Ravi Kumar –
(මේ ලිපිය මුල්වරට පළවුයේ බ්ලූම්ස්බරි ප්රකාශන සමගම විසින් 2019දී පලකළ, සසංක පෙරේරා, දේව් නාත් පාඨක් සහ රවී කුමාර් විසින් රචිත ‘Against the Nation: Thinking Like South Asians’ නම් කෘතියේ පස්වන පරිච්ඡේදයේ වශයෙනි. රවී කුමාර් දකුණු ආසියානු විශ්වවිද්යාලයේ සමාජ විද්යාව පිළිබඳ මහාචර්යවරයෙකි. ඔහු එම විශ්වවිද්යාලයේ සමාජ විද්යා අධ්යයනාංශයේ හිටපු අංශ ප්රධානියාය)
The term, ‘South Asia’ invokes myriad images — from inter-governmental bodies such as SAARC, talks of how this is a geographic region to even discourses of its peculiarity and uniqueness. Some scholars feel that “…South Asia is not just any region, but an ancient, well-established and important one.”[i] In this context, there are institutions caught up in an effort to transform the region into a playground where nation-states are trying to build across nations some kind of bridges, mostly to do business and now increasingly also to realize security goals. Beyond this, there are intellectuals who see the need to emphasise the historical unity that has characterised this space or the civilisational connections, which gives it its sense of continuity. As social scientists, what interests us cannot be tied up within the confines of the eight nation states, which have now become the most dominant and formal defining feature of South Asia. When we refer to South Asia as a region constituted by eight nation states, it is merely used as a reference of convenience and an interim point of departure. In the long term, we would like to retain the possible expansion of the spatial expanse of South Asia itself, in addition to bringing history, culture and people into the centrality of defining it. This is a task for the future. But it is nevertheless a very important one because it challenges many notions about how politics and history are understood as impacting the present. As an illustration, Guneratne and Weiss[ii] argue,
We focus on the five major countries of the region-Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – as they are the primary political actors that influence regional power and power relations. We’ve chosen not to include Bhutan and the Maldives, tiny independent states whose combined populations are smaller than many small cities in the major countries of South Asia. We have also excluded Afghanistan, which is not usually considered in academic discussions of the politics of the sub-continent…
In an age and time when epistemological notions of enlightenment are being challenged by ideas of decolonisation and when we recall how colonialism employed its power to construct a notion of ‘unenlightened’ and ‘enlightened,’ it becomes a dangerous reproduction of such violent ideas by whimsically excluding countries merely because of their size or because academicians have not given those ample attention.[iii] In the very least, this is sloppy scholarship. Will not the continued categorisations of ‘relevant’, ‘irrelevant’ or ‘small’ and ‘weak’ also feed into the same political discourse that puts a ‘region’ under the hegemony of a single nation? An idea of South Asia cannot be constituted without showing the relationships, in all respects, that have existed among these weak and strong and relevant and irrelevant states and societies. The idea of South Asia, including its contemporary politics, has to be grounded in a history that has been interconnected, conversational, relatively bereft of enmities that nation-states later brought along with them. These interconnections and conversations have involved everyone in this region. Hence, the issue of one nation/society being preferred over others will not do justice to the framing of an inclusive idea of South Asia. For instance, the religion-politics relationship cannot be understood fully unless one is aware of the route taken by Hiuen Tsang to reach India through Afghanistan indicating that there was a rich Buddhist influence in parts of Afghanistan and the way, historically, politics undid that influence. When the Bhutanese photographer Pawo Choyning Dorji mapped this route in the recent past, it reveals many such aspects that would inform the complexity and the constantly transformed nature of the religion-politics axis in the region. Similarly, Jayadeva Uyangoda[iv] demonstrates the conversation across the region on the turf of religion and politics. In the 1930s and 1940s a form of radical Buddhism emerged in Sri Lanka and the formation of these radical ideas had to do with the conversation that a group of monks had with scholars from India. A form of “public and political Buddhism, a socially oriented strand of Buddhist interventionism” had developed during this period “inspired by socialism and a vision of left-oriented political reconstruction.”[v] Rahul Sankrityayana mentored them when he went to Colombo to teach Sanskrit. When the monks went to Benares and Calcutta for higher education during the early 1930s, they encountered radical anti-colonial politics, and they “were further exposed to radical anti-colonial politics as well as socialist politics of Shri Narendra Dev.”[vi] This is a perfect example of how one can locate the formation of a South Asian idea of religion and radicalism. To talk about these interconnections is not merely a matter of kindling an academic interest in these themes. More importantly, it is also to demonstrate how intellectual history of the region can be written that informs how the region was imagined under very specific conditions where seamless movement of ideas and people were not fettered by territorial boundaries. Hence, the region becomes relevant for us as a spatial delineation only for the practical purpose of beginning to think of an area where the connections across farcical borders of nation states can be explored. The intent, in this sense, is radically different from those bodies of scholarship, which think of regions in terms of concrete political identities. We would only look at South Asia as a space where the human connections get curtailed by the intentions of nation states. South Asia as a simplistic geo-political terminology should ideally be avoided because more nuanced explorations might lead us to ‘nations’ and ‘societies’ beyond the eight that we presently think of as South Asia.
