Indian children are increasingly caught in the middle of fighting between the government and communist rebels in impoverished rural areas, with at least 42 schools attacked in the past year, a human rights group said Wednesday.
The rebels, who say they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, have been fighting for more than four decades in several states in central India, demanding land and jobs for agricultural laborers and the poor. But a spate of recent attacks has raised concern they are lashing out ahead of a planned government offensive aimed at routing them from their forest strongholds.
While the rebels frequently target police and government workers, schools are also often destroyed by rebels or occupied by police, jeopardizing the education of tens of thousands of India's most disadvantaged and marginalized children, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report.
"The Maoists say they are fighting for India's poor, but their attacks on schools deprive these children of the education they desperately need," said Bede Sheppard, author of the report. "At the same time, long-term police occupation of schools puts these children right in the midst of danger and trauma, keeps them from their classrooms, and frightens them away."
At least 30 schools have been attacked in the remote state of Jharkhand and 12 in Bihar since November 2008, although students do not appear to be targeted directly, the report found, focusing on two of the hardest-hit areas.
It said many of the attacks occurred over the past month — 14 in Jharkhand and two in Bihar. The spike is believed to be linked to rebel efforts to pressure voters to boycott state legislature elections in Jharkhand, Sheppard said.
The rebels have defended the attacks, which usually involve homemade bombs, saying they are only targeting schools being used by security forces, but the report found that unoccupied schools were attacked as well.
The reason for the rebel attacks appears to be that schools are often the only government buildings in areas where the movement is concentrated, according to the report.
"Moreover, undefended schools are a high-visibility, soft target — attacking them garners media attention and increases fear and intimidation among local communities," it said, calling the attacks a violation of international humanitarian law and Indian criminal law.
The Indian government declined to comment.
"The Home Ministry never comments on the reports of rights groups," ministry spokesman Onkar Kedia said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said left-wing extremism was perhaps the gravest internal security threat India faces.
More than 2,000 Indian security forces and civilians have been killed in communist rebel violence since 2005, according to the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.
Human Rights Watch also criticized police and paramilitary troops for using school buildings as part of their counterinsurgency efforts, saying the occupation often extends for longer terms than warranted. It cited two cases in which police remained in part of a school years after their own station was destroyed by rebels.
Reliable government figures for the number of occupied schools were not available.
The Indian government has announced plans to deploy more than 70,000 paramilitary and police forces in a spring offensive in the so-called "Red Corridor" that runs through the dense, mineral-rich forest belt from the Nepal border to the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
Sharma reported from New Delhi and Gamel from Islamabad.
On the Net:
Human Rights Watch report: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/86827