31 May, 2004

Thervada's Rocky Road to Revival

Nation Weekly, May 31-June 6, 2004

Sushma Joshi

Five years ago, I was walking in Patan when I felt the urge to go into the Kwa Bahal, a Buddhist monastery popularly known as the "Golden Temple". It was a quiet summer afternoon. The temple complex was deserted, but one of the men came out and started talking to me. "Young people," he said, "are no longer interested in the old rituals and traditions anymore. Foreigners are more interested in traditional Newari religion than Nepalis." Then he went on to talk about one such foreigner who had spent a long time learning everything about the guthi at the temple. This man, he said, was named David Gellner, and he had written many books.

David Gellner himself was present to give a lecture at the Social Sciences baha on May 27. Gellner is university lecturer of anthropology at Oxford University, and is currently a visiting professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. His topic, interestingly, refuted the claim of the Golden Temple's priest - there is, he claims, a revival of Buddhism, specifically of a transnational Thervada, in Nepal. Thervada, of course, is not the same as the Vajrayana Buddhism traditionally practiced by Newars, but this new Buddhism on the block draws many Newars into its folds.

There are three kinds of Buddhisms in Nepal - Tibetan, Newar and Thervada. The first two draw from Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, and are heavy on rites, rituals, magic and dieties. The third is a reform movement that was introduced in the Valley only in the 1930s, but has gained prominence since the fifties. Rebelling against the caste heirarchies and divergence from Shakyamuni, this movement tries to bring adherents back to the words of Buddha, and meditation.

Not just Buddhist Newars, he says, but also people from Hindu backgrounds, are increasingly getting interested in this new movement. One Thervada institution in particular - the Vipassana meditation Center in Budanilkantha, which follows the guidance of S.N Goenka, has been especially open to laypeople. Numerous people have come up and told him that Vipassana meditation changed their lives, says Gellner.

The issue of ordination of nuns is a thorny issue within Thervada, he recounts. Women, who were only allowed to be anagarikas but not fullscale ordained nuns, finally rebelled in the late eighties. Drawing on a nuns' ordination tradition from China, the nuns in Nepal started to follow the 267 rules like a male bhikshu. There was, needless to say, an outcry from the men who claimed this sort of initiation rites, drawn from a Mahayana tradition, was not legitimate. But the women overrode these objections by pointing out that the male ordination tradition itself is of foreign origins, and that ordination traditions are common to all sects.

"Nuns," says Gellner, "have been phenomenally successful in Nepal." This, he explains, is because becoming a nun is often a way to autonomy and freedom for women in Nepal. Women escape domestic slavery by entering nunneries. Men, on the other hand, face restrictions when entering monastic life, and feel their lives are more confined. They often have difficulty following all the precepts required to be a fully ordained monk.

While Gellner's talk was thick with reference to mediaval monks and nuns, with whom he seemed to be on easy Oxford terms, his dry British humor was also in evidence as he talked about the underlying politics of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism, he says, has been very successful in marketing itself in Southern California, but has not been as open to Nepalis who are cut out due to the income gap. Foreigners who pay in dollars have access to expensive Mahayana workshops but Nepalis often feel left out of it, he mentions. Now that bit of knowledge, often delicately brushed aside by foreigners pursing the path of the Buddha, must have taken some deep hanging out to figure out.

A Mercy Mission

Nation Weekly, May 31-June 6, 2004

A Mercy Mission
Taking an innovative model from Kalimpong and Jaipur as examples, the Katmandu Animal Treatment Center is trying to control the population of street dogs by sterilizing them
BY SUSHMA JOSHI

What do Maha, the famed comedian team of Madan Krishna Shrestha and Haribansha Acharya, and Ani Choying, a nun who’s gone global with her extraordinary Buddhist songs, have in common? Besides their fame and high profile, they share an interest in ending the suffering of the dogs who roam the streets of Kathmandu.

“There’s a feeling in Nepal that a good project can only be started with large amounts of international funds,” says Khageshwar Sharma, who manages the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). “But we wanted to show that we can do it with local support.”

