05 April, 2004

THE TEACHERS STRIKE BACK

Sushma Joshi

One hundred and fifty-five teachers have died at the hands of Maoists and Royal Nepal Army since the conflict began, a recent estimate by the Nepal Teachers Association states. Ganesh Chiluwal, head of the Maoist Victims’ Association, recently killed by Maoists in retaliation for his activism against their violence, reported 250 deaths of teachers. The numbers are probably much higher, according to observers.
On February 23, Maoist rebels abducted 44 teachers from Triveni Secondary School in Kailali district, according to the Rajdhani Dainik. The teachers were from 11 different schools, and were attending a training conducted by the District Education Office. “No one knows where the teachers are now…,” a resident said. The District Police Office has denied knowledge of the incident. Bir Bahadur Rana, District Superintendent of Police, said as late as Monday evening, “We do not know anything about the incident yet.”
The abductions may have been done to retaliate against the agreement the teachers signed with the Ministry of Education (MoE) on the same day. Five teachers’ organizations stopped their 11 month long agitation after signing a 12 point agreement with the Ministry of Education and Sports in which the government agreed to provide compensation to teachers who have been victimized, injured or killed due to the insurgency.
Teachers nationwide were on strike for 11 months, threatening not to take part in the SLC examinations if their demands were not taken into account. Security was their second-most urgent demand. All violence, murders, abductions, arrests and disappearances of teachers must cease immediately, the second point of their list of demands stated.
Bishnuprasad Adhikari, chairman of the Nepal Teachers Association from the central region, says: “The government compensates for accidental death, but not for murder. This is ridiculous. We ask that families of teachers who have been killed get compensated the same as other national workers. A tenured teacher gets insurance, plus health benefits and money for educating up to two children. These benefits should continue for the families of teachers killed in the conflict.”
The families of teachers murdered inside their homes have a difficult time certifying that their relatives were killed in the conflict. Police are often unavailable to record these deaths.
“Teachers like us need a visa to go from one village to another,” says Gehendra Raj Bista, a former headmaster of Bhawani Higher Secondary School, Paluntar, Gorkha. Mr. Bista, who taught math and science for thirty years, has dark shadows under his eyes, and looks on edge as he talks. “The Maoists came in and asked me to give fifty percent of my teachers’ salary to them. I might be able to give them fifty percent of my salary, but the entire staff’s would be around fifty thousand. So I left the village.”
Mr. Bista, who lives in the Terai now, says his brother, who was a VDC chairman, was also killed, along with a science teacher, in retaliation for three Maoists killed by the Army in the same village. The headmaster was injured in the same attack, but escaped with light wounds.
Why are teachers, public servants who usually command the highest respect, getting targeted by both sides? As the most literate and intellectual members of a village, they are suspected of being spies by Maoists, and of sympathizing with the Maoists by the Army. Schools, the location where knowledge and ideology are transmitted, often become the battleground.
Maoists recently abducted an entire schoolful of students and teachers to attend their program in Rolpa. Maoists also ask that the schools be run according to their own schedules and curricula, overriding government ones. They also ask for donations, taxes and levies, all of which can often add up to 60% of the teachers’ modest salaries. Teachers, caught in areas where there is no government presence, are forced to follow the Maoist guidelines, leaving them vulnerable to action by security forces.
Many teachers, forced out of their villages, have become internal refugees working in the capital or district centers. According to the NTA, there are 45 such teachers in Kathmandu. That number, again, is probably much higher than recorded.
Surprisingly, security was only the second-most urgent demand on the teachers’ list. The first asked that teachers working on a temporary contract for the last four years be hired as permanent teachers.
There are 28,000 teachers on a temporary contract in Nepal. Their appointment, renewed every six months, entitles them to a lower salary than the permanent hires, and none of the benefits. The process to get hired permanently requires passing an exam given by the Sichak Seva Aayog. The last exam for this purpose was held 8 years ago in 2052. The results were only announced this year.
Why are so many teachers being kept on a temporary contract? Some of it has to do with teaching qualifications. A man with a B.Sc degree is now asked to get certified. “If this continues, there will be a crisis in science teaching,” warns Bista, who says the unnecessarily beaureacratic procedure of asking teachers for teaching certificates hampers the recruitment of qualified people. Teachers who are retiring are finding out they might not get their hard-earned pensions because they are missing this certification.
Kesav Prasad Bhattarai, chairman of the Nepal Teachers Association, disagrees. “All teachers should be trained in the methodology of teaching.”
The government has also asked teachers’ to stop their political activities within the school. “Why can’t teachers have a political party for whom they vote for? That’s their right,” argues Bhattarai. There’s another side to this story, however. Teaching has come to known as a training ground for future politicians. “In Tanahun, people say that teaching for a year is the best way to get into politics. Teachers will get the support of all their students, and will be sure to win an election,” says a source. Prominent leaders like Ram Chandra Poudel and Govinda Raj Joshi all started out as teachers.
Politics rears its head again in the debate about handing schools over to communities. Even the teachers themselves admit that handing over schools to communities, as a possibility being considered by the government, would be a disaster. Schools would get taken over by the political faction currently in power, turning schools into mini-political battlefields where teachers would get hired and fired at the will of the ruling party. “If the Congress are in a majority, the Communists would not participate,” Adhikari says.
“Schools are a national responsibility,” says Gehendra Raj Bista. “Its okay to have community and private schools in Kathmandu, but you can’t have the same in Rukum and Rolpa.”
“The government said: Education for all. It committed to a free education for all till class 8. Now it’s trying to renege on its commitment,” says Bishnuprasad Adhikari. Adhikari is headmaster of Gyanodaya Public School, one of the most well-respected public schools in Kathmandu.
“There’s a lot of weaknesses in our public institutions,” says Bhattarai. “There are weaknesses in teachers, schools and our nation itself. But this does not mean we should let go of them.” Pointing to academic institutions like Pashupati, Shivapuri and Gyanodaya schools, along with the famed engineering campus in Pulchowk, which continue to attract top students, Bhattarai says, “We should strengthen our public institutions, not give up on them.”
The government, rather surprisingly, unconditionally agreed to meet all of the teachers’ demands. Teacher unions and the MoE have agreed to fill 50 percent of vacancies in schools through competition among temporary teachers, and the rest through open competition. This prompt response from the government may have to do with the upcoming SLC exams, which would be postponed indefinitely if the strike were to continue. Whether the government intends to keep fast on its promises remains to be seen. In the meantime, the 44 teachers from Kailali are still unaccounted for. If and when they return, there will not be welcomed with arches but by interrogation from the security forces.

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