The Southasian penumbra

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Kanak Dixit: thought-provoking

My PERSONAL POLITICAL column in The News and in Hard News, India, last week

Beena Sarwar

I was curious when my old friend, the Nepali journalist Kank Mani Dixit proposed the topic “To be Desi or Southasian” as the topic of a talk that another journalist friend, Aseem Chahbra from India, was setting up for him in New York.

Aseem roped in a Pakistani, me, to moderate the session. Held at Columbia University under the aegis of the South Asian Journalists Association, the discussion was attended by an eclectic group of students and retired professors.

Most were what I would consider ‘desi’ – belonging to the Indian subcontinent. But isn’t that the same thing as being Southasian? Not quite, it turns out.

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Audience discussion at Kanak’s talk: ‘desi’ or Southasian? (Photos: Beena Sarwar)

It is pertinent to mention that Kanak uses “Southasian” as one word in Himal Southasian, the pioneering Kathmandu-based regional magazine he edits, that I have been associated with since its launch in 1997. Himal seeks “to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space”, believing “that the aloof geographical term ‘South Asianeeds to be injected with some feeling. ‘Southasiadoes the trick for us, albeit the word is limited to English-language discourse.”

That’s not really a limitation anymore though. If words like ‘time’, ‘desk’, ‘car’, ‘bus’, ‘road’, ‘democracy’ and ‘elections’ can become part of local languages as they have in much of the region, why can we not appropriate ‘Southasia’? And why not push for a Southasian Union or Southasian Confederation?

‘Desi’, stemming from the word ‘desh’ or ‘des’, meaning homeland, is a term used primarily in non-Urdu/Hindi speaking areas, although the word ‘desh’ does occur in Sinhala and Tamil. It’s a term popularised by expatriates from the region coming together in third countries, to distinguish themselves from the others.

All these are, as Kanak puts it, “semantic issues with a bearing on peace in our times”.

When the British quit India in 1947, the birth of the nation-state also led to the rise of ultra-nationalism, taken forward by the national elites who are still engaged in their agenda of setting up borders that require barbed wires and guard posts. “The nation-state ideology requires sharp boundaries,” says Kanak.

This is not what the history of Southasia has been. We need, as Kanak says, “more complex self-identities – you can be a Sindhi and a Pakistani, but also a South Asian. That extra identity needs a name.”

“South Asian” doesn’t quite do it. It is not a term that is “felt from the inside – it’s a term that was pushed from the top by Western, particularly American, academia and strategic studies departments”.

The earlier name for the region doesn’t work either as it now has religious associations —  ‘Hindustan’, drawn from the Sindhu or Indus River that later fell in what geographically became Pakistan.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) formed in 1985 has its constraints but it does have the backing of eight foreign ministries, which shows a “buy in” by the national elites.

himal_southasia_south-up_mapBut SAARC becomes dysfunctional because its two biggest member states can’t agree on anything. This, and the asymmetry caused by the sheer size of India, prevents SAAARC from being successful like the European Union or the ASEAN.

The solution, Kanak suggests, lies in looking at the region like a penumbra, to allow the identities merge, and emerge.

Penumbra? I learn that this poetically scientific term is used for the soft shadow cast by the moon. It suggests a fluidity barred by the current sharp-edged nationalisms.

This would help us to tackle India’s size – allow various parts of the region to interact as equals, and let Southasia, in all its diversity, begin to flourish. India can itself play a positive role by allowing federalism to develop and not closing off its borders.

A good example of the kind of borders we need in the region is the open Nepal-India border — a great, bustling, heavily trafficked Southasian market-place in stark contrast to the heavily fortified India-Pakistan border with its few sanitised truckloads of goods.

“A federal India would mean the ipso facto success of a Southasian Union,” says Kanak. “The two Punjabs are already interacting directly. Why can Sindh not talk directly with Gujarat, or Chittagong with Mizoram…?“

Think about it. The possibilities are endless.

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