(This book review was first published by Pragati on 3rd April, 2018.)
Every time I have come back from a conference, course or fellowship with a South Asia focus, I have struggled with the observation that India is perceived as bully and big brother in the region. As an Indian, it is easy to be oblivious because the television channels I watch and the newspapers I read rarely feature reporting or commentary from Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives with a critical view of India’s role in the neighbourhood.
The narrative presented is embarrassingly simplistic: Afghanistan loves India. Pakistan hates India. Bhutan cannot do without India. Nepal survives on the benevolence of India. Bangladesh is in a love-hate relationship with India. Sri Lanka and India are friends with benefits. India hates to admit this but it needs the Maldives, and China is the real enemy because it wants to screw India from all sides.
This world view is exaggeratedly India-centric. It ignores civilizational links, the political and economic aspirations of individual nation states, and the broader interests of this region as a power bloc. It ceases to be useful because it overlooks the reality of people-to-people contact which may not always be aligned with statecraft.
Forums that facilitate academic or cultural exchange among citizens from different South Asian countries are known for their bonhomie. They inspire new visions of working across borders on issues of mutual interest, alongside heated discussions about proxy wars, economic sanctions, and religious extremism. They expand one’s grasp of what matters beyond the daily news cycle.
Scholarly writing on South Asia needs to think of fresh ways to understand and interpret this region. It must escape the banality of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), which is fairly redundant and mostly uncooperative. I am not alone in holding this opinion. It is also the guiding thought behind Dev Nath Pathak’s ‘Another South Asia!’ (2018), a compilation of 14 essays that he has edited for Primus Books. Ironically, he teaches at the South Asian University in Delhi, which was established by the eight member countries of the SAARC. Clearly, the wearer knows where the chappal pinches.
Pathak, a sociologist, is miffed with scholars who are too anchored in their own nationalisms to cultivate what he calls a South Asian sensibility. That this sensibility is never defined in absolute terms is a point worth noting. It is fired by cultural flows across the region, civil society networks, and utopias that resist the trite discourse of bureaucrats at official events.
While there are affinities that people from the region can readily recognize when they meet at regional gatherings or in the process of international travel, it might be a bit of a stretch to think that building a South Asian identity would interest people other than academics and activists. Religion, caste, sub-caste, language, and ethnicity have too much sway. Are we ready to step outside our silos?
If we are, then we have an opportunity to reimagine South Asia in a manner that is different from the United States of America’s Department of State which coined the term after the Second World War. The superpower wanted to gather knowledge about places that Americans knew little about, so university departments and research centres sprang up to fill the void. This seems no different from the beginnings of Anthropology as a discipline meant to serve colonial masters getting a grip over the strange ways of the natives.
Post-9/11, South Asia is still a fashionable area to study, and hordes of South Asian students go to the United States to study about their own region through an American lens. Can we approach this discourse with some creative skepticism, and challenge White supremacist narratives with our own lived experiences? Else, our minds will continue to be colonized even as we spout theories about decolonization. I have no problem with studying at Yale, Cornell, Columbia or Harvard as long as I have the freedom to speak my own truth, and make reasonable respectful arguments.
Coming back to the book, the essays that stand out for me are the ones by Ravi Kumar, Sasanka Perera, Laxmi Murthy, Kiranmayi Bhushi, Santosh Kumar Singh, Jyoti Sinha and Abha Sur. Kumar rejects the propaganda that citizens of certain neighbouring countries are potential enemies by default, and Perera makes a case for collaborative art projects without the direct participation of the state. Murthy celebrates desi feminist solidarities against sexual violence, whereas Bhushi explores how food creates a semblance of home for the South Asian diaspora. Singh champions the fluidity of faith traditions that are under pressure from modern identity politics, while Sinha and Sur tell us about working class South Asians pursuing the American dream.
The strength of this book is also its weakness. In lambasting the disciplinary myopia of International Relations, Area Studies, and Social Anthropology, it misses out on discussing some of the key challenges in this region. These include assaults on democracy, the rise of religious extremism, the threat of nuclear warfare, climate change, resettlement of refugees, and colonial era laws that criminalize various kinds of sexual activity.
Moreover, the book does not account for the role of China, USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the European Union, which not only have economic and strategic interests here but also a growing cultural footprint. It presents a sincere critique of SAARC but fails to suggest what an alternative conglomerate of nation-states could look like. It dreams of a South Asia that is free of hostile visa regimes but glosses over border conflicts that threaten the territorial sovereignty of member nations. Perhaps this is too much to expect of one book. Nevertheless, it does make a significant contribution to the field, and throws up more questions than it tries to answer. That, to me, is a good thing.