(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)
What expectations do you bring to a book that calls itself Against the Nation, and is co-authored by three sociologists at a university department in Delhi? If you think it might be a manifesto put together by ‘anti-national’ troublemakers plotting to topple an authoritarian government, please hold your horses. This volume of essays by Sasanka Perera, Dev Nath Pathak and Ravi Kumar is far from seditious but encourages readers to be “truly angry with issues, genuinely in love with things, passionately affected by matters, and yet writing about them as cogently as possible.” It articulates what a serious intellectual enquiry into South Asia might look like when it rejects academic and policy discourses that are jingoistic.
This book questions disciplinary boundaries that scholars are afraid to transgress even when they know that the impertinence would be rewarding. The authors believe that most academics are statist in their approach, especially in fields such as international relations and sociology that offer possibilities to think about cultures and societies outside the constraining framework of nation states. While their quest to reinvigorate the study of South Asia leads them to Ashis Nandy, Nazrul Islam, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Rabindranath Tagore, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Sahir Ludhianvi, they fail to broaden their enquiry and invite Ismat Chughtai, Urvashi Butalia, Kamla Bhasin, Meenakshi Gopinath, Swarna Rajagopalan, Bushra Gohar and Salima Hashmi into the conversation.
Identity politics is anathema to many academics but questions of gender, queerness and caste must be at the forefront of mapping out a new way of engaging with South Asia, especially when the emphasis on ‘knowledge across borders’ is not a woolly-headed project but a solid professional vision these authors have signed on to. They teach at the South Asian University (SAU) established by the eight member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) — the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Republic of India, the Republic of Maldives, Nepal, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Though the scholarship they generate is informed by their academic location, the authors do not mince words in their critique of either SAARC or SAU.
Pathak writes, “SAARC is far from being a people’s association, hence it fails to capture the cultural component of the region.” Kumar adds, “We need to bring to the fore how struggles of the masses, the poetic and artistic creations and their imaginations for a better world have also been a common thread that binds these nations.” Perera says, “SAARC is simply one of the many platforms and discourses on South Asia while it might be the official, more audible and more visible of these…there is a need at the level of our collective perception and discursive practices to delink South Asia from SAARC when necessary.”
It would be cynical, however, to characterize this book as an extended rant by intellectuals who feel suffocated by the bureaucracy at their workplace and the inertia among their academic peers. The authors propose alternatives, and solicit interlocutors “beyond the limited and limiting ramparts of academia.” They wish to make their writing accessible to “enlightened people who may be based in art studios, colleges, schools, corporate offices, stakeholders in the culture industry, publishing houses, diplomatic circles and so on.” They are enthusiastic about exploring “myth, folklore, travel, memory, visual and performing arts, politics, pedagogic innovations and so on” to find other “ways to understand South Asia.”
While the authors express their dissatisfaction towards an India-centric understanding of South Asia that is firmly entrenched in many South Asian Studies departments in North America and Europe, they seem unable to escape it. Writing about a conference hosted by the South Asia Swedish Network, Perera notes, “I counted 57 entries in a cursory exploration of the initial submissions. Of these, 46 focused on India, two on Nepal, one on Bangladesh, one on Afghanistan, one focused on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border zone…there is an overwhelming emphasis on exploring the present as well as the past of India.” A statistical inventory of Against the Nation might bring up similar results. Pathak and Kumar are Indians. Perera is Sri Lankan. The examples they mention are mostly drawn from these two countries.
Afghanistan, for instance, is conspicuously absent from their analysis. In one of the essays, Kumar writes about “how students from Kashmir get beaten up in times of heightened tensions even when they say that they are not Afghanis.” At every South Asia conference, gathering or symposium I have been to, I have found at least one person from Kabul saying, “Hello! I am Afghan. Our currency is Afghani.” This nitpicking, if it may be called so, is not any different from Indians who scoff at Americans for asking, “Do you speak Hindu?” when they mean ‘Hindi’. Kumar says, “In order to have a conversation, there has to be a sense of ‘equality’ prevailing among the conversants.” A beginning can be made by acknowledging what people’s linguistic and ethnic identities mean to them.
This book dares to imagine a South Asia that might include Myanmar and Tibet because of cultural linkages within the region but it is not audacious enough to examine what ‘nation’ might mean to people who do not have the privilege of citizenship. South Asia has a large number of stateless people, refugees, and internally displaced people who live in precarious circumstances due to lack of legal protection and the brute force of the state. What do open borders mean to them as opposed to artists, filmmakers and writers who want to go across for festivals and conferences? Is borderless travel meant only for people with a global network of friends and acquaintances, and not for minorities who are at the mercy of governments and can be deported if someone in power thinks that they do not belong?
Against the Nation takes a brief look at cartographic imaginations such as Bharatvarsha, Jambudvipa and Akhand Bharat that pre-date South Asia as a geographical construct, which was an outcome of Cold War politics and the US State Department’s mandate to gather information about areas of strategic importance. However, this book shies away from studying more recent articulations of nationhood anchored in people’s aspirations. Struggles for self-determination that view Balochistan, Gorkhaland, Khalistan, Pashtunistan, Kashmir and Nagaland as imagined communities, independent from the eight SAARC member nations, do not find a place in this book because its messianic zeal for erasing boundaries is perhaps unwilling to recognize that there is no sustainable peace without justice.
Despite my criticisms, this book is worth reading because the authors address it to “people who may not be academics, but might agree with what we have to say…or, they might also not agree with us…we hope such knowledge form a basis for conversations.” At a time when diversity is being threatened by hegemonic ideas of nationalism, and hatred is infecting almost every part of South Asia, it is conversation that will keep us alive, safe and together. Through its expansiveness and its unpredictability, it will teach us how to be South Asian and perhaps human.