The idea behind KAT was simple enough. Everybody living in Kathmandu has memories, or heard stories, of piles of poisoned dogs being driven away on tractors. Dog owners in the city feel shivers go down their spine every time they hear that this inhumane initiative is underway. Many remember the days when their pets never returned from the streets. The poison, strychnine, stays in the carcasses of the dogs and is scattered around in the streets, and also pollutes streams and rivers where the corpses are dumped. This poisoning program, conducted by the Kathmandu Municipality to reduce the street dog population, has been going on for a number of years but has failed to make much of a dent on the canine population. Now, taking an innovative model from Kalimpong and Jaipur as examples, the KAT is trying to control the population of street dogs with a much more humane and effective method—sterilization.

KAT started with the initiative of Jan Salter, a British artist and longtime Kathmandu resident who was moved by the suffering of street dogs she saw every day. After visiting the Goodwill Animal Center in Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Salter embarked on a crusade to bring together a board of stellar supporters, including BBC presenter Dr. Charlotte Uhlenbroek, and Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal South Asia, for the project. Started with a personal loan from Salter, the project, housed in modest premises in Chapaligoan, on the way to Budhanilkantha, boasts a cheerful looking red office, a small operating theatre and 18 kennels.

The kennels are clean and well-kept. A small brown mongrel licks herself as she looks up from a blood-stained plastic covering in Kennel 8. “Most of the dogs recover within four or five days of the operation,” says Dr. B C Jha, one of KAT’s part-time vets. “This one had complications, so we had to re-operate on her. We keep them here till they are fully recovered.”

The bitch, blissfully unaware of the international standards of healthcare that has been bestowed on her, ignores the visitors. Then she suddenly wags her tail as she sees Ramlal Shrestha, one of the two helpers who has been provided by the Kathm andu Municipality to support the program. Ramlal goes out every morning at 6 a.m., along with his co-helper in a minivan to capture the street dogs. A contribution from Ani Choying helped to buy the van used in the morning forays. “We try to get them to come into the vans by themselves,” says Shrestha. “We try to avoid putting them in sacks, unless they resist.” Shrestha, 28, who admits he likes dogs, says so far he has not been bitten by a single dog.

The program, which got underway on May 11, has already treated 45 dogs—seven male dogs got rabies shots, two with distemper and cataracts got euthanized, and the rest, who were females, sterilized. Only two dogs have died—one from an overdose of anesthesia and respiratory distress, and the other from bleeding. “We don’t know the history of street dogs, so it’s hard to diagnose what went wrong,” says Dr. Jha.

This is a good start, but the project has larger goals. “Our goal is to treat 70 dogs every month,” says Khageshwar Sharma. Sharma, originally from Gorkha, ran the Goodwill Animal Center in Kalimpong for five years. He is the perfect man for the job—not only is he qualified, he radiates a sense of cheerful optimism and proactive productivity.

“Spaying a female dog costs us more than Rs. 1,000,” says Sharma. “People think: there’s not enough money for people, why should we give it to spay a dog?” In spite of such reactions, Sharma says they are trying to increase local awareness and raise support for the project, rather than look for international funds. Support in the form of donated goods has already started—Serene Pharmaceuticals has donated food supplements. Now the project is trying to get food from hotels, and catgut (used in surgery) and antibiotics from pharmaceuticals to lower their costs. Besides meat, the dogs also eat rice, lentils, vegetables and soybeans, making food from almost any hotel a welcome donation.

Although WHO and the World Society for the Protection of Animals recommended animal birth control programs in order to reduce street animal populations as early as the 1980s, the Kathmandu Municipality has not been able to follow those guidelines due to lack of funds. Now, in partnership with KAT, they may be able to follow those international, humane guidelines. More importantly, this program might actually reduce the street dog population.

“The number of street dogs went down 80 percent in Jaipur and Kalimpong after similar programs got implemented there,” says Sharma. “Also, the incidences of human deaths from rabies fell to zero.”

Will KAT go out of business when the lease on their land expires in six years? Hardly, says Dr. Jha. “There are 60,000 street dogs in Kathmandu. Even if we get enough funding to treat 200 dogs a day, that’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Kathmandu residents, recent witnesses to a spate of bombings against government programs, offices and vehicles, can heave a sigh of relief that at least there is one project out there that is trying to change the world by constructing, rather than destroying; by joining hands with the bureaucracy to replace an ineffective government method; and working towards a humble but still revolutionary solution.

