion of the school would be permanently handed over to the CRPF and that the construction of barracks was underway. In Munjmetta village, the 139th Battalion has taken over a primary and middle school and moved the children to adjacent structures.
In Bijapur, even the Collector’s office is in a college building. A list signed by the Superintendent of Police shows 16 schools as occupied by the security forces. When contacted by The Hindu over telephone, SP, Bijapur, Avinash Mohanty said “relocation is an ongoing process”, but CRPF sources confirmed that the force was yet to relinquish any occupied site.
“When forces occupy schools they blur the line between civilian and military targets and put the children at risk,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of a study on the militarisation of schools in Jharkhand. “Children — particularly girls — begin to drop out as their parents do not want them near the force.”
Fears that basing the force in schools could provoke a backlash from the Maoists were realised on March 15, 2007 when they attacked a police outpost based in a residential girls’ school in Bijapur district’s Rani Bodli village. Even as young girls from Classes I to V cowered in their hostel, Maoist cadre killed 55 policemen in an adjoining wing of the building.
The only three police personnel who survived did so by hiding in the girls’ hostel.
Maoists have also targeted unoccupied school buildings, allegedly to deny security forces shelter. According to the Collector’s office, in the two-year period from 2006 to 2008 Maoists destroyed 70 school buildings in Narayanpur district alone. Not a single school has been rebuilt.
In Palachalam village, Dantewada, Maoists destroyed the sole school that catered to students from at least three neighbouring villages and built a giant red minar in its place. Now, children as young as ten years of age are forced to go to a residential school in Maraigudum, more than 20 kilometres away from their homes and their parents.
“Troops need a concrete structure they can defend from attacks, which, in most cases, is the village school,” said Ravideep Singh Sahi, Deputy Inspector-General for Bastar of the CRPF. “We are trying to construct regular barracks, but contractors and labourers are unwilling to work in sensitive areas.”
Mr. Sahi hoped that the force and villagers could work together. In Bhatpal for instance, the CRPF donated a computer to the senior school in an attempt to foster goodwill with the villagers.
Privately, many CRPF officers expressed frustration with existing accommodation. “A camp needs proper barracks, security and a clear line of fire,” said a senior CRPF officer, “The current facilities are ad hoc at best.”
The prolonged occupation is also taking its toll on students. In Kerlapal, the CRPF’s occupation of the senior school building has forced students of Classes XI and XII to study in a sheltered veranda. “There are no chairs and the students are constantly distracted,” said a teacher. “The blackboard is makeshift, making it difficult for both teachers and students.” Class IX students have been accommodated in the middle school building by moving Class VI into a poorly-ventilated equipment shed. This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement; it has been five years.
In Bhusaras, Dantewada, a hostel warden told The Hindu how she struggled to fit fifty girls in two rooms and a veranda after the 195th Battalion of the CRPF moved into the girls’ hostel. “I stacked the beds one above the other with the younger girls on top and the elder girls at the bottom,” she said. The girls have since been moved to a permanent location. Now there are three rooms for fifty girls, an outdoor toilet without doors and no water.
At a bus stand in Narayanpur, troops returning from leave wait for a bus to take them to their camps located in schools on the Orcha road. “I used to have an open mind,” read a t-shirt sported by a soldier, “But my brains kept falling out.”
First published in The Hindu