For the past couple of weeks, I have seen many BNKS alumni talk about Black Lives Matter, race relations, and also casteism driven killings in Rukum. It was very unnerving and saddening to see it happen all at once. This took me back to the time when I myself had to experience and see many forms of racism, both explicit and subtle, within Budhanilkantha School, where I spent later two years of my high school.
I know this is going to be a tough pill to swallow, but the reality is Budhanilkantha is a racist, sexist, regressive, homophobic, casteist, and (ultra-hill) nationalist place. When I first shared my thoughts in my social media, some people were shocked that I called our ‘beloved’ school names. Some told me “I was there 9 years of my life. I saw friends from all 75 districts and I never saw anyone being treated with lesser respect.” And perhaps that’s why we, as alumni and stakeholders of Budhanilkantha school, need to do some soul searching and be prepared for some uncomfortable conversations. To my friends, current students, and SEBSers who are in denial, let me start by saying this — “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.” The truth is that racism, casteism, sexism, and homophobia were practiced in our everyday lives, but we often overlooked it.
What particularly affected me as a Madhesi when I went to school was the widespread overt and covert racism. Let me recount some experiences.
1. Students of 300/0 D and 200/0 D living in Gaurishankar and Byashrishi houses remember the following incident that took place in 2012. A group of upper-caste, upper-class Khas Arya dais scrawled “Bhele, Marsiya, and Dhoti” and other racial slurs on the door of the Madhesi HoH in Byashrishi. The bully “dais” threatened to punish anyone who divulged any details. No one came forward to the HoH.
The teacher complained to the senior school administration, which was dominated by the high caste hill men who couldn’t empathize with the gravity of what had just happened. A senior teacher of BNKS was humiliated due to his ethnic origin amongst his peers, family, and children. The school took no action against it. The following day, the Gaurishankar HoH held a House Assembly and was supposedly educating us about how the incidents of the previous night were abhorrent. Instead, he brings up a student and makes us all take an oath. The oath goes:
Student 1: “Ma aba dekhi”
Assembly: (Repeats after him) “Ma aba dekhi”
Student 1: “Dhoti”
Assembly: Roars into laughter
Student 1: “Madhisey”
Assembly: Roars into louder laughter
Student 1: “Bhele”
Assembly: Goes hysterical.
That moment, as one friend narrated, my friends and seniors ranging from top performers to school prefects were laughing at it. For those of you in that room that day, ask yourself, did you even think that you had a handful of Madhesi friends that lived amongst you? I was heartbroken but also too scared to speak up.
The incident shows the audacity with which upper-caste Kathmanduites were able to use ethnic slurs and dehumanize a Madhesi teacher among their Madhesi peers. Talk about institutionalized racism? Even the oppressed students were too numb to feel anything by then.
Distraught and hurt by the school’s complicity, the teacher tried to seek help from a political party. No concrete action was ever taken. People used slurs every day. “Dhoti” was a popular slur. My friends used it when I was around.
2. I was in a friend’s dorm to ask for help with studies. While he was away for a bathroom break, his roommate walks in and says “Bhaag dhoti yaha bata.” My demoralized self could not muster enough vocabulary in Nepali to fight him.
3. In one of the school assemblies, I heard one of my athlete friends, who had recently been to a swimming competition in Nepalgunj, casually recounting to his adoring circle that he had met a lot of ‘dhotis’ in the city, who could not swim.
4. On Nationalism. BNKS is a nationalist place and a haven for anti-Indians, and the students conveniently throw Madhesis under the bus. The hill nationalists often used the word “dhoti” not really understanding how that affects Madhesi peers there. BNKS, despite its diversity, sees a cultural dominance of Khas Aryas given their relative numerical strength. You can see that in the supremacy of the Nepali language and the subtle and not-so-subtle glorification of their history. One day cultural programs at school, rich in cultural appropriation than appreciation, cannot make up for diversity. One of my Madhesi friends shared, “I dreaded speaking Maithili around my friends. Luckily I didn’t have an accent and I got away with bullying.”