Inner Vision

Inner Vision Nation Weekly, May 31-June 6, 2004

Reprinted in Blind World

Nepal. Inner Vision.
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By Sushma Joshi, Nation Weekly Magazine.

At a time when leaders in Nepal seem to be groping for direction, there is a leader out there who sees very clearly where he's heading.

Narbahadur Limbu, chairman of the Nepal Association for the Blind (NAB), has a smile on his face as he says: "When there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Mr.Limbu wants to be the first blind man in Nepal to get a Ph.D. He's attempting this challenge, he says, not just because it would be an individual achievement for him, but because it is a visible first step for an entire community of people who remain unable to access education at the higher level.

"I am one of the blind who should not have been blind," says Mr. Limbu, a charismatic man with a soft smile.

Mr. Limbu was born in a village in Terhathum in 1963. At the age of 7, he caught typhoid. "We did not even have cetamol in the village." Due to the high fever, Mr. Limbu lost his eyesight. Then, two years later, he lost his widowed mother and became an orphan.

Destiny came in the form of the Queen Mother Ratna Rajya Laxmi Shah, who came to visit Tehrathum when he was thirteen. After the Pradhan Panch presented the blind orphan to her, she took him under her wing.

He started to attend the Khagendra Navajeevan Kendra, after which he joined the Laboratory School. "There were no braille books when I was in school," says Mr. Limbu. "We used to write it out ourselves, and then type it on typewriters and print it out in lithos."

In 1983, Mr. Limbu passed the SLC exams in the first division. Only seven days after passing his exams, he got a job as a teacher at a newly opened school in Dhangadi.

"Luck favored me," says Mr. Limbu. Even though he started to teach, Mr. Limbu's odyssey as a student was not over. He did his intermediate studies from Kailali Campus, and then he took his BA exams privately from Kathmandu.

At the age of 30, he joined Tribhuwan University to get his masters degree. "I had financial constraints, but a few friends helped me to get the funds together, and I was finally able to attend."

His thesis was on "The Rebellion of Bhimsen Panta - 2010". The title refers to a movement very similar to the Maoist movement conducted in Doti and Dadeldhura half a century ago, he says.
The idea to get a Ph.D occurred to Mr. Limbu after he kept on meeting many blind "doctors" - individuals holding doctorates - in India and other foreign countries.

Mr. Limbu, who has traveled extensively in foreign countries, including Sweden, Australia, Thailand, Japan, Bahrain, UAE and others, says that the educational system and services are far advanced in these places, allowing them to be much more productive. "Education for the blind is very advanced in Japan and Sweden," he says. "There were free computers and printers for the blind. Everything from living expenses to a stipend is paid for by the government."

And now, says Mr. Limbu, his dream to get a Ph.D might be coming true. “There are no books or databases on the educational history of people with disabilities in Nepal,” he says. That’s why he chose this topic and submitted it to Tribhuwan University as a potential research topic.

Suraj Dahal, former president of the Society of Ex-Budanilkantha Students (SEBS), arranged a fortuitous meeting with an American friend who contacted Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Everest. Mr. Weihenmayer, an American, was strongly supportive of Mr. Limbu's project, and has agreed to fund 50% of the cost of the Ph.D.

Not all blind people in Nepal are as lucky. Of the approximate 3.5 lakhs blind and partially sighted people of Nepal (WHO random survey, 1980), only 350 of them have passed their SLC, 49 have their bachelors degree, and 18 of them have a masters degree. Of the 47,000 population of school-going age, only 1,900 are currently getting an education.

The director of NAB, Amrit Rai, sits on the threshold, counting Braille books recently published by their press. “The Ministry of Education put out that tender for 4000 books. We won the tender to publish them,” he says, as he places the books, bound in blue, inside the sacks.
A group of men and women gather, eagerly putting the books together in piles. The pitifully inadequate number of books will be distributed to schools across the country. The schools with more than one blind student will have to share their resources.

But even the blind with an education found it did not automatically lead to employment. In 1990, they protested by laying down their SLC certificates on the ground of Ratna Park. This protest led to 21 teaching positions to be put aside for the blind. “Currently, there are 90 teachers, and approximately 45 other people working in the non-profit sector,” he says. “This still leaves the rest of the 282 people with SLC qualifications without a job.”

