This paper investigates what happens when an indigenous language is allowed into school for the first time. While Nepal’s constitution has guaranteed all communities the right to basic education in their mother tongues since 1990, implementation of this promise has been slow. I argue that language-in-education policies, rather than being technical solutions to solvable problems as policies and international development agencies represent the issue, are sites of political struggle, shaped by relations of power and inequality between languages, and more especially their speakers. One result of these relations is that speakers of minoritized languages increasingly demand schooling in English for their children, and have in many cases shifted to using Nepali in their daily lives. Language policies designed for idealized homogeneous villages, moreover, are poorly equipped to confront realities of migration and heterogeneous settlement.

In this paper, I draw on seven months of ongoing ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Jhapa District and in Kathmandu. I discuss two contrasting government schools in the outskirts of Damak Muncipality. One school holds instruction entirely in Nepali and English, despite serving an almost entirely Dhimal student body, most of whom speak Dhimal language fluently and some of whom barely understand Nepali when they enter school. A neighbouring school recently introduced a Dhimal language subject, which teachers described as supporting Dhimal students’ education and fulfilling their right to mother-tongue education. However, less than one-third of this school’s student body is considered Dhimal; many other students are recent migrants from hills to the north of Jhapa, themselves considered indigenous. Through participant observation and interviews with the people associated with these two schools (e.g., students, teachers, parents, School Management Committee members and education bureaucrats), analysis of linguistic variation, and study of documents including government policies and textbooks, I focus on how these actors understand the signs of speaking and acting as an educated person, how these behaviors and ways of speaking relate to additional social categories, and how these are represented at various levels of educational policy.

This work contributes to the ongoing critique of development initiatives that view complex issues as technical, solvable issues, but brings it forward as well. Beyond arguing that issues of language and education are tied to issues of identity, emotion, and politics, this study contributes to understanding of the Nepali state and interactions between the state and individuals, as schools represent a common point of contact between the state and individuals of many ages. The case of educational language policies is therefore a fertile site for examining changes in the relationship between the Nepali state and individuals, understandings of what it means to be indigenous, and the goals of the various actors involved in schooling.