Talking about hill nationalism, some of my friends in my batch were proposing the idea that all students should wear Dhaka Topi in the school assembly. I suspect many knew about the political dynamics of the country and how the adoption of the idea would have crystallized the dominance of the Khas Aryas. Thankfully, the idea never materialized. The incident just tells how ignorant and elitist students were/are of national politics.
5. Just before 2015, a BNKS friend of mine was thankful that the lawmakers were not looping his district with Province 2 districts because he did not want to live with “dhotis.”
6. While still at the school, one of my friends mocked another junior with a Maithili accent and half-Indian, half-Nepali ancestry that he should go to India for a job instead because he would fit there well.
7. During the Madhesh Aandolan of 2015, one of the dais — an ex-policeman — casually wrote for the ethnic expulsion of Madhesis and labeled us unpatriotic on his social media because we were protesting against the state. That dai was not alone. I saw many alumni who harbored that deep and toxic hill nationalism — bred and buttered at BNKS.
Now before you march on the predictable journey to blame me on why I did not protest then and why I am bringing all these incidents now, below is a list of reading on gaslighting and implicit victim-blaming to guide you through the reflection process. In sneaky ways, victim-blaming is often used to disempower victims.
When I first came to BNKS from my hometown in Siraha, I had to try very hard to fit into its culture. My first language was Maithali, and I struggled enormously to speak Nepali, especially the subject-verb agreement part. I had to learn Nepali to fit among peers and “Nepalinize’’ myself so I could deflect discriminations. When my parents spoke to me over the paid telephone by the school gate, they would speak in broken Nepali so I would respond in Nepali, and not Maithili for my peers to recognize. Such was the internalized racism the Nepali state had cultivated in them. I dragged the fear to the nationalistic and racist chambers of the school. I didn’t have enough courage to question the status quo back then. With education, I have been gaining agency and have felt empowered to speak against institutionalized racism and injustices.
These discussions on ethnicity and caste discrimination are uncomfortable, and they need to be so if we want to make progress. For centuries, the country suppressed minorities with its ‘महेन्द्रबादी राष्ट्रियता’; its caste system sucked the life out of Dalits and crushed their self-dignity. Madhesis faced constant dehumanization and otherization in the streets of the capital city. We need to acknowledge the heavy toll the deep-seated racism, casteism, sexism, and homophobia have inflicted on its people. Since its founding, Budhanilkantha School put these discussions on freeze. Under the guise of roll numbers, it prevented these long-overdue dialogues. When the first incident that I described happened, it was the manifestation of the entitlement some students felt they had that they could get away with punishment because of their intoxicating faith in a rigged system that favored them. When slurs like Dhoti are commonplace in BNKS, it demonstrates that the school is unexceptionally the extension of racist Kathmandu and not a safe and empowering place for Madhesis. This premium institution has perpetuated the reigning status-quo, remained color-blind, and failed to empower minorities.
We should know that BNKS despite its diversity does not represent Nepal. Like other institutions in the country, it also has an overrepresentation of Khas Aryas and Kathmanduites that shape its culture enormously. The upper-class, upper-caste Kathmandu that find their way to school partly based on their financial prowess also bring with them their elitism and ignorance of the country. Kids are less likely to change their minds because their families and relatives who are in the higher socio-economic strata have socialized them to think about the country and certain communities in a prescribed way. The elitism becomes more pronounced when BNKS students go abroad, pursue mostly technical sciences, and sever themselves from Nepal. When ethnic movements take place or injustices manifest in the press, they fail to comprehend the gravity of the situation. The romanticism with Budhanilkantha clearly blinds many people to see their own roles in the ugly and casual sexism, racism, and homophobia they were complicit in or perpetuated at the school.
Racism is evil. While 18-year olds at BNKS learned to raise thousands of rupees for their service clubs, they did not learn the basic decency to respect other communities that did not look like theirs. In this regard, the school also failed them enormously by not educating them about ethnic issues and instead tolerated their racist behaviors. This post, however, should not be about deflection from the wrongs done. It should be about the reflection. I urge people not to ask about the details concerning the first incident. To those who were involved, please reflect on your positionality in the country, how the incident hurt the Madhesi community on campus, and how you stripped us of our dignity. Having said that, you still deserve our unmerited grace and kindness, and I hope with genuine reflection you will have the moral courage to issue an apology to the then HoH and to the broader Madhesi community.
