By **Nick Laird**
In this piece from our Writers Bloc project, our collection of essays about education systems around the world, Nick Laird explores education in Maoist-controlled Nepal.
It was a Tuesday in June 2005, just before the start of the monsoon season when Janga Bahadur, a headmaster, opened the wooden gates of his school in Bima, a small town in the Himalayan foothills of Western Nepal, to see his abductors arriving. He was letting his 400 school children out for the day as a cadre of Maoists, maybe thirty or forty of them, approached the compound through the trees. Four in dusty green army fatigues, faces concealed with scarves, walked straight through the gates. Though those who entered carried no weapons, their comrades stood outside clutching assault rifles and socket bombs. Some of the school children, in their uniform of sky-blue shirts and brown shorts, started to cry; some ran, some stood at a distance and watched. None of them dared speak. Janga’s wife, Buddhi Kumari Pun, who teaches physics at the school, came out from her classroom and saw what was happening. She began weeping.
For a month the Maoists marched Bahadur about the Himalayan foothills of Myagdi (one of Nepal’s 75 districts). They slept under Pipul trees to shelter from the monsoon rains. The Maoists gave Bahadur two reasons for his kidnapping: they alleged that he assisted the King’s rule (he doesn’t know how) and charged him with helping an NGO in the village. (Bahadur had helped set up two small hydro electric power systems on a river that provided the town, ten hours’ trek from the nearest road, with its tiny amount of electricity.)
Bahadur’s school has no power at all, though rudimentary running water has been organized by means of a pump sunk into a nearby stream. Neatly constructed from mud, stones and wood, there are 3 school buildings and one hostel where 28 children live whose homes are too far from the town for everyday travel. Books are brought to the area in the same way that most goods are transported in Nepal, by porters and mules.
Amongst his ethnic group, the Magars, Bahadur is a garbuja, a special community role afforded to the trusted and the educated. He teaches “Population”—a mixture of history and geography—in which Nepalese schoolchildren learn about the make-up of Nepal. (Nepal, the size of England and Wales, with a population of 23 million, is more ethnically diverse than Europe, with 103 different ethnic castes and indigenous groups.) In his school there are children from Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist families. Bahadur’s father served in the Indian army, and is dead. His thatched wooden house in Bima is shared with his wife, his sister, his mother, three children, and has a lean-to for the massive sad-eyed buffalo they keep for milk.
Bima, high in the hills above the Myagdi river, is a town of 4,900 people, dependent on agriculture. Any leftover produce is sold in the village, or carried ten hours’ trek east to Beni, the nearest town with a road (of sorts—it’s a potholed, unsurfaced track). Paddy fields contour the hillsides, painstakingly maintained by hand. Skinny chickens and their fluffball chicks patter along the worn paths that run between the buildings. A few of Bima’s young men serve in the Indian army and remit money to their families, and there are a few ex-Indian soldiers in the village who get pensions. The most common ambition of the schoolboys is to join the Gurkha regiments of the British army. Other young men work in menial laboring jobs in Gulf countries and also send money home. With an estimated $1,100 GDP per capita for 2008, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world (and, excluding African nations, second only to Afghanistan). All over the world the Nepalese provide cheap labor, in their millions, in factories and sweatshops and war zones, and their homeland survives on a mixture of these remittances, foreign aid and tourism.
Janga Bahadur is 34 years old, softly spoken and alert. He does not drink or smoke, since he feels he must set an example to his students. He has three children and a master’s degree in political science. He tells me the real reason behind his abduction is that he stood in the way of the Maoists’ plans. Bahadur refused to let the children of his school be taken to Maoist “training camps.” Five times he refused and told the Maoists that the guardians had given their children to him to keep under his supervision, so how could he give them to them? The Maoists threatened him, and he asked them not to take the children. He said to take him if they wanted to take someone, and finally they did.Between 1996 (the start of the Maoist insurgency/People’s War) and 2006 (when peace terms were agreed) there were 79,711 recorded abductions of Nepalese citizens, and over 13,000 deaths.
A History of Nepal in 543 words
Nepal lies between two superpowers, and has historically been protected from China in the north by the Himalayas, and in the south from India by the Tarai, an enormous malarial plain. Over millennia groups from both these ethnic groups (the Asian Mongoloid races and the Indo-Aryans of the Indian sub-continent) entered Nepal, were then isolated by the difficulties of the landscape and developed into the hundred or so ethnic groups and ninety two mutually incomprehensive languages of today (or rather “92 plus 1”, as one has been identified but possesses no written script, and therefore the number of languages, according to a UNESCO official I met, is always described, in a nice Nepalese touch, as “92 plus 1”).
