History and politics of Nepal’s school education

- Ishwari Bhattarai | 2023-02-25

The evolution of school education during the later decades of Rana rule from around the 1930s until the end of the Panchayat period in the 1990s is captured thoroughly in ‘School Education in Nepal’.

To understand the historical and contemporary context in which schooling education in Nepal developed, one has to raise certain questions: When and how did formal school education evolve? How did the state regulate the opening of schools before and after the 1950s? How did intersectional dynamics of caste, class, gender and societal politics play in the establishment and expansion of schools? How the state-led ‘nationalisation’ of schools and ‘standardisation’ of curriculum shaped the knowledge and impacted the learning experience of children from diverse social backgrounds? Readers will get answers to these questions in the book ‘School Education in Nepal: History, Politics and Society’ published by Martin Chautari, a Kathmandu-based research organisation.

In the past couple of years, under its book series, Martin Chautari has published a few other volumes on school education in Nepal, namely ‘School Education in Nepal: History and Politics of Governance and Reforms’, and ‘School Education in Nepal: Communityization, Federalism and Disaster’. Recently, another volume focusing on the Financial Aspects of School Education also came out.

The evolution of school education during the later decades of Rana rule from around the 1930s until the end of the Panchayat period in the 1990s is captured thoroughly in ‘School Education in Nepal’. Organised into six key chapters—apart from the introduction that sets a brief tone of the history of school education in Nepal—the book examines how successive regimes during the Rana and Panchayat period used school education as the most important tool to further their interests by restricting and regulating schooling, and the functioning of schools. This historical scholarship uses a wide range of published and unpublished archival sources complemented by interviews and personal accounts. All the chapters offer an intersectional element of dynamics of caste, class and gender and societal politics with the larger political context of the evolution of school education in Nepal.

Caste and school education

Historically class and caste system has played a significant role in determining access to formal schooling in Nepal. The erstwhile upper castes, traditionally placed in the dominant social position, have had greater access to education that helped them capitalise on socially valued resources. While traditional lower castes—such as Dalits and others in the margins—have had restricted access. This volume sheds light on how the caste system school education, influenced the appointment of teachers, development of school curriculum, and teaching style. An elaborate description of the history of upper caste Brahmins' access to school education has been captured by Arjun Panthi in his article on the educational dynamics of Brahmins. Panthi gives the readers an insight into the Harihar Sanskrit School in the erstwhile Gulmi district (now Arghakhanchi), started by a local individual philanthropist almost 100 years ago. Established around 1970 B.S. and later financed by a rich local Brahman man Harihar Gautam, the author pictures the context of student recruitment, curriculum and teaching method, provision for fellowships, its affiliation with a college as well as opportunities for higher education in Varanasi, India.

All these networks of relationships are likely to have shaped the social mobility of Brahmins since the past. The book also illuminates how the students who studied there were socially mobile, entered state institutions and expanded their power and influence, acquiring the necessary cultural capital. The text indicates that a good number of individuals from this region entered state institutions and Nepal’s bureaucracy in contemporary times because their families had the opportunity of early schooling.

While the children affiliated with the Ranas, the affluent class, and the ‘powerful’ families, had opportunities to attend schools, children in Dalit and other communities on the margins were facing many challenges. How did the Dalit students struggle for education in a rigid caste-ordered society? Devendra Upreti and Shivahari Gywali try to answer this question in the article ‘Dalit Education in Hindu Society’ and trace the history of Dalit education from the Rana period. The authors track down an account of the initiatives taken by a few individuals to educate Dalit children. Expansion of Dalit education in various parts of Nepal saw conflicts on multiple fronts. Along with tensions in the community, the chapter sheds light on how Dalit students continuously suffered discrimination in schools, although the nature and scale of discrimination varied across different regions. Reading through the chapter, it becomes evident that social conflicts emerged on the question of segregation/integration of Dalits with other ‘upper caste’ children in the same classroom/schools. Due to persistent discrimination faced by Dalits, there were efforts to open schools exclusively for them in different places.

