RAIPUR: Deep inside a forest in the Naxal hotbed of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh, a residential school is striving to usher in a new dawn in the lives of children affected by Maoist violence.
The school, called 'Panchsheel Ashram', is home to 132 students, including 71 girls, who are preparing for a future away from the shadow of gun.
The school is the brainchild of 49-year-old former teacher K Madhukar Rao, one of the founder members of the now defunct anti-Maoist militia movement 'Salwa Judum'.
His vision to bring about a change in the Naxal-prone area and to prevent indoctrination of the young minds led him to set up the institution in 2008 in the Kutru village, located 450 km from the state capital Raipur.
"The tribal children are exploited by Maoists due to their illiteracy and ignorance," he told PTI, adding that education will surely empower them and prevent them from being misguided by the anti-social elements.
He recalled that when he was nine years old, his father had shifted from their native village Farsegarh to Kutru in the late 1970s.
In 1993, Rao started working as an assistant teacher in a government-run school in Nelasnar village, he said.
Around the same time, Naxals were spreading their tentacles in south Bastar region.
The villagers, who were sending their children to schools, and even teachers had to face the wrath of Naxals, he said.
Despite facing threats from rebels, Rao continued with his teaching profession.
But in 2005, the continuous Naxal incidents in the area prompted him to raise his voice against the insurgents and he become a part of the Salwa Judum, which means "peaceful gathering for a hunt" in the tribal Gondi dialect, he said.
There was massive bloodshed for months before the movementwas disbanded in 2011 by the Supreme Court over allegations of human right violations.
Congress leader Mahendra Karma, whowas the face of the Salwa Judum movement, was killed in a Maoist ambush on May 25, 2013 in Bastar's Darbha area.
Several leaders and workers of Salwa Judum were killed by Naxals even after the movement was disbanded, said Rao, who has been living under the state protection since over a decade, in a house adjacent to the police station in Kutru.
A large number of villagers were displaced after opposing Naxals and had to live in relief camps.
Several children lost their parents and relatives who were part of the Salwa Judum, he said.
To provide necessary assistance to such children for their studies with an aim to prevent them being misguided by Maoists, Rao and other like-minded people constituted the 'Chhattisgarh Samaj Sarankshan and Vikas Smaiti' (a registered society), under which the Panchsheel Ashram was set up.
"Children had to earlier walk miles for studies as that time there was no school in the village. A residential school in the village proved a great help to them," Rao said.
Of the 132 students living in the ashram, 22 boys and 33 girls are those who lost their near and dear ones in the Maoist violence, he said.
Students up to class 12 are provided hostel facility in the school while classes are conducted up to standard 8.
For further studies, the children are sent to nearby government schools.
Apart from teachers who are providing their services for free, local police officials also help the children in subjects like Science, Mathematics and English.
The police officials also provide guidance to students in preparing for competitive exams, Rao said.
"The effort to fight the gun with a pen has started bearing fruit as students from the Panchsheel Ashram have qualified for admissions to better schools in Raipur and Bijapur," he said.
The children have also been performing well in sports like archery, volleyball, kabaddi and athletics at local level, he said, expressing hope that better guidance and a proper platform would make them excel in these activities.
However, despite all the efforts, the school has its share of problems. The school, till now being run from a relief camp, requires a proper building.
It lacks sufficient rooms and toilet facilities, and trained and expert teachers are also not interested in coming to Kutru, Rao said.
Meanwhile, hailing the initiative, Bijapur Superintendent of Police Mohit Garg said education has a crucial role to play in the battle against Maoists and the Panchsheel Ashram have given a new ray of hope to children in the region.
"Naxals do not want tribals to get educated so that they can misguide them. They don't want children in the region to pursue studies. In such a situation, Rao's effort to educate children and make villagers aware of their rights and duties is highly appreciable," Garg said.
Education coupled with development works will definitely wipe out the menace of Naxalism soon, the SP added.