I met no one in Nepal—apart, unsurprisingly, from a Maoist member of the Constitutional Assembly—who agreed with Jimmy Carter that the April 2008 election in Nepal was “free and fair.”
For centuries the state was closed to the outside world. Until 1951 it was a feudal kingdom when the Nepalese monarch ended the system of rule by hereditary premiers and instituted a multi-party system (with a cabinet style of government). In 1959, following years of power struggles, the King revoked the experiment in democracy and instituted a party-less Panchayat system (whereby “wise men,” like village elders, would advise and represent the needs of the people). The result was a gang of five high-caste advisers who kow-towed to the King and helped themselves and the royal family to the donations of foreign aid.
Before the late 1950s, some estimate that less than a thousand foreigners had visited Nepal. The capital Kathmandu, whose old town is full of medieval narrow streets with intricately carved wooden temples and bulbous stupas, only became reachable by road in 1956—though now traffic jams and traffic sounds are its dominant feature. Incidentally the Nepalese drive, ostensibly, on the left. (Their petrol is filthy though and the taxis chug along. I’ve been in seventeen taxis in Nepal, and three of them broke down.)
In 1990, in the wake of the Berlin Wall coming down and the failed protests of Tianamen Square, banned opposition parties united as the “People’s Movement in widespread demonstrations against the Panchayat system. (A Nepalese friend of mine,, a journalist, was imprisoned for seven months in 1990, along with thousands of others, for demonstrating on the streets). On April 6th 200,000 people marched on the royal palace in Kathmandu. 45 people were shot dead by the army, and King Birendra dissolved the government, legalized political parties and invited the opposition to form an interim government. A multiparty democracy had been established again within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. A range of parties suddenly reappeared, from royalists and centralists to Maoists and Marxist-Leninists.
Roads are rare. Most people in the rural areas live beyond them. Even the Romans would have had difficulty here. Nepal is not conducive to road building in either its terrain (it has eight of the world’s ten highest mountains) or its weather (the monsoon season tends to wash away tracks like so much sediment). When Nepalis describe their homes to each other it’s invariably in terms of how many days’ trek their village is from somewhere else. The absence of road links mean that these self-sufficient communities, feeding and to some extent governing themselves, are remarkably isolated and poor and, depending on your view, ready for or vulnerable to a violent ultra-left movement like the Maoists.
Sign on pashmina for sale in Kathmandu
Dear Human please feel me
The Maoist Strategy
After the Maoists signed a peace accord in 2006, they entered into the government led by Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party (aligned to India’s Congress party). The main plank of the accord was that the Maoists would get their elected assembly, which would draw up a new constitution (which would in turn, the Maoists assumed, reject the monarchy and declare Nepal to be an democratic republic). The elections for the new Constitutional Assembly were held in April 2008, and, as the BBC put it, the Maoist party was the “surprise winner.” Their fellow travelers, communist parties around the world, sent their congratulations, with the Leading Committee Communist Organization of Greece proclaiming that “The electoral triumph of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) provokes an ever-growing explosion of joy and pride all over the world, as it heralds the future revolutionary victories of the 21st century. It became possible thanks to the theoretical and political elaboration, the correct strategy, and the ingenious tactics of the CPN-Maoist under the leadership of Chairman Prachanda.”
The strategy in Bima, in a pattern repeated throughout Nepal, was for the Maoists—by a combination of threats and abductions—to effectively ban the Nepali Congress Party, the National Democratic Party, and the other communist party, the UML (United Marx-Leninist Party). The Maoists captured the polling centers and staged groups of cadres around the polling booths. Nobody spoke a single word to oppose them. If they were opposed, they would finish them. Finish them, Bahadur repeated. The abducted headmaster said he had cast his vote in silence, but the Nepali Congress district vice-president in Bima wasn’t so lucky. When he tried to enter the polling station, the Maoists stopped him, beat him and tied him to a pillar.
I met no one in Nepal—apart, unsurprisingly, from a Maoist member of the Constitutional Assembly—who agreed with Jimmy Carter that the April 2008 election in Nepal was “free and fair.” Some voters told me that the Maoists had threatened them with physical violence, others that the Maoists had come to their homes and promised to burn them down if they didn’t vote for them. I heard stories of Maoists taking photographs with their mobile phones of each voter arriving, to let them know that they were being monitored. Other voters (particularly among the rural old and uneducated) were told by the Maoists that they had set up telescopes on the hillsides overlooking the polling stations, and that these telescopes were so advanced they could see into the polling booths and tell which party the people were voting for.