Gender, school education and politics

The other key theme in the book is the complex relationship between gender and politics in school education. When formal schooling was just introduced, it was, by default, the domain of men. However, there are selected examples where women, particularly those belonging to upper castes/class, began attending schools during the late Rana period. Exploring the issue of women's education in the late Rana period, Lokranjan Parajuli outlines multifaceted debates that took place during this time in his article. Initially, women were missing from formal schooling. Even when there were efforts to expand formal schooling among girls, it was primarily viewed as a complementary effort to support men and reproduce patriarchal dominance. Despite this dominant motive, Parajuli shows how young girls who got a chance to enter schools also participated in the public discourse of freedom and equality, expressing their views in the newspapers and magazines published at that time.

School education evolved with political and social change in and beyond Nepal. There are regional, national and international political context that has shaped the growth of schools. Through formal schooling, the state began to socialise children and aimed to create a common ‘Nepali’ identity. This was done through the standardisation of school textbooks and curriculum that promoted the idea of a common national identity. The state politics on school education had a differential impact across Nepal. The regions where non-Nepali speakers were predominant were highly impacted by the state-led initiatives of ‘standardisation’ and ‘homogenisation’ of curriculum and imposition of the Nepali language as a compulsory medium of communication. The experiential and descriptive account by CK Lal provides the social and political analysis of schooling and its evolution in the southern central Tarai. Lal presents a vibrant picture of how the context of school education changed with local and national political dynamics. He provides a chronological picture and discusses the role played by local elites to educate children during the early period through ‘home schooling’ to the impact of a state-led project of nationalisation of school education leading to ‘homogenisation’ and ‘standardisation’ during the Panchayat period.

While locally powerful individuals and communities took the initiative to establish most of the schools until the early decades of Panchayat they largely operated autonomously. With the phenomenal growth of schools across Nepal after the 1950s, they appeared to be sites for political consciousness. The locally managed autonomous functioning of schools was seen as a threat to the regime by the Panchayat government. The government then converted all of them to ‘national’ schools introducing new policies. The schools turned to a new political battleground. Lokranjan Parajuli in his second article engages the question of the politics of school education during the Panchayat period and argues that by converting community schools into government schools and teachers as salaried ‘government employees’ the government sought to produce citizens loyal to the nation. This deliberate attempt to control and regulate schools was furthered through the introduction of new curricula and mandatory imposition of the Nepali language as a medium of education. Despite significant political changes during the post-Rana period, the author observes that the Panchayat regime continued a controlled and regulatory approach fundamentally not different from the earlier political regime.

The Panchayat government aimed to craft citizens loyal to its regime, and therefore textbooks were designed accordingly. Among these, the history textbooks in particular were deliberately written with an aim to erase Nepal’s diverse historical context and dynamics to produce a ‘homogenous’ monolithic history. Written almost two decades ago in English and its Nepali translation has been included in this volume, Onta engages with the question of how Nepali Rastriya Itihas (the national history of Nepal) was produced and disseminated through school textbooks in the Panchayat period. With an aim to produce uncritical citizens, this article argues that the Panchayat period textbooks crafted selective Nepali ‘icons’ and historical narratives to construct a common ‘Nepali’ and ‘bir’(brave) history. In doing so, there was an erasure of ambivalence and contradictions. This selective, hyper-masculine bir history produced during the 1970s and 1980s has had a deep impact on the psyche of young students.

The political changes even after the 1990s did not bring any fundamental alterations in the ideas on school education as the curriculum and textbooks were largely the continuum of the Panchayat past. I recalled my high school days when my experience was exactly the same as the one highlighted in the article. Being socialised into such schooling in the first decade after the fall of Panchayat government, I hardly had any critical approach to knowledge until I joined my university-level education. The Panchayat era was quite successful in producing a large band of uncritical citizens. This continued during the democratic period too. The author concludes this article by delineating a need for a critical reflection on the impact of such distorted histories among the masses through school education.

Although a couple of articles included in the volume are published elsewhere too, it is a welcome addition to the contribution of the history of education in Nepal to regenerate new debates in a contemporary context. Not only does the book document the cultural, historical and political context in which school education evolved but also examines the various facets of it—including political events, social changes and economic conditions happening in Nepal until the 1990s. Overall, it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the evolution and politics of school education in Nepal and South Asia.


School Education in Nepal: History, Politics and Society
Editors: Lokranjan Parajuli, Pratyoush Onta, Devendra Upreti
Publisher: Martin Chautari

Published at : February 25, 2023
Source: https://kathmandupost.com/books/2023/02/25/history-and-politics-of-nepal-s-school-education

About the Author

Ishwari Bhattarai

Bhattarai is a social sciences researcher and a sociology teacher.