Plebs, patrons and education


Himalayan News Service

Not a single student from nine Morang government schools passed the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams this year. I am sure there were schools in other districts that went nil, but those did not make the news. Maybe they did not have as many zero-scoring schools as Morang did. But the news media highlighted Morang’s educational failure because Morang, in the Nepali imagination, stands out as one of the most politically conscious and economically developed districts. Morang takes pride in its headquarters, Biratnagar, as the second largest Nepali town. It has produced, housed or trained six prime-ministers, five deputy prime ministers and numerous ministers, including of finance and education.

However, the Morang of 2011 is not the Morang of a few decades ago.

The adventurous hill folk from Khotang eastward had begun to find grazing pastures, agricultural land and seasonal homesteads in the clearings or the southern edges of Morang’s forests. Every fall after Dasain, they descended to their seasonal homesteads with livestock and at the end of spring returned to their home villages in the hills. Morang’s monsoon and heat brought epidemics that even the resistant immune system of local people, such as the Rajbanshis, Dhimals, Tharus, Gangais, etc., could not face without loss of lives. Outsiders from the west and south, too, equally feared Morang’s ravages. Its water was unsuitable for their survival. Jahar khai na mahur khai, mareke hoye ta Morang jai (“No need for poison or hemlock, if you want to die, go live in Morang,” came as a warning among Maithili-speakers.)

The legends of King Birat may have helped name Morang’s district town, but the district itself had been named much earlier, most likely after the cultural community houses of tribes in Greater Assam or some king in the Limbu past. Its interior was the home of the Madhesi indigenous groups, such as Dhimals and Tharus inside the forest, the Rajbanshis at its edges and Gangais, Kebrats, Musahars and other caste groups spreads across India-Nepal border. Morang’s forests, however, had also been the hunting ground and elephant trapping arenas for Nepal’s rulers. Before the border was demarcated by raising a levy-like marker and border pillars, the only sense of belonging to a political community its people had was when paying the land tax to the zamindar, who came from local communities, and receive punishments from him for infractions. Because these were agricultural communities by the forest, they depended on agriculture and forest products, including fish from the swamps and rivers.

My father was probably one of the first who brought the scriptures in the form of Katha and the idea of pilgrimage to the villages of Morang and eastern Jhapa starting in the 1930s. He organised Katha and recruited pilgrims annually from local communities (later even hill folks from Bhojpur, Dhankuta and other places joined) and took them to Char Dham (Big Four)—Badri, Kedar, Dwarka and Rameshwaram—or Small Three: Gaya, Kashi and Prayag. The stories of the Hindu scripture offered an organised world beyond their clan, kinship and tribal narratives of living and dying, and the pilgrimage gave them a sense of the broader world beyond their immediate surroundings of seasons, weekly markets and wedding and kinship visits.

Education, therefore, was traditionally not important for these local farming communities-it still is not as much as it should be. And the Rana Regime’s ban on public education further reinforced the traditional agrarian lifestyle. Only the Patwaris needed to be literate in written legal documents. In most cases, they came from outside, did their work and went back. The zamindars themselves were barely literate.

But  in the last four decades, Morang had made great strides in education, especially among its settler communities. When I was in primary school (there was no East-West highway then), Rangeli High School, Adarsh (founded by the Koirala family) and Saraswati schools in Biratnagar were the St. Xaviers and Budhanilkantha for pupils in the interior. They made their names through good infrastructure (brick-and-cement buildings, playgrounds) and teachers (for the most part I.A.-Pass, B.A.-Pass rather than Matric-Fail or I.A.-Fail as we had in the interior). Only the village wealthy could send their sons to these schools.

But in the past two decades, all these reputed government schools in Morang have crumbled. Privatisation, unionisation and politicisation have sapped their lifeblood. Privatisation has creamed off students from well-heeled families for the English-medium schools; cheap politicisation has destroyed the focus of teenage minds; and unionisation for professional power without responsibility and accountability has made already less-than-prepared teachers lax deadwood.

A look at the political stars of Morang and these nil-scoring schools will tell you the pathetic state of our polity and its top politicians’ contribution to it in the past few decades. Madhumalla, Babiya, Sorabhag and Biratnagar—where some of these nil-scoring schools are located—represent the entire geographical spectrum of Morang and its ethnicities. Madhumalla is in the foothills where hill folks live, Babiya is smack in the middle of the district with a mixed population of hill and Tarai folks and Sorabhag is Badri Mandal’s area by the border, south-east of Biratnagar, mostly a Madhesi belt. It is not just a school named after outdated Mahendra but after genius Devkota and miraculous Hindu gods, such as Shiva, that have scored nil.

Given this multi-ethnic and multi-geographic nature of these failed schools, one can ask, what have these six prime ministers, six deputy prime ministers and many ministers from Morang done for the district’s common people? They come from Bahun-Chetri as well as Tarai-Madhesi communities. Granted that more than one owed their post to the palace during the ancient regime, what have the ones in the democratic republican era done? More importantly, what have a Yadav, a Gachchadar or a Mandal—one caste Madhesi and two Madhesi janjati—done to lift the people through education in the era of an information economy?

Viewed from this angle, it is clear that politics and governance in Nepal have so far been driven by the notion of rule (hankne) rather than one of accountability and service. Thus, when one hears words like “party hankne” (driving the party) for party leaders, zilla hankne for district level officials, desh hankne (ruling the country) for the national leaders, one wonders if the Nepali language, corrupted by 240 years of feudal culture, needs serious purging to get rid of its hankne mind-set and reorient it to a more suitable idiom for democracy and its future servant leaders. And if Morang’s situation is so pathetic, what can one say about the less endowed and privileged districts of the country and their common people?

(Source: The Kathmandu Post: Published on July 14)