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(Ranchi) - The ongoing conflict between Maoist insurgents and government forces is disrupting the education of tens of thousands of India's most marginalized children, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 103-page report, "Sabotaged Schooling: Naxalite Attacks and Police Occupation of Schools in India's Bihar and Jharkhand States," details how the Maoists - known as Naxalites - a longstanding, pan-Indian armed militant movement, are targeting and blowing up state-run schools. At the same time, police and paramilitary forces are disrupting education for long periods by occupying schools as part of anti-Naxalite operations. The report is based on visits to 22 schools in Bihar and Jharkhand, and interviews with over 130 people, including 48 children, as well as with parents, educators, police, and local officials.

"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, researcher in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and 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."

The Maoists attack schools because they are often the only government buildings in the remote rural areas where the militants operate. Undefended schools are a high-visibility, "soft" target.

In the past month, through December 8, at least 14 schools in Jharkhand and 2 schools in Bihar have been bombed.

Attacking them garners media attention and increases fear and intimidation among local communities, Human Rights Watch found. The government's failure to repair the bombed schools promptly prolongs the negative impact of these attacks on children's education.

The government security forces - both police and paramilitary police - occupy school buildings as bases for anti-Naxalite operations, sometimes only for a few days but often for periods lasting several months, and even years. Sometimes the security forces occupy school buildings completely, while in other places they occupy parts of school buildings, with students trying to carry on their studies in the remaining space.

Naxalite attacks and school occupations by security forces place students unnecessarily at risk of harm, and lead many to drop out or cause interruptions to their studies. Girls appear especially likely to drop out following a partial occupation of a school due to perceived or experienced harassment by the security forces. Students also reported being upset by witnessing security forces beating suspects on school grounds. Often, schools are closed altogether and students may not be able to attend at all or are forced to move into inferior sites, to study outdoors or, for those able to reach them, to travel to schools further away.

"The Naxalite leadership should instruct their fighters to end all attacks on schools immediately," said Sheppard. "The government should also reconsider its practice of using schools for military operations, which frequently comes at the expense of children's education, creating further grievances for the Naxalites to exploit."

The right to education is guaranteed under India's constitution and laws, and in international human rights treaties to which India is party.

"Access to education for India's most marginalized children is an indispensable ingredient for India's development," said Sheppard. "Children in these areas are being deprived of this right for years as this conflict plays out."

Children and parents tell their stories:

"This school has been badly damaged ... the whole building has been ruined, the windows are smashed and blown, and the floor is cracked, as are the walls and the ceiling. Even the door is broken. The wall outside that connects to the veranda is also destroyed, everything is in ruins."

- A 16-year-old student whose school in Jharkhand was bombed by Naxalites on April 9, 2009.

"Sometimes [the security forces] bring culprits back to the school and beat them.... I feel very bad when they beat them."

- A 16-year-old student whose school in Bihar was partially occupied by State Auxilliary Police, as of June 12, 2009.

"There was no fear before the police camp came, and we were free to have all kinds of fun in the school."

- A 15-year-old student whose school in Jharkhand was partially occupied by the Indian Central Reserve Police Force, as of May 30, 2009.

"The [Naxalites] have blown up the school.... Since the buildings are damaged there are no classes. So my children are not going to school. I am not able to send my children to study outside of the village. We are poor people. We live in the forest. We till the land to earn our livelihood. There were 250 students studying at the school and all of them are getting spoiled because of no class in the school.... [Now, my children] do not do anything. They play around the village ... grazing cattle and doing like that ... those who are able to send their children out of the village have sent their children to study in other villages. But poor people like us cannot send our children to study out of the village."

- A father of five children-three of whom were studying at a school in Jharkhand that was bombed by Naxalites on November 29, 2008.

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