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In early July 2010, India's education ministry, the Ministry of Resource Development, wrote to the chief secretaries of the eight states affected by Maoist militants known as Naxalites, and demanded that security forces occupying government schools vacate them and that schools damaged by the Maoists be rebuilt. Seven months earlier, Human Rights Watch published Sabotaged Schooling: Naxalite Attacks and Police Occupation of Schools in India's Bihar and Jharkhand States, which drew attention to attacks on and occupations of schools in Bihar and Jharkhand. The report documents how the Maoists, a longstanding, pan-Indian armed militant movement, were targeting and blowing up state-run schools while police and paramilitary forces were occupying schools as part of anti-Naxalite operations and disrupting children's education for long periods.

At the most basic level, the damage caused to a school's infrastructure by a Maoist attack can cause the school to be unusable for an extended period of time. After the school building is damaged, classes may be held in an alternative location, but usually under harsh conditions that are not conducive to learning-and often outdoors. In addition to the displacement of classroom activities, the generalized fear and disruption that can result from such an attack leads to some students dropping out from school. Parents spoke of not wanting to send their children to school due to their fear of an attack. In one village Human Rights Watch visited, the school lacked any teachers; residents suspected the government-assigned teacher had fled because he did not want to work in a school in a dangerous area affected by the Maoist conflict.

However, Human Rights Watch demonstrated that it is not just the Maoists who are sabotaging the education of tens of thousands of India's most marginalized children. Government security forces are as well.

The research focused particular attention on the disruption of education that takes place when government police and paramilitary police forces occupy schools. Despite claims that these occupations of schools as part of anti-Maoist operations are temporary, the research by Human Rights Watch showed that some schools remain fully or partially occupied for months, even years. Even during a partial occupation of a school by security forces, there is an almost immediate exodus of some students from the school.  Girls appear most likely to drop out - the increased rate of girl students dropping out is linked to either perceived or experienced instances of harassment by the security forces. Sometimes, even without a specific instance of harassment, parents hesitate to send their girls to occupied schools for fear of them experiencing sexual harassment from male police officers or troops stationed there.

In addition to the issues of harassment and witnessing the at times ill-behavior of the security forces, space constraints caused by partial occupations can hinder education for many students. When security forces occupy even half of a school, it can create extreme overcrowding in the other half. Unpleasant and overcrowded school conditions make learning extremely difficult, and cause students to drop out as a result of their frustration. Students report overcrowded classrooms, and being forced to attend classes outside, where other school and community activities cause immense distraction.

When the security forces take over a school-no matter whether they displace the entire school population or occupy part of the school building while teachers and students attempt to carry on classes-they immediately begin to militarize and fortify the school buildings. Human Rights Watch documented the following fortification tactics: the establishment of reinforced sentry boxes on top of school buildings to shelter personnel armed with semi-automatic weapons; the digging of trenches around school properties where no boundary walls exist; and the construction of protective walls from rings of barbed wire and stacks of sandbags. Frequently, the security forces occupying the school also add the name of their unit to signs or graffiti on the school buildings. And even after the security forces vacate a school premises, they may nonetheless leave behind these militarized fortifications and markers, creating a risk that the school will be mistaken as a military target. While police and paramilitary forces may be conducting operations against the Maoists to ensure the safety of citizens of Bihar and Jharkhand, school occupations regularly lead to children dropping out of school or attending less regularly. The presence of heavily armed police and paramilitaries in the same buildings where children are studying invariably has a detrimental impact on children's studies and frequently puts the authorities in breach of their obligations to realize children's right to education.

Kyle Knight is a Coordinator in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

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