The NAB advocates and lobbies in all sectors: education, employment and human rights. They also run schools, savings and credit groups, and rehabilitation programs in Dang and Chitwan. NAB is also involved in promoting the productive re-integration of the blind into society.
“The software we have,” says Chana Shrestha, one of the instructors at the computer lab where the blind are taught new digital technology, “allows typed files into a floppy to be printed out in braille.”

Dhruba Gyawali, a sighted software engineer based in Butwal, has already developed a software that changes Nepali writing to Braille. He is now at work on speech recognition software that would allow computers to recognize the Nepali language.

Harisharan Bista, project manager of the donor organization Norwegian Association of the Blind, says: “The Maoists have never stopped our work. We go all over the country, and hold camps in many districts. They know what we do. They only go after an organization if they are corrupt and are exploiting funds.”

NAB is actively involved in lobbying for people with different disabilities, and has been able to affect national policies. For an organization that does high-level national level advocacy, it still remains resource-poor: it does not, for instance, have its own building. Although the government granted it some land in the past, the land has been mired in legal disputes and not yet released. “A building would help to consolidate our women’s hostel, music training building and publishing press,” says Mr. Limbu.

“Also, lots of our branches don’t have offices. But our first priority is to work like a union, and to unify the blind.”

Without a doubt, Mr. Limbu’s Ph.D program would help towards this goal. Tribhuwan University, which has yet to include people with disabilities in its programs, would have to start thinking about new ways to include differently abled people.

Unlike many people who decide to leave Nepal with higher education, Mr. Limbu has different plans. He never wanted to remain behind in a foreign country, he says. “If I stayed behind, it would just benefit me as an individual. I work for common and collective rights. There is too much to do here.”

With such a leader at the helm, the path towards integrating the blind in Nepal is straighter than any roadmap.

Sushma Joshi is a writer at the Nation Weekly magazine, Nepal. subcontinental@yahoo.com.

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26 May, 2004

Sushma Joshi's "Blue" Nepal at Gallery 9

Read News on Kantipur Online

Sushma Joshi's "Blue" Nepal at Gallery 9


Post Report

KATHMANDU, May 26 - The poignant hues of deep blue in her paintings serve to embody the agonies of the present "Blue Period" in Nepal. A period that artist Sushma Joshi, also a Brown University graduate and a former art model, describes as a state of political stagnation and instability that has reaped nothing but torments and sufferings for the people of this once peaceful country.
"It is high time that we had had a change for the good," she adds. "My paintings are just the reflections of the urgent need for creative and spiritual transformations on both personal and national levels."

The paintings, which are on display at an ongoing exhibition entitled "Transformations" at Gallery 9, also prove the artistic and intellectual talents of the artist in Sushma Joshi. She has used highly symbolic icons and myriad of feminine images to expressively represent the suffering of the people. With attention to the slightest details, even the direction of paint flow on the canvas has been carefully coordinated to create that perfect picture. The emphasis on facial features such as the eyes and nose, and the omnipresent cross on most of her works also, add an individual signature to the paintings.

"Learning to draw a cross by not using straight lines was a challenge. It took me three days before I could draw a cross that did not have perfectly straight lines," recalls Sushma.

Popping out from the otherwise almost entirely blue series of paintings are three small works that are dominated by red color. Named Past, Present and Future, each of these distinctive paintings, as their names suggest, represents the states of Nepal at different times.

"I’ve depicted the past and present of Nepal as being violent and bloody," explains Sushma. "And as for the future, it is uncertain and amorphous as are the papers that have been pasted on the painting."Sushma has also used real rice grains in the painting entitled "Present" to, in her own words, appreciate the significance of this cereal to Nepalis.

Sharing the secrets to creating such unique artworks, Sushma reveals, "Learning to see realistically is only the first step. After that, you take off and try to see all the unseen dimensions." She further adds, "Art is more than aesthetics or creating just beautiful pictures. It is an experiment using different media and genres to see and show the phenomena not visible to the naked eyes."

The exhibition continues up to the end of May.



24 May, 2004

17 May, 2004

Who Art Thou?