There was a world in history when categories such as nation state-defined South Asia did not determine the nature of interactions and engagements among people across this huge landscape. Pilgrims travelled across the seas and mountains while artistic and music traditions travelled across to influence other places and so on. There are yet other worlds, where people dare to engage and interact without considerations of borders and boundaries erected by nation states. There is a distinct resonance of spirit, desire and an overwhelming urge among people to talk to each other, for instance, to share their everyday lives, struggles and imaginations. These can be seen in the way people engaged in creative literature, social movements and the visual arts have been conversing across borders. There is a possibility to debunk and deny these existing borders, even as one mocks this idea of South Asia as rhetorical, dreamy and impractical. It seems impractical to generate a South Asian consciousness because often there is no clarity on the kind of consciousness that is meant by this idea. It is also that institutions would find it difficult to achieve this goal, which ideally should evolve organically. Institutions can only facilitate the process, which is rooted in the deeper socio-economic and cultural grammar of societies. Hence, it would be a mistake to think of us as warriors or propagandists.
This is not a reductionist exercise in International Relations. It is much more than that, and in fact, is completely different from conventional International Relations scholarship imagines South Asia. As we see it, nation-states are not the main actors in this framework of trying to develop an idea of South Asia. It appears so, simply because they exist in a concretized cartographic sense and also because this specific understanding has acquired significant power in determining the way popular politics might play out. Ideally, this imagination of South Asia should be more about people, about engaging with them, keeping the nation state and its politics of hegemony aside. So, if there are students of Pakistan who face visa issues while attempting to join South Asian University, it can only be seen as the creation of a nation state drama in a forum meant to perform something collective that goes beyond these borders. This shows how the logic of nation states have vitiated our minds as intellectuals as well as our inability to think in terms of any other idiom other than that of surveillance. This is a situation that South Asian University faces each year with no concrete resolution in sight.
Conversely however, when students from Bhutan were not applying in adequate numbers to South Asian University, the strategy that we employed was not to approach them with paid advertisements in conventional print or social media or seek the assistance of state agencies only. We knew from experience this did not seem to work despite being followed up for a few years. Instead, we established a channel of conversations, dialogues and a mutual learning process not at the level of the university at first, but as an intellectual linkage by the Department of Sociology with younger colleagues affiliated with the Sherubste College of the Royal University of Bhutan. We reiterated to the colleagues in Bhutan consistently that South Asian University is also a Bhutanese university as much as it is of India, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka. Over months since 2016, we saw that the friendliness and self-reflexivity made them comfortable with this idea of a South Asian institution. They saw a possibility of conversation and the same was facilitated by our approach towards their students at the university who took away a message of dialogic possibilities unlike the historic subjection of their country as a dependent economy directly linked to India’s strategic interests. An intellectual space needs to be defined in a particular way – it must convey a sense of openness, a possibility to be critical and each side needs to be ready to accept constructive criticisms.
