Locating South Asia: Crises and Opportunities

Image result for south asia map

by Rajesh Verma 1 October 2019


What constitutes South Asia?  If it is a religious construction as many seem to advocate Buddhism being the link to it; or a political construction for the maintenance of Indian hegemony in the region. Indeed for the West and U.S.A esp. South Asia is a geo-political category through which they formulate their foreign policy to maintain the balance of power in their favour. But how do the member countries of South Asia look at this construction? In this paper, I will try to look what south Asia is in the imagination of the people of this region and if south Asian literature really exists or is it another misnomer like Commonwealth literature.

Keywords: Ideology, Democracy, Identity, Culture.

1:  Bangladeshi actor Ferdous Ahmed campaigning for TMC in Bengal in the Lok Sabha Election of India 2019 may look like the actor violated VISA rules but for him it would be only visiting another area of the land which speaks Bangla (Partition of Bengal, (1905) was carried out by the British viceroy Lord Curzon, despite strong Indian nationalist opposition. They regarded the partition as an attempt to strangle nationalism in Bengal, where it was more developed than elsewhere. Agitation against the partition included mass meetings, rural unrest, and a swadeshi (native) movement to boycott the import of British goods. And its separation from Pakistan in 1971 was on the basis of language and not religion)

2: Rohingya refugees escaping from Myanmar to nearest countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia and India and in many cases denial of asylum to them.

3: Pakistan has released another 100 Indian fishermen on April7,2019 as a goodwill gesture amidst tensions between the two countries after the Pulwama terror attack. The fishermen released on Saturday were part the second batch of 360 Indian prisoners Pakistan has announced to set free in four phases this month.

4-Yonphula students Karma Chezang, Rinjhen Lhamo,being invited to participate in Raipur, South Asian University festival. Except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Maldives, .all the participants are speaking in English. Making facebook contacts with other students from the countries of the South Asia

5- Sri Lankan actress Jacquline Fernandes acting in Bollywood. And before that civil war bringing Sri Lanka to us as news

6- Afghanistan a war ravaged country going to play its second cricket world cup and Rashid khan becoming a hero in India through IPL but with a very tensed relationship with Pakistan

7- As BBC notes “Narratives of disasters can easily go awry and make the affected people angry. So it seems to be the case with the Indian media and its coverage of the devastating earthquake in neighboring country”

8- Nepal. For the first time, a three-member team of women climbers from India, Nepal and China on Tuesday set out to scale the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest, to spread the message of women empowerment, world peace and friendship.

The expedition, supported by the Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign of the Nepal Tourism Board, was flagged off at a function here.

8-Assamese coming to Samdrup for either cheap petrol or cheap alchohlic beverages.

Bhutanese going to Guwahati for their purchases in western dresses.

 All these events happening in this part of Asia which is popularly known as South Asia tell us something. There is a South Asia consisting of some nations or in trying to be nation-states. These nations which share the same cultural constructs are now separated by borders but united by a common past.

Aunohita Mojmdar states “We share rivers, forests and Monsoon patterns and are impacted by deforestation, landslides and flooding, but lack awarenressabouth what exists across the border. We have intricate trade relationship that help and curb the transit of goods, but are completely ignorant about the economies of our neighbours. We have massive migration within the region but know little about the peoples of other countries. We have  large portion of our region beset by conflict but little more than a jingoistic appreciation of these. The information and awareness that is needed in the region in order to foster tolerance and build the idea of a cooperative’southasianness’ is missing”(47)

Steve Coll, the author of ‘On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia’ shares his experience:

   “out of professional obligation and personal curiosity, I wandered for several years across this landscape and one of the privileges of this ultimately circular journey was the ability to cross national borders freely. That is something south Asians, despite common languages and threads of history, can now do only rarely, and even then, what they see of each other frequently seemslimited by blinders of enmity, suspicion and prejudice.

    He goes on to say,” it would be ridiculous to say that the individual destinies of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka are bound by what they have in common. Since even before the end of world warII, when Lord Mountbatten drew lines on the map of Britain’s collapsing Indian empire and scurried home from the subcontinent, these nations have defined and pusrued their independence along sharply different paths, and with distinctive results.” ”(p-32)

  So South Asia emerges as a construct which is based on mutual hostility, suspicion, doubt.