Nation Weekly, May 17-23, 2004
Art & Society

The excitement of installation lies in its novelty, its use of mixed media and its daring breakage of narrative. In Kathmandu, installation is still a new art form, still in the act of destabilizing the supremacy of paintingBY SUSHMA JOSHI

Big signboards painted on fabric greeted the viewer with this ques tion last week in Babar Mahal Revisted: Who art thou? Usually, the answer would be: Thou art part of the expatriate crowd, the upper middle class and the poor journalists who frequent the openings at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. This gathering, fortunately, was a bit more mixed—it had attracted a substantial number of people from the Nepali art world, along with little girls decked out in fashionable outfits who had come to view their cousin’s art opening.

Sujan Chitrakar, the artist, has published an entire text to accompany his artworks. The text, titled “Utopian Introspection: Random Expressions within Defined Periphery” is heavy reading, but as you read along you get flashes of insight, kind of like a hammer hitting a nail on the head. Sujan Chitrakar, along with colleagues Salil Subedi, and Saroj Bajracharya seemed to have spent a lot of time introspecting in front of mirrors, musing on the concept of nails and hammers, and arranging votive earthen diyas in perfect formation. In between, they thought long and hard about the question of life, which seems to have led them to the “mystery of man” as envisioned by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Even Dostoyevsky, however, might have been alternatively baffled and amused by what his words had inspired. The final art products, which must be seen to do them justice, are polished, technically sophisticated and full of the chutzpah that would make them equally at home in New York City as they do in Kathmandu.

The excitement of installation lies in its novelty, its use of mixed media, its daring breakage of narrative. In Kathmandu, installation is still a new art form, still in the act of destabilizing the supremacy of painting. In western countries where art has fallen over the edge, climbed up and mutated every season since then, installation itself is starting to take on a dated look and feel. Walking through a gallery in New York City, one starts to see installations that evoke deja-vu of a genre, like seeing yet another Monet inspired painting on a McDonald’s wall.

Paintings may be “sooo last season!” but in spite of it all, old media (paint and canvas, photographs, film) are here to stay. Perhaps the reason why traditional media has stuck around for so long is its coherence, and accessibility. The challenge with installation, as with any other art form, is to capture this magnetism that keeps certain media like paint, photography and sculpture solidly entrenched in the popular imagination.

The other challenge is more difficult—indigenizing a borrowed form. Chitrakar makes liberal use of recycled tinned milk cans as prayer wheels. In a corner of the gallery, one can find a panel pasted with objects that inspire memories—trinkets and junk one can only find in Nepal. As a viewer, I wished there had been more of these playful, juxtaposed forms that play with the notion of Nepal and Nepaliness, and less of the shiny hammered and nailed works that carry the stamp of generic transnational art that fill the main gallery. The enthusiasm of the artist dispels any confusion. Sujan Chitrakar is direct, engaged and intense as he talks about his art. Meditateonself.com, an online website that is part of this exhibit, is a satire on how meditation is being commercialized and being brought straight to the home, like take-away food. His mixed media work include within them symbols of four religions—Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism. He feels it is important to be introspective, and create an utopia within oneself, and not look outside for this divine place. He wants to share this idea with his viewers.

A work of art is the interface that allows a viewer to commune with the thoughts and ideas of the artist, its creator. Like “Being John Malkovich,” Chitrakar’s Utopian Introspection often gives the viewer entering the caverns of his thoughts more than they bargained for. Taking the advice of the artist then, perhaps the best thing to do after a viewing is to sit down, take a deep breath, and introspect.

09 May, 2004

The Buddhist Behind the Camera

The Buddhist Behind The Camera

Wayne’s photos are moved and angered by the same existence that troubled Prince Siddhartha

BY SUSHMA JOSHI
Nation Weekly, May 9-16 2004

The oft-repeated complaint about Buddhists, especially Western ones living in Nepal, is that they are so engrossed in their meditation practice that they have a difficult time naming the prime minister. The outside world is perceived through a transcendental blur. Wayne Amtzis is a welcome exception to this stereotype.

“That’s an interesting shape over there,” says Wayne, pointing to a crack in the concrete with a twinkle in his eye. “It looks like a Buddha. No, more like a rabbit.” The first impression of irrepressible Wayne is that he does not have any holy cows tied up in his backyard.

