We Are Not South Asian

Nitin Pai
Pax Indica
Opinions - IN

At a seminar a couple of weeks ago, one of the organisers argued that the "South Asian identity" has made inroads across the world. He supported this argument with an example. Many universities in the United States, he said, now have bhangra and garba troupes, often consisting of people of entirely non-South Asian backgrounds.

I nearly fell off my chair.

There is nothing 'South Asian' about bhangra and garba, just as there is nothing 'South Asian' about yoga, ayurveda or tandoori chicken (when was the last time you went to a North South Asian restaurant?). Actually, there's nothing South Asian about qawwals, ghazals or the Multani raga (when was the last time you went to a South Asian classical concert?). In fact -- and you might think, I'm stretching it -- there's nothing South Asian about Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan at all. If you measure Asia north to south, roughly along the 120°E longitude from the Siberia's Arctic coast to Indonesia's southern islands, you'll find the subcontinent more or less in the middle. Geographically, if there is a South Asia, then the self-confessed 'South Asians' are neither in it nor from it. By the way, in 1827, there was apparently a journal called the South Asian Register, published in and referring to...Australia.

Mine is not a revisionist reading of history, culture and geography to fit my political views. 'South Asia' is. If, as Jinnah had presumed, the country he carved Pakistan out of had named itself the Republic of Hindustan, no one would have even bothered to invent 'South Asia'. All those who call themselves South Asians now would have been content calling themselves Indian. The decision to call India India not only enraged the Quaid-e-Azam of Pakistan but sowed the seeds of an identity crisis among succeeding generations of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, progressives, Left-liberals and impressionable members of Western campuses. (The South Asian identity, I am unreliably informed, also helps the opportunistic members of Western campuses to hang out with attractive members of the opposite sex.)

The term 'South Asia' therefore is an attempt to appropriate the Indian subcontinent's geography while denying its composite civilisational history. It is also an attempt to escape the negative connotations that some nationalities have acquired abroad -- sometimes due to the faults of the countries of their origin, sometimes due to the prejudices of the countries of their residence and sometimes due to both. It came as a shock to me, almost two decades ago, when I found that calling a Pakistani a "Paki" is not, to put it mildly, considered good manners. Wiktionary tells us that "the abbreviation Paki acquired offensive connotations in the 1960s when used by British tabloids to refer to subjects of former colony states in a derogatory and racist manner. In modern British usage "Paki" is typically used in a derogatory way as a label for all South Asians, including Indians, Afghans and Bangladeshis." So what do you do if your fair name becomes a racial slur? Choose another one, of course. So in Britain, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and some Indians became Asians.

It's unclear why, on the other side of the Atlantic, they became South Asian. Someone posted this question on the website of the, well, South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) in New York. Arthur Dudney dug up the Oxford English Dictionary and found that the first usage is in a paper titled "The impact of modern technology on the social structures of South Asia" in the International Social Science Bulletin Vol. III, No. 783, published in 1951. Interestingly, that article says "The countries dealt with in this paper are India, including the country now known as Pakistan, Burma, Siam, Malaya, Indonesia, Indochina and Ceylon." Looks like Siam, Malaya, Indonesia and Indochina would have none of it, as they went on to form the the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). In Dudney's opinion "South Asia" filled the need for an easier way to refer to "the nation-states created out of the former territories of British India." In other words, it's all because Nehru, Patel and that gang decided to call India India.

The diaspora's need for identity apart, 'South Asia' is used by nice people in the nation-states created out of the former territories of British India, and also of Nepal and Bhutan, to do the "We are all South Asians, yaar!" thing. They do this thing to ignore, set aside or paper over the real causes of why they have to do the thing in the first place. Some, usually Indians, point to the European Union and, in a dreamy sort of way, say that a South Asian Union will solve many of 'South Asia's' problems. Even the Vajpayee government, perhaps in a dreamy sort of way too, suggested this might be a good idea. Even when it is well-meaning, it is silly. It scares people in neighbouring countries who are in neighbouring countries precisely because they do not want to be part of the Indian Union. And unless Indians are willing to accept "one Union, several systems", and give up both liberty and equality in exchange for 'South Asian' fraternity, it is unclear how the South Asian Union will be anything but the Indian Union by another name. The good news is that there is no danger of this happening anytime soon.

There's no such thing as a South Asian cultural, civilisational or political identity. Nor is Indian culture and civilisation the exclusive property of the citizens of the Republic of India. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan didn't need to label his music as South Asian, Bangladeshi restaurateurs do not need to put up signboards offering 'South Asian' cuisines, Nepalis do not need to become South Asians to act in Hindi films, Sri Lankans do not need to label their practice 'South Asian' traditional medicine and so on. They can do all this without having to relabel their Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali or Sri Lankan political identities as Indian or indeed, South Asian. You don't have to do the "We are all South Asian, yaar", yaar!

Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.