Phulder is short for his age — seven or eight, he can’t remember. So he can’t reach the clotheslines, barely five feet off the ground. He jumps awkwardly a few times before the clothes are hung successfully. Grinning widely, he picks up a grimy soapbox, clambers over a large window and into a dormitory lined with wooden, double-bunk beds. This is where the 450 students of Kasoli Bridge Course Pota Cabin School stay. It is a long, rectangular room, with rows of beds on both sides, and a narrow passage running through it. Unpainted aluminium trunks, mostly locked, are placed under the beds. There is little opulence here. Each bed has a pillow, cover and sheet, and the name of the occupant is written in chalk on the wood that faces the central passageway. Phulder settles on a bed, feet swinging. “My village is an hour away. My parents live there,” he mumbles slowly, “But I live here, and study English, Hindi, math and environmental sciences.” Then, he begins to recite the English alphabet, stuttering slightly at O and P, and finally runs off to the adjacent dormitory.
Phulder could have been just another schoolboy, shy and struggling with his English. But he isn’t — he is a part of the “war of hearts and minds” launched by the state against the Naxals, Leftist extremists who Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the country’s worst internal security threat. His schoolmates at Kasoli, 25 km from Dantewada, all come from villages caught in the middle of the protracted government-Naxal conflict that has caused more than 5,600 fatalities since 2005, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Education, it is hoped, will one day find him a job somewhere and keep him away from the Naxal influence. That’s perhaps why the school is in the middle of a barbwire-fenced camp constructed during the Salwa Judum movement — a contentious state-initiated or state-supported tribal uprising, depending on which side one views it from, in the last decade — that is protected by the Central Reserve Police Force.