In the garden, Wayne has sheets and sheets of his old poems which have been eaten by insects. When the poet, who keeps no backups, recently found his old poetry in such shape, he did not get into a fit of depression. He took photographs of them instead. Those pages were placed with other objects: garden cans, prayer beads and bowls, leaves, street signs, a torn vest, a rubber doll and other random street treasures found by the artist, and digitally remixed in the computer. This series, featuring the reincarnated poems, was exhibited at the Siddhartha Art Gallery this April.

Wayne looks at the darkness and light that makes up Nepal with the same clear-eyed and unflinching gaze, the same steady equilibrium. Unlike the aid workers purring by in their air-conditioned Pajeros, Wayne Amtzis moves down the crowded lanes and streets, slowly on foot, pausing to catch snatches of dialogue, facial gestures, the sound of street static. He has time to listen to a tired coolie over here, watch the spit come out of the mouth of a supposed madwoman over there.

His poems start gently enough, leading you down a modern space full of cars and corpses, technology and organic decay. The dénouement, when it comes, comes abruptly, shocking the reader out of complacency–the suicide of a sixteen year old girl, or a “Welcome to Nepal” sign sponsored by Coca-Cola. The almost unbelievable story, reported in the Kathmandu Post, of a child suckled by a bitch.

His photos, taken in black and white, are moved and angered by the same existence that troubled Prince Siddhartha–stark portraits of a little girl struggling with a heavy steel bucket; a man slumped tiredly over himself holding the stub of a dying beedi; a body sleeping beneath wall graffiti which proclaims a national conference.

Wayne has been writing poetry and creating photographs of Nepal for many years. His deep commitment to social justice is palpable. Unlike the Beat poets who came, saw, conquered the turmoils of their soul, and then left Shangri-La for greener pastures, Wayne Amtzis has stuck around for more painful times.

Wayne’s contributions to the Nepali art field cannot be counted by the number of his publications or exhibits alone. He has translated poems of Nepali poets, and is currently at work on a book of poems about water written by a Newari poet Purna Vaidya. He, along with his wife Judith, who works for the Cornell Nepal Study Program, are also behind-the-scene mentors to young Nepali artists and writers, providing vital and generous support to the burgeoning arts movement in Kathmandu. More importantly, he has allowed a sense of playful experimentation to seep into a world otherwise tightly regimented by gallery requirements and canonical dictates. After all, who but Wayne could dare put a torn vest found on the street up as an art object at a Nepali art gallery?
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At the opening of his photography series, Wayne read aloud his poems. “Listen to the sounds,” he urged, “don’t try to assign meaning.” Like his photographs, which have softened with the passing of time, his words are full of compassion. Outside in the streets, protests are raging. Blood flows and fear moves beneath the surface of the country. Listening to the impassioned voice of Wayne Amtzis, it is not difficult to understand that dukkha still stalks the people and land of Nepal.

SOLDIERS WITH SCHOOLBAGS

SOLDIERS WITH SCHOOLBAGS

Many of the widely reported “abductions” are more a coercion to attend cultural programs. But there are also unfounded claims that the Maoist are trying to raise a 50,000-strong child militia

BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, May 9-16, 2004

On April 21, newspapers re-ported that the Maoists had abducted 162 people, including 120 students, from the villages of Subhang and Bharapa in Panchthar. The papers weren’t clear when they had been abducted and the local residents were at a loss to explain why. Next day, 1,000 more were taken hostage from the villages in Panchthar and Taplejung—neither of them a Maoist stronghold.

Earlier, on February 27, 65 students from sixth to tenth grades, were abducted along with their teacher while returning from Musikot, Rukum (this one a Maoist stronghold) after taking part in the Birendra Shield Competition . The security forces who were deployed to free the students failed in their mission. When the gun battle between the Army and the rebels raged on for days, the locals fled their villages.

According to subsequent news reports, though vague, the abductees were set free after Janabadi education sessions. INSEC, a human rights group, says that many of the widely reported “abductions” are more a coercion to attend cultural programs than people being held against their will for any length of time. But there are also unfounded claims that the Maoist are trying to raise a 50,000-strong child militia.