Like many terrorists, the Maoists’ strategy has been two pronged. In an interview he gave after his election victory Pranchanda laid out their plan:
“When we started the people’s revolution and when we first attacked the feudal elements’ Royal Army, we believed that we could conquer Kathmandu militarily.
But later, when countries like the U.S., the UK and India started supporting the Royal Army militarily—against our people’s war and the revolt of Nepali people—that has posed some difficulties. That is why we believe that in today’s world it’s not possible only to move forward militarily. Today’s reality is to move forward both politically and militarily, with a balance of the two. Only with this balance can we gain something for the people and the people’s democracy. That’s why we are organizing on both fronts, political and military.”
This is not a renunciation of violence, simply an admission that the pragmatic move is to organize “on both fronts, political and military.” The Maoists captured Kathmandu by combining political will with violence, real and threatened. Prachanda is right that the U.S., UK, and India supported the Royal Nepalese Army militarily. India, keen to contain a Maoist insurgency for fear it could infect its own country, provided equipment and weapons. In the wake of 9/11, all it took was for the Nepalese government to designate the Maoists as terrorists and the U.S. and the UK were dispatching military hardware to King Gyanendra. (No doubt the UK was also keen to preserve its supply of inexpensive mercenaries, the Gurkhas, hundreds of thousands of whom have fought for Britain for over two hundred years, from the Indian mutiny in 1857 to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost half a million fought for Britain in the two world wars alone.) Some estimates suggest that the U.S. provided 20,000 M-16s and the UK helicopters—used to raze villages identified as Maoist strongholds.
To get to the town of Beni, where in 2005 the Maoists had launched one of their most audacious and famous attacks, we flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the resort town near Prachanda’s birthplace, in a small twelve-seater airplane. I was sitting behind the ex-Prime Minister Goirala, of the Nepalese Congress Party, who was coming in to speak at rally. When we descended to the tarmac he was swamped by supporters and bright pink flower garlands were set around his neck. Two women competed to sob the loudest.
I left Pokhara by car for Beni, the most western town that can be reached by road in the Myagdi district (Nepal has 75 districts—22 of which have no road-links at all). There is a popular song called “Beni Bazaar” about two lovers, which was sung to me every time I mentioned I was heading to Beni. After a five-hour journey along a rough, unpaved road that wound alongside the Kali river and through a stunning glacial valley, its sides stepped and ribbed with rice paddies, we arrived, and stayed for a dollar a night in the Hotel Yeti. Acting as an intermediary between the old and newer world, the town has something of a frontier atmosphere. Here peasants, who’d come in from the surrounding hills, sat by the side of the streets, with their vegetables laid out for sale on blankets, much as had happened for hundreds of years. But here too I was confused when I heard a mobile phone go off and it wasn’t mine, but a tiny schoolgirl’s who flipped hers open with a laughing Namaste. (In Nepal, and other poor countries, mobile phones are the usual example of how a country’s infrastructure can leap ahead through technology, forgoing all those needless telegraph poles.)
The day I arrived demonstrations were being held in every capital of Nepal’s districts, including Beni. The body of a journalist, Jagat Prasad Joshi, had been found the week before, and the family of the dead man had alleged that a local Maoist leader was behind the killing. There was some talk of the dead man being involved in Maoist racketeering. The discovery of Joshi’s body came a year after journalist Birendra Shah’s murder by Maoists in the south of the country. Another journalist, Prakash Singh Thakuri has been missing since July 2007, when he was kidnapped by Maoists.
Inscription on Charity Box in Pokhara Airport
Help to blind
The Public School in Beni
The headmistress of Beni’s public school, Tirtha Kumari Shrestha, has been teaching in the school for 33 years. The divorced daughter of a local farmer, she is 54 years old and has used crutches all her life, the result of childhood polio. The school she teaches in was established in 1955 and she studied there from when she was 6 years old. She earns about 10,500 rupees a month, (about $204) and plans to retire this year and live with her daughter in Kathmandu. The school is across a dust road from the army barracks, and Beni, corralled by the Kali river, is surrounded on all sides by high mountains.
On March 20th, 2004, at 11 pm, the Maoist military arm, the People’s Liberation Army, fired mortar shells from the top of the mountains surrounding Beni. The shells fell into the barracks of the Royal Nepal Army. Three thousand members of the PLA had assembled in the surrounding hills, and swooped down on the town. The ensuing gun battle lasted until 10 am the following morning, and the Maoists went on to hold Beni for 48 hours. The RNA claimed to have killed five hundred Maoist soldiers, though the Maoists dispute this, and counter-claim that they killed 125 RNA soldiers and 26 policemen. Following the attack, the Maoists took 33 prisoners, including policemen, RNA soldiers and District officers. The Maoists offered to swap the prisoners for senior members of their own party being held by the government, though eventually Amnesty International and the Red Cross brokered the hostages’ release.
