Caste, Education, and Nepal

I studied in Graded English Medium School from grade 2 till grade 10 and until I finished my A Levels from its higher education wing. It is known to be affordable for mostly higher class individuals, most of whom resided in Kathmandu. A sizable number of middle class folks also found their way in either through their demonstration of educational commitment or through a few scholarship offers that were available.

I have lots of memories, both good and bad, from my school days. But one of the most vivid memories, and perhaps it is vivid precisely because it was of importance to me in my childhood, was the day of result after every terminal examinations. We had three terminal examinations each year and the names of the top 10 out of 350-400 students of every grade was published publicly during the parents-teachers meeting following our result day.

I remember seeing the names on the board every four months. I would stand there and look at their names, or more precisely, their last names. Most of the last names that we are so familiar with – the last names that we hear on the news, in TV and in social media, those of politicians, of experts, and of professionals. A bunch of Adhikaris, Bhattarais, Mainalis, Niroulas, Pradhans, Shresthas, Upadhyays but that is not to say that others did not find their way there. There were one or two Mahatos, Rais, Dhamis, Ansaris, and Sherpas. They were the ‘products’, as the school called them, of the ‘best school of Nepal’.

Meanings are often made out of the mundane things of every day life. This list of the ‘best of the best’ students, while at a certain level, is meaningless, is at another level extremely meaningful. My parents found it extremely meaningful as they would often base my value in its comparison. Not always, but there were times when the comparison were made, where the goal was to have one more Mainali in there, and I did fulfill that goal twice throughout my school year. I remember the number of times I have made it to the list, precisely because it was of importance to me; an importance that I was taught every single day of my school life.

It is of common knowledge that education is one of the primary means of social mobility. Furthermore, to be educated in a commonly recognized private school in Kathmandu points to the doors that are opened in one’s life primarily because of the brand name of the institution. Even among those who graduate from these institutions, those that made it to the top, including the people in the aforementioned list, are those that are afforded the best set of life outcomes in the future.

Well what does the list point out then? It points out that our educational system produces upper caste elites and, therefore, reproduces caste privilege. My definition of ‘upper caste’ is not limited to just Bahuns but rather also includes Chettris and also upper caste Newars. I also recognize that this rigid boundary, in reality, might not be as rigid but I think it is a useful boundary for an analytical analysis. If one were to look at the demographics of my school, it was filled with these very people; class and caste privileged individuals. If education is a way forward for upward class mobility, it is affording that mobility mostly to the same groups who have been historically afforded and benefited from them.

I write this piece for all of us to think about our education, not from an individuated lens but from a lens of caste and class. Perhaps it is also wise to look at them from other structural perspective- in terms of gender, of sexuality, of physical and mental ability, and their intersections, but I will leave that framing for now because I myself have not thought adequately about them. But let us be bold and courageous, and think deeply about the social structures that we are embedded in, for we are afforded the time and energy to do so because of these very structures.