“Children from eighth and ninth grades are taken for a few days, and are indoctrinated,” says Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), which runs its own social service program in Rolpa, Rukum and Salyan, the districts hit hardest by the insurgency. “They are made to do exercises; they are made to carry heavy loads and run. The Maoists give them their books to read. So they are not ‘abducted’ by force or made captive in a conventional sense. They are taken en masse to attend Maoist programs, and then they are returned.”

Incidents of Maoists taking students from schools have become increasingly common since early 2004. In mid-February, the Maoists celebrated the eighth anniversary of the “people’s war,” forcing 700 students in Accham to join their anti-establishment protest. On February 20, a teacher reported seeing 300 students taken from a school in Rolpa. Khem Bahadur Budha told AFP news agency that the students were taken from Saiwang Secondary School at Holeri village.

Unconfirmed reports say the Maoists are planning to raise a huge child militia. While the claim is as difficult to establish as many other stories about the Maoists, there are some pointers that give credence to the claim. Kamal Shahi, ANNISU-R central secretariat member and convenor of the Maoist Bheri-Karnali Regional Coordination Committee, has been quoted as saying that the decision to raise the child militia was taken on January 10-11. And that the Maoists planned to ‘induct’ 375,000 students by the end of Baisakh (May 13). One militia would be levied from each school. The students would not be coerced, Shahi said.

The security forces’ response to the recruitment of children, in both militias and active combat, has not been exactly friendly. They have been known to open fire in schoolyards, and take children being taught by teachers at gunpoint. “Four years ago, the security forces were interrogating children who had become involved in conflict,” reports CWIN. “They had surrender camps. There is no concept of verbal sexual assault in the military. They would use abusive words to the children, and even threaten to rape them in order to get information.”

Nepal is one of the 13 countries in Asia actively using children as soldiers, says the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The Maoists, not the Army, uses them. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says children below 15 cannot be used in warfare.

Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a Maoist leader, told CNN in November 2002 that reports of child recruitment by Maoist groups are “baseless allegations made by the Nepali government. We have no children in our fighting force. We do not admit anyone below 18 in our army… As far as our movement is concerned, we have the support of the children as well as the elderly. But they are not part of our army…”

According to Nepali laws, a person is only considered a child up to the age of 16, unlike in other countries where the responsibilities of adulthood start at 18. Maoists claim only people over 18 become combatants. Underage children are put in militias, which are not involved in active warfare.

SSP Ramesh Chand of Nepal Police says there are no laws specific to children. The law of the land treats children caught with arms and wearing guerrilla outfits just as it would the adults. “We don’t automatically think a child carrying a gun is a culprit. They are given the chance to surrender. We believe we can’t attack children, but if they attack first, then of course the security personnel have to respond.”

Children are helpless pawns in the conflict.

Rights workers say that children are used as human shields by the Maoists, who also train them to carry light arms and ammunition. Since the “people’s war” began in 1996, 214 children have been documented killed: 140 by the state, and 74 by the Maoists, according to INSEC.

Juvenile courts, which deal with children separately, don’t exist in Nepal. There are “juvenile benches” where judges sit separately to try the cases of children in all 75 districts, but only a few cases have been tried through these benches. The individuals administrating these benches don’t know much about them, say rights workers. Nepal’s Children’s Act of 1992 has specifically mentioned the need for juvenile courts, but it hasn’t been implemented.

“There are no separate prisons for children,” says SSP Chand. “Juvenile custody doesn’t exist in Nepal. The government doesn’t have the resources.” The anti-terrorism law is administered by the civil police, not the security forces or the military.

The Maoist policy to take students has severely affected the schools and hundreds have closed down in different parts of the country as parents and teachers, afraid of having their children abducted, either stop sending children to school or move them to urban centers where they are comparatively safer.

Girls’ education has especially suffered: news reports say that girls below puberty are being made to wear bridal wear while going to school, since the Maoists are thought to target married women less.

Children as Zone of Peace National Coalition, a forum of 30 organizations, has condemned the Maoist plans to use children in militias, and have urged both the Maoists and security forces to declare schools as battle-free zones. Until that happens, the civil conflict will continue to rob an entire generation of children of their right to education and a better future.