Prachandra released a statement claiming that for the royal army “the battle of Beni” was “one of the most emphatic and humiliating defeats in the entire civil war in the past eight years.” Two days later the Royal Nepalese Army killed 50 members of the Maoist forces in an airstrike in a forest near Baglung, a town not far from Beni.
It is hard not to come away with a sense that the children are being reared for export.
The headmistress, who lives in two rooms around a hundred meters from the school, remembers the attack and the all-night cracking of the gunfire. The school was in the middle of the crossfire and all the glass was shattered. For fifteen days it remained closed and when she eventually went to open it up, the grounds were littered with bullets, shell casings and grenades. Asked about the election in April last year, she smiles and says the school was a polling center, and yes, she did vote. She says that, speaking diplomatically, she wouldn’t say the elections were fair or free, and that the people of Beni were under threats from the Maoists. Having said that, some of the Maoists are her ex-pupils, and not all of them are bad people. She said that her school, the public school, had suffered since the private schools started to become more widespread, since 1990.
The private schools take the cream of the pupils and get the best results. Public schools take 80 percent of the pupils and get 20 percent of the passes.
Sign in toilet of public school in Beni
After excretion, please use sufficient water to disappear.
The Dream of a Maoist Curriculum
By the early 2000s the Maoists had de facto control of around two-thirds of the Nepalese countryside, and had taken their war to the classroom ideologically and physically. (Even in the 1920s Mahendra’s father, King Tribhuvan, was aware of the singular importance of education. Signing one of the first school charters, he is alleged to have prophetically remarked, I have cut myself off at the knees.) Aside from abducting and terrorizing teachers, students, and village development committees, they began setting up their own teacher-training centers where a Maoist curriculum would be taught to committed trainees, who would in turn go out and set up their own Maoist schools. Their curriculum removed the emphasis on the gods and the king (indeed the Nepali king was viewed as a living god), though a look at the alphabet in a grade 1 textbook for Nepali, English, and mathematics, published by the Peoples’ Education Department, shows where the emphasis was placed instead.
A=Army B=Book C=Cow D=Dog E=Eagle F=Flag [in the illustration with a hammer and sickle] G=GunH=Hammer I=Inkpot J= Jug K=Kite L=Lamp M=Man N=Nest O=Orange P=Porter Q=Quill R= Rifle S=Sickle T=Tunnel U=Umbrella V=Vest W=Woman X=X-ray Y=Yak and Z=Zebra.
The Maoist teacher training preached egalitarianism among castes and between the sexes, though that egalitarianism was at the cost of individual freedoms, as thousands of students and teachers were abducted for indoctrination. Most were, like Junga Bahadur, released eventually, but some were recruited to fight. A is for Army, G is for Gun.
The Maoists closed schools, temporarily or permanently, through threats or bombings, with the end result of massive educational deprivation. Wealthier families fled to the cities while poorer children in the rural Maoist heartlands often went without education altogether. In 2006 over 80 percent of the students in government schools failed the exit exam, a consequence, some say, of the Maoists’ devastation of the schooling system, of the politicization of the teachers, and the frequent closures and abductions.
The Private School, 50 Cent, Moon-Apples
New West Point is the largest private school in Beni, with 1400 pupils. Its principal is Darpal Rasbani, an ex-radio jockey and a sharp-featured, self-satisfied man, who barks at his assistants. In his office, sitting beside a glass cabinet full of trophies, I listened to him talk. According to Rasbani, about 70 percent of his pupils go abroad after New West Point, though only a few percent go on to higher education. Everything is taught in English except, of course, Nepali. NWP was started by seven local businessmen and, as a private school, was targeted by Maoists occasionally. There were a few bomb blasts, and at one point rockets hit the kitchen hall at night, destroying it. The school, though, he tells me emphatically, never shut.
Like any disc jockey, Rasbani considers dead air a personal failure, and he needed no encouragement to talk. As I tried to ask him about public and private education he riffed on such topics as the rapper 50 Cent (“I mean, who is the father? Does this man know who his own father is?”), growing apples on the moon (“I read it is the new thing, they can do anything now”), to the Clintons (“Yes, this is real family values. He slept with that woman, but [his wife] stayed with him. This is the family. This is the values we teach.”).
Outside the school gates of New West Point, a kid called Dusad offers me a coconut slice. He is dressed in rags and has traveled to Beni from India with his mother who sells oranges and apples in the market. Dusad makes 100 rupees (about $2) a day, he says, by selling pieces of coconut to the pupils at New West Point. Shoeless and dressed in a ripped filthy shirt and trousers, he has never been to school. Nearby two pupils from the government school are rooting through the rubbish dump for food.
The Rise of Private Education in Nepal
Nepal faces the usual problems of having both private and public education. Such a system sustains and widens class divisions, takes the best pupils for private education, and demoralizes the public schools. Yet, the private establishments also remove part of the fiscal pressure on the state to educate its children, and the argument goes that private education exists because there is a need for it. The argument is also circular in effect though: bad public education necessitates private schools, which causes public education to become worse. Britain under, incredibly, New Labor, left behind the idea that all children deserved a similar standard of education, and the two-tier system has widened into the low road and the high road—and usually the roads lead different places.
Durbar High School, the very first school in Nepal, is public now but was founded for the aristocracy in 1853. “Commoners” were only admitted from1950. Similarly, schools for the general public only arrived after the king instituted the short-lived democracy in 1951. Durbar High School has, according to the principal, Megh Raj Khadka, a computer lab, a rare thing among government schools. The lab has 29 computers, all donations from NGOs such as Initiate Nepal, the Singapore Nepal Trust, and the Rotary Club of Patan. The private schools have normally better facilities, but are not immune to the politicization that Nepal has undergone. The headmaster of Durbar High said, “We’ve come a long way since the Rana regime. The teaching and learning methods have gone through massive developments. Gone are the days when only certain classes of society were allowed to receive an education. Schools have opened up in remote corners of the country with an aim to educate the hoi polloi. This clearly indicates a hopeful future, if only they could be saved from being used as a political playing ground.”
In February 2009, St Xavier’s School, one of the oldest English-medium schools in Nepal, which is run by the Jesuits, was closed indefinitely after an agitation by a section of teachers. A newly formed union of teachers, calling itself the Nepal Institutional School Teachers’ Union, submitted a 12-point demand to the principal and began a sit-in before the gate of the school in Jawalakhel, in Kathmandu Valley. The school has about 90 local teachers besides the Jesuits, and the agitation by the union of 15 to 20 teachers affected about 1,700 students. Also in February the Manipal College of Medical Sciences and its affiliated hospital in Pokhara were shut down by two striking unions affiliated with the Maoists and the opposition Nepali Congress party.
The government schools have suffered enormously from the politicization of teachers, as many teachers follow instructions directly from political parties rather than their headmaster or headmistresses. Teachers often get their jobs due to political connections, and their concerns are not educational. The Myagdi district education officer told me that the average number of days a Nepalese schoolteacher teaches a year is 79.
When I finally managed to meet a Maoist official, he explained the Maoist position on private education. They want to abolish it and intend to abolish it, but in the meantime they’re leveling a 5 percent tax on all income for private schools. The tax is planned to exist only for a few years, until a new constitution eliminates private education entirely. The intention is to buy the lower- and middle-end private schools, and pay compensation to their owners. They will “secure” the properties of the expensive schools, but not give compensation for them.
The Maoist government has also promised to put all of Nepal’s children—up to the age of 12—into school, though this will be difficult to achieve. Many parents rely on their children for income and in some areas they are being incentivized to allow their children to go to work by receiving compensatory payments in cash or cooking oil, or the gift of a buffalo or a goat.
The West has so absorbed the idea of the individual, that the advertising signs in Nepal are, to Western eyes, funny and crude (A billboard for Royal Stag Whiskey reads, Carve your identity. Make it large. Another nearby, for coffee I think, says, Express your attitude). The Nepalese people are still learning about capitalism, consumerism, and brands, even as the system that underpins these things in the West is shown to be fragile, false, and failing. Private education, with its similarly clumsy branding (New West Point), is part of that drive to Occidentalism. All the private schools I encountered, for example, insist on being “English-medium,” meaning everything—except Nepali classes—is taught in English. It is hard not to come away with a sense that the children are being reared for export. Nepal’s twin oppositional loves—communism and capitalism (and that mock individualism that underpins the latter)—are played out in the arguments over educational systems, and as usual it’s children from the poorer backgrounds who suffer.
The interviews were conducted in English and Nepali, with the help of an interpreter. A few names have been changed.
Nick Laird was born in Co. Tyrone in 1975. He attended Cambridge University and worked as a lawyer for many years before leaving to write full-time. His last poetry collection, On Purpose, was awarded a Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His latest novel, Glover’s Mistake, was published in November. He currently lives in New York and teaches at Columbia University.