 Why I doubt South Asian category/identity that when I am at the immigration centre, despite hailing from neighbouring country(India) I am questioned like anything. I was told that officers at immigration centre are given strict orders to go through the checking of the valid documents keeping the 1997-98 clashes of the Nepali community. It was shocking for me to know that a person from Bhutan can travel to any part of India without going to immigration centre but for an Indian this is not the same case. Imagine ‘The Circle of Karma’ by Kuzang Choden. Tsomo asks her mother where a girl can travel to. She could have asked where a Bhutanese girl can travel to. (One way of constructing nationalism is the Border restrictions and). Had there been such restrictions (immigration/permit) could that narrative have taken place in the same manner (mind it the character Tsomo belongs to the woman and labour category) because the writer must have travelled all these places mentioned in the novel.

   Is it possible to write a history of South Asia? In my opinion any such attempt will be only a fragment of history. Without history how we will approach this region. One way will be through literature. Though people belonging to this region are multilingual but still it has its limitations because of socio-cultural diversity. So if we are going to include vernacular languages or English is going to be the language of the “club” (Salman Rushdie, ‘Commonwealth Literature Does not Exist’“Imaginary Homelands”p-63. 1981. Granta Books. London N1 8BE. Print). English in South Asia plays a major role in the region as a lingua franca of the political elite and the association of South Asian nations. It is also used as a lingua franca between professionals and the business community. The vast majority of people who are learning English are doing so to be able to communicate with non native speakers. English is by now the world language and this is true even in the case of South Asia. South Asia with its multilingual structure will always defy any such construction based on the idea of any native language being the medium of communication. We have fully realized that. Rushdie has raised this issue in his essay. I quote him:

“the debate about the appropriateness of English in post-British India has been raging ever since1947; but today, I find, it is a debate which has meaning only for the older generation. The children of independent India seem not to think of English as being irredeemably tainted by its colonial provenance.they use it as an Indian language, as one of the tools they have to hand.”(Rushdie 64).

Language has always been a serious issue in the construction of identities and we find its echo in Aizajahmed who blames English for its monolingual dictatorship in the construction of identities. In this sense Rushdie’s stand on English is a hope for the reconstruction of South Asian identity. I am using the word reconstruction intentionally because South Asia has always been there; I am not talking about geography rather the cultural construction. Travellers like Faxian or Al Baruni have recorded through their travelogues how Buddhism was a great instrument in the construction of this identiy. It is only Mughals and later on the British who tried to monopolise the states under their banners that a doubt around this identity arose. In now-a-days situation this region is more known for its hostility than cooperation. One reason behind it may be that lack of communication from the centres. So English is now a linking language of the region. Even a country like Bhutan is producing a great variety of literature in English. While talking to the librarian of Sherubtse, who has written a novel also shared this feeling. He told that Bhutan has no press of its own and more than that the lack of readership but he was hopeful that coming times will produce more literatures in English and more readers.

   When I find that the term South Asia was used by the American foreign policy makers as area studies to ease them in formulating their strategies, it does not worry me. But when I see the presence of the Army personnel’s patrolling at Wagha Border or Immigration people misbehaving with the non-natives it worries me. Once known for its compassion and we can see Buddhists monks in their robes here and there or for its Bhakti and Sufi tradition in the medieval period defying the most tyrants (Abhi Dilli Door Hai), civil war in Sri Lanka or Nepal’s internal disturbance, Bangla Desh’s bloody violence, Pakistan’s democratic failure or India’s emergency, it worries me. Somewhere the root problem is in the blind imitation of the modernity and that too imported modernity. South Asia cannot and should not blindly imitate the Western modermity.  Karma Phuntsho in his essay The cultural construction of Bhutan: an unfinished story insists on cultural identities : Most Bhutanese would be familiar with the postulation that Bhutan’s survival as an independent nation rests on its unique cultural identity. That, in the absence of military might or economic power, Bhutan’s sovereignty hinges on its unique cultural heritage, which makes Bhutan distinct among other nations in the frenzy of a globalised meld. Culture is seen as the binding force, which unites the Bhutanese and, as one of the pillars of Gross National Happiness, it is regarded as Bhutan’s shield against the negative and disrupting influences of modernisation and globalization. The same is true about South Asia. South Asia can not tolerate any more wars be it civil war or war between two nations. Otherwise western power will sell missiles to one party and anti missile to the other.

I will end with this note:

“Mile sur mera tumharaa, to sur bane hamaraa…. Sur kee nadhiyaan har disha se behke saagar mein milee… Baadalon ka roop lekar barsen halke halke… Mile sur mera tumharaa.. toh… sur bane hamaara..”

(Let the Sur of yours and mine meet and be the Sur of  Ours

The river of the Surs flow from all the directions and merge in the Sea

They take the forms of cloud and