If you feel you were at the receiving end of racism or other forms of discrimination at school, please fill this reflection google form. You can also reflect on the form if you feel you were an accomplice or perpetuated racism in retrospect but now stand in solidarity with the anti-discrimination movement. You can choose to be anonymous.
For BNKS to be a truly progressive institution, it needs to make a lot of institutional changes. It needs to diversify and offer more opportunities to women, Dalits, Madhesis, Tharus, Muslims, Janajatis, and economically marginalized groups from Karnali and Sudurpaschim provinces.
My friends and I have brainstormed the following ideas. We would like to work closely with the SEBS Executive Committee and the school administration to materialize these goals. If you have new suggestions, we would like to collaborate with you and the two bodies to better the institution.
- Mental Health Counselor. There is an urgent need for a competent full-time mental health counselor, who can help victims of Racism/Sexism/Homophobia/Bullying on the school campus. The counselor should also help students dealing with depression and other forms of mental problems.
- Cultural Sensitivity Seminars. The school should organize cultural sensitivity training every year to aware students and teachers of various cultural differences and similarities between different communities without assigning any value judgments. These seminars should also greatly emphasize that no community/caste/religion is supreme to others, inform students and teachers of their positions and privileges in the country, and empower students from historically oppressed communities to exercise their agency. The seminars should also enlighten students and teachers of words that they should not use to refer to members of certain communities.
- Office of Students’ Conduct. The school should establish an Office of Students’ Conduct with a sizable representation from minority communities. This institution should have a zero-tolerance policy on racism, casteism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. At this office, students at the receiving end of any discrimination should, without any fear, be able to register their complaints and concerns. The students investigated for the wrongdoing should face consequences for the use of slurs or other clues that demean any community.
- Club. Students from minority and rural communities should be encouraged to start their own club(s) to present themselves as they think necessary without any pressure to reconcile with the image of the dominant community. At Budhanilkantha School, students should be empowered to stand against the status quo and the cursed social hierarchy that surrounds them.
- Independent Investigation Body: The school should produce disaggregated data on the demographics at BNKS in all possible categories: scholarship, paying, grades, newcomers, etc. It is easy to disguise representation behind roll numbers. The school should do away with the roll number system and learn to embrace the rich identities of its students.
- Curriculum change. We need to update the history curriculum in Social Studies that focuses on benevolent kings who conquered Nepal for a super generous reason. There exists history beyond the Shahs, the monarchs, and the Gorkha kingdom. The school should make a genuine effort to teach the inclusive history of all communities at this “inclusive” institution. This curriculum should also include how certain communities have been treated unfairly in the history of the country, instead of the “we live peacefully in diversity” narrative.
- Increased Representation. There should be a proportionate representation of minorities, women, and economically disadvantaged communities in FOBS and SEBS to reflect the diversity of the community.
- Increased representation of minority students. The school should make genuine efforts to increase the representation of minority communities in the paying category through extensive local advertisements in all the provinces of the country. Additionally, the school should prioritize the admissions of economically disadvantaged students, especially from historically oppressed communities. The alumni should help establish a special endowment for this specific purpose.
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Readings on discrimination/violence/bullying at BNKS:
- Budhanilkantha School: The Center of Exclusion? https://bit.ly/2AbY6Zk
- Silence and Shame: https://bit.ly/2zg6MNS
Readings on gaslighting and implicit victim-blaming:
- 11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting: https://bit.ly/30kNnqe
- The Psychology of Victim Blaming: https://bit.ly/2Y5M2AM
- What the roll numbers in Budhanilkantha School are hiding: https://bit.ly/30v13iz
- Racism in another school: Link here
Link to Twitter Post on Racism at the School: https://bit.ly/2MCB7ZV
Google Form of Reflection BNKS: https://bit.ly/2Y9O5DX