The reading lists in courses that we reviewed hardly had any Bhutanese or South Asian material. A course on world political history talked only about the western history as if South Asia was not constitutive of that history, as if South Asian history was untouched by the historical developments such as world wars, cold war confrontations etc. The need to find an identity, which some call regional consciousness, is not the primary concern here. But it appears as a natural corollary when one transacts any discussion around why the knowledges produced in the region has been looked down upon and often routinely been discarded. It also happened historically because we have emotionally internalized, through a voluntary exercise, that the best possible knowledge can be had from the North only. This situation has reached such extremes that if one does not get admission to a decent university in USA, UK or Australia, one would at least try to get a degree from any other northern university rather than from a local one. It is more than democratisation of choices. It is the idea that superior knowledge inhabits particular sites, while most of the sites being considered in South Asia itself are potentially devoid of that knowledge. This trend has been continued when scholars build their own conceptualisations. So, if a course on agrarian relations, violence, inequality or even social theory is formulated, it hardly demonstrates the possible ‘intelligibility’ of the Southern Hemisphere. More than mere binaries, it is about exploring possibilities of conversation with the world we inhabit. I cannot discount the fact, as cited earlier, that religion and politics were vibrant themes in South Asia. Hence any course on religion, faith, ritual or anything similar must take cognisance of that. Or, when agrarian relations in India are to be understood, the works of Swami Sahjanand Saraswati can be a great source to explore the peasant society. Some scholars have been trying to problematize this by critiquing the very idea of Europe as the centre, and the way division of history has happened. For instance, Enrique Dussell[vii] says,
What calls attention here is that the Spirit of Europe (the German spirit) is the absolute Truth that determines or realizes itself through itself with- out owing anything to anyone. This thesis, which I will call the “Euro- centric paradigm” (in opposition to the “world paradigm”), is the one that has imposed itself not only in Europe and the United States, but also in the entire intellectual world of the world periphery. As we have said, the “pseudo-scientific” division of history into Antiquity (as antecedent), the Medieval Age (preparatory epoch), and the Modern Age (Europe) is an ideological and deforming organization of history. Philosophy and ethics need to break with this reductive horizon in order to open themselves to the “world,” “planetary” sphere.
It is this very idea that Europe has been the centre of knowledge that makes South Asians relentlessly flock to the North. Some of the ‘great’ minds joined or started centres of South Asian learning. These centres in the West produced voluminous literature on South Asia and even now, much of the hegemonic knowledge comes from there. The problem does not lie so much with the physical location of the scholarship, but with the way it tends to look at the South Asia. Much of it creates an identity (i.e. South Asia), which communicates a gamut of entities embedded in one singular identity. But when it comes to epistemologically unravelling the multiple entities as constituent of a singular identity, it fails to establish the necessary connections. Instead, It then becomes a country specific, and in most cases India dominant discourse.
In this context, it is also interesting to look at how the terminologies are invented and what meanings they carry. Often, authors would talk about Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, but their geo-political reference point is the ‘Indian Subcontinent.’[viii] In all probability, this might be because of these nations ‘came out’ of ‘India’. This is also evident when Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Indian subcontinent’ in the following words: “The part of Asia south of the Himalayas which forms a peninsula extending into the Indian Ocean, between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Historically forming the whole territory of greater India, the region is now divided between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh”[ix]. South Asia as a geo-political identity then is an extension of this by including Afghanistan, Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Then, obviously, a question arises about the usage of categories – Indian subcontinent, which sounds so hegemonic, or South Asia.
The way South Asia as a terminology is employed by scholars not only does injustice to many nations that constitute the category, but it also denies possibilities of conversation, which historically existed at different forms and levels, and which can inform the present as well. As an example, if one talks of modernity and modernisms in South Asia and analyses them through the prism of works of art, then it would be only just to look at the conversation that might happen between the artists of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, to understand and explain this. For instance, while formal archaeology and art history does not dwell on this in any significant detail, the uncanny stylistic resemblance in the frescoes in the 5th century AD fortress, Sigiriya in Sri Lanka and the Ajanta cave paintings in Maharashtra, India is hard to miss. Though the first monumental structures in Ajanta date from 2nd and 1st centuries BC, it was during the Gupta Period between 5th and 6th centuries AD that the more decoarted caves came into beign. This is is the same period as Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya. One has to wonder if conversations and excahge of ideas did not take place across the oceans at this time as it did when it came to Saskrit literay styles, rules of grammar, kinship terminology and ideas of faith.
