Thursday, June 10, 2004

nationwide strike and violence shut down higher education in nepal

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in June 2004).

A nationwide education strike called by student allies of Maoist rebels in Nepal this week has closed all levels of instruction, from elementary schools to universities, and on Wednesday rebels blew up school buses outside Kathmandu, the capital, to enforce the shutdown.

This is the latest of several similar strikes called by the All Nepal National Independent Students Union-Revolutionary over the past four years. The student group supports the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which has been fighting to overthrow the monarchy and establish a communist state since 1996. Fear of rebel attacks is keeping students and professors away from their campuses.

"In the past two months, we have already lost 17 days of study, and last year, of 200 working days, we lost 40 to 50 days," said Tirtha Khaniya, a linguistics professor at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University.

The student group said it had resorted to a strike when the Nepalese government reneged on several promises. "Some months ago, the government had negotiated with us and agreed that they would remove the terrorist tag from our students union, reduce fees in schools and universities, and release seven student leaders," said Shailendra Ghimire, a high official of the student group. "They have not done any of these things yet, and that is why we have called a strike. And we don't plan to go for any negotiations until they stop calling us terrorists."

The rebels have recently taken to kidnapping teachers and students, to spread both Maoist ideology and fear of the rebels. "They kidnap them for four or five days and try to train them to their way of thinking and their program of education, called janwadi shiksha, which is community-oriented, communist-based education," said Mr. Khaniya.

In addition, the rebels bomb schools and colleges that do not close when they call a strike. On Wednesday bombs exploded in seven buses belonging to a private school on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The police believe rebels planted the explosives.

Nepal's new prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was appointed last week almost a month after his predecessor resigned and whose government still lacks key officials, met on Tuesday with school and university leaders. He assured them that his government would try to come to some agreement with the rebels.

But Mr. Khaniya is not optimistic about the prospects for a settlement. "Even if there was no political turmoil at the center, the government has shown in the past that it is helpless," he said.

The continuing turmoil has placed Nepalese education in grave danger, Mr. Khaniya added. "The effect on teaching and learning is immense because of the sheer frequency of such strikes," he said.

As a result, more and more Nepalese students are going abroad for their higher education. "Most parents who can afford it," he said, "are more than ever looking to send their children to neighboring India and other countries."