We met 15-year-old Sunil in a classroom at Tankuppa High School in a remote part of Bihar's Gaya district. It was one of 11 classrooms at the school, but when we visited only three were open for learning. The other eight rooms were occupied by armed men: paramilitary police who have taken over most of the school for the past three years, since their police station was destroyed in a Naxalite attack. The police station has still not been rebuilt, so now it is the students' education that is being wrecked.

Although Tankuppa was supposed to expand to a "plus two" school, teaching Classes 11 and 12, with the security forces already using so many of the classrooms, there is not enough space for all the current students to sit and study, let alone an additional two classes. Sunil, who will soon graduate to Class 11 and wants to continue his studies, is simply unable to live his dream: his family cannot spare the money to send him to even the next-closest school offering higher-level classes.

Sunil is one among tens of thousands of students in Bihar and Jharkhand whose education is being disrupted as a result of the Naxalite conflict. On the one hand, the Maoists are blowing up government school buildings. On the other hand, government security forces are occupying schools for days, months, and even years, using them as bases for their anti-Naxalite campaigns. The students are stuck in the middle.

At least 13 schools in Jharkhand have come under Maoist attacks in the past month, during the campaign and vote to elect a new state government. The Naxalites claim that they attack schools because they are occupied by security forces, but recent research by Human Rights Watch proves this claim false: at least 25 of the schools they attacked in Bihar and Jharkhand between November 2008 and October 2009 were not being used by security forces at the time. And we visited many schools where the damage from an attack is sufficient to destroy the structure's potential for education, but still leaves behind enough solid walls to protect security forces that might decide to set up camp there.

The government too has neglected its responsibilities, both in failing to repair or rebuild schools damaged or destroyed by the Maoists and in allowing counter-insurgency forces to camp in schools for long periods.

Sunil's classmate Indira, 16, says she has trouble concentrating on her lessons. It is easy to understand why. The police bring criminal suspects back to the school and beat them in the schoolyard in view of the children. "I feel very bad when they beat them", she said. Indira also does not like how the police have taken over the school's latrines - this means that she has to use an open field near the school. "I feel ashamed doing this", she confided. Other students described how offensive it is when the police bathe in their underwear in front of the girls.

The government claims that the Maoists cannot be defeated just with force and that their threat must also be countered with development. If that is so then the government should remember that access to quality education for India's most marginalised children is an indispensable ingredient for progress. And if the Naxalites seek to justify their bloodshed by saying they are fighting for India's poor, then their destruction of one of the few services that can empower these communities is abhorrently perverse.

Both sides of the conflict should reconsider their misguided policies: The Naxalites will never win legitimacy if they wage a war by picking soft civilian structures, especially when it comes at the cost of India's most disadvantaged children; and the government must consider that although they are responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the civilian population, their current policies and practices are frequently violating children's right to an education, and are thus only providing further fuel to the Maoists.

Sunil told us that his favourite school subject is mathematics. Maybe he can become an accountant when he grows up. But that will happen only if the government and the Maoists, who both claim to be fighting for his future, let him have a safe and secure present.

Meenakshi Ganguly works on South Asia for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.