Problematically, scholars have also employed South Asia and Indian Sub-continent interchangeably. The problem of this interchangeability is that ‘South Asia’ as a term is supposed to be more egalitarian in terms of relationships among nations whereas the ‘Indian sub-continent’ somehow provides centrality to one nation. For instance, Saurabh Dube in his essay on modernist art practices in South Asia says that he focuses “on critical modernist moments, cutting across aesthetic forms in twentieth century South Asia.””[x] However, one does not find a healthy discussion on modernisms in South Asia in his discussion. It remains dominated by India. Modernisms in art have different trajectories in Sri Lanka and India or may be quite similar, or for that matter in Nepal and the other nations as well. The peculiarity of how modernism in Indian art evolved as opposed to its trajectory in the west is the main argument Geeta Kapur attempts to make in her collection of essays, When was Modernism.[xi] Other modernisms in South Asia, though they had a linkage with European modernism as a result of the colonial experience, nevertheless evolved their individual trajectories based on local conditions. Is there a possibility to generate a body of work where artists are conversing with each other? There is, as to some extent the collaborative work facilitated by the South Asia Network for the Arts have shown. But in the long term, this kind of exercise needs a lot more work, and it needs to evolve beyond the domineering shadow of India. Conversations among these societies, recognizing common thematic engagements and building a critical knowledge base of a world that works as a system can allow us to understand and explain the politics of knowledge production in a much nuanced manner.
One has not encountered any strong need to progress in this direction among intellectuals located in the Western hemisphere. The reasons need to be discovered and analysed. While making this statement, it must not be construed as rejection of the knowledge that is produced in an American or European University’s South Asia Centre, but it is more about what constitutes that knowledge and what purpose does it serves. Firstly, a democratised sensibility that allows space for each and everyone with their own knowledges to join the table for a discussion without any pretension or hierarchy, is the first step towards building up a body of knowledge on South Asia. Secondly, their engagement with the knowledge produced elsewhere on/of South Asia must follow as the next step of engagement. This is an intellectual project that essentially hinges on rejection of the politics of nation states as well as the hegemony of privileged centres of knowledge. The solution to imagining a regional entity here is not through the imposition of different nations/societies/histories as matters of tokenism. It is more about the willingness to generate a conversation and the ability to get out of the narrowness that defines different societies or as entities that should be subsumed within the identity of one nation. So, if one talks of South Asia and talks of India as its representative, what it does is to portray the whole region from the perspective of one dominant domineering power. This is also about the way relationships of the geo-politics and geo-knowledges have been explored by somebody like Walter Mignolo when he says, “geo-politics of knowledge goes hand in hand with geo-politics of knowing. Who and when, why and where is knowledge generated (rather than produced, like cars or cell phones)? Asking these questions means to shift the attention from the enunciated to the enunciation”.[xii] Hence, if one builds bridges, they inevitably become bridges of solidarity of the oppressed and marginalised across borders. It might also allow one to dwell on how socio-economic structures work across these borders and the different expressions that they produce.
Unfortunately, the politics of nation-states embroiled in and emerging out of the politics of their respective ruling class forces and their economic interests do not allow these breaches. Instead, they resort to measures such as strict and ridiculous visa regimes. Such a system sends back the daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz from a conference held in India merely due to her nationality.[xiii] Or the Indian government denies a visa to a scholar to attend a conference because his parents were born in Pakistan even before the Partition[xiv]. We have seen difficulties of trying to build collaborative research across South Asia and the difficulty in getting Pakistani scholars to conferences and meetings in India even when sponsored by the South Asian university which is supposed to be an agency of all South Asian nation states. They do not get visas on either sides of the India-Pakistan border. Nation-state is inimical to the idea of any activity that does not get defined within its area of operation. It even wants to hold scholarship hostage to the agenda and anxieties of nation states, and unfortunately, many academics fall prey to this framework. A new vision that is located outside these narrow borders, which thrives on the poetic sensibilities of Nazrul, Faiz and Sahir[xv] and in the historic people to people contacts beyond visa regimes, is required to understand and analyse South Asia. The narrow confines of much of contemporary South Asian scholarship would only further the project of nation-states, and not allow one to see the extent of how similar discontents might lead to the emergence of social movements in India, Nepal as well as Sri Lanka or the conditions of decline of anti-systemic movements might be a common feature across borders.
The intellectual pursuit to undo the relationships of power among nations woven into the politics of nation states are also located within formal realms of institutions. It is, no doubt, difficult to imagine an institutional framework (which itself is located within its own geo-political context) to transform this situation, and build a possible world of South Asian knowledges. It would challenge certain hegemonies not only of statist politics, but also of individual human tendencies, and therefore will invite resistance of a complex kind. However, that is where the fun of imagining a new intellectual enterprise and public thought resides. For instance, one can begin with a basic framework of building an institution that gives importance to food regimes as significant ways of opening spaces of engagements. The geo-politics at the regional level also translates itself into some form of politics at local levels in the lives of people. One such expression of this geo-politics is identification of nations with religion, and attributing certain characteristics to the religion. The result becomes evident in the common notion of attributing specific food types with religion as well. So, in an institution that would aim to bring together people from across nations, such identifications have to be shunned and discouraged. The diversity of food is such that non-vegetarianism of Brahmins of Kashmir is different from that of Maithli Brahmins or Bengali Brahmins leave aside the fact that being Brahmins some even consume meat. Now, it will be destroying the possible use of food regimes as platforms for socio-economic, cultural and political engagement if I begin with the idea that if I serve non-vegetarian food such as basic chicken curry, it will fit the taste buds of all non-vegetarians of South Asia. In other words, the idea of constructing an ambience for conversation means that one needs to be sensitive to the differences in these subtleties.
Alongside this sensitivity, the idea
to establish food regimes as an open and liberal space would establish that
there is mutual respectability towards each other’s lives (as food forms an
intrinsic part of our lives). South Asians have to ultimately get out of their
cocooned world of countrymen and women, experiment with their lives and learn
to share and appreciate each other’s lives across borders. Unless the
communitarian life of South Asians is imagined along these lines, formal, informal
and emotional interaction would stop, sharing of knowledges, building of
discourses across borders would suffer. In such a situation, Nation states
cannot ensure this. It can be ensured only through institutions, which can
think of a project of nurturing social life that is located in a conversational
existence, where borders become marginal. A new meaning to life is discovered
and a new imagination of South Asia is created.
[i]. Najam, Adil & Moeed Yusuf (2013). South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures, Anthem Press: London & New York.
[ii]. Guneratne, Arjun and Anita M. Weiss (2014) ‘Introduction’ in Guneratne, Arjun and Anita M. Weiss (ed.) Pathways to Power: The Domestic Politics of South Asia, Rowman Littlefield: London, p.04
[iii]. I draw heavily from Enrique Dussel, Walter Mignolo and Anibal Quijano to make this point.
[iv]. Jayadeva Uyangoda (2018). ‘Modern Buddhisms and Democracy: Diverse Encounters in India and Sri Lanka,’ Society and Culture in South Asia, 4(2), pp. 179–207.
[v]. Jayadeva Uyangoda (2018). ‘Modern Buddhisms and Democracy: Diverse Encounters in India and Sri Lanka,’ Society and Culture in South Asia, 4(2), pp. 179–207.
[vi]. Jayadeva Uyangoda (2018). ‘Modern Buddhisms and Democracy: Diverse Encounters in India and Sri Lanka,’ Society and Culture in South Asia, 4(2), pp. 179–207.
[vii]. Dussel, Enrique (2003, edited by Eduardo Mendieta) Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism, and Liberation Theology, Rowman and Littlefield: Maryland, pp.53-81
[viii]. Chinn, Menzie (November 1981) Indian Subcontinent: A Stunted Future?, Harvard International Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 15-17.
[x]. Dube, Saurabh (2018) Sobre las prácticas modernistas en el sur de Asia / On Modernist Practices in South Asia, Estudios de Asia y Africa, Vol. 53, No. 1 (165), pp. 199-224
[xi]. Geeta Kapur. When was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (New Delhi: Tulika, 2001).
[xii]. Mignolo, Walter D.(2009) Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 26(7–8): 1–23
[xiii]. The Citizen (13 MAY, 2018) Muneeza Hashmi, Daughter of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, ‘Deported’ From Delhi, available at
https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/5/13790/Muneeza-Hashmi-Daughter-of-Faiz-Ahmad-Faiz-Deported-From-Delhi (accessed on 10th June 2018)
[xiv]. An academic from Canada, Haroon Akram-Lodhi wrote to the Visa Office in Toronto on Oct 28, 2016 that he was told that because his father was born in Pakistan before partition he needed a clearance letter from the Ministries of Home and External Affairs to receive the visa. How does a state define a person of Pakistani origin? Common-sense says that it would be from the day when the new nation comes into existence and not decades before that. However, it did not seem to be the case. Definitions are made as per convenience of the nation-state. Rationality ceases to work.
[xv]. These poets would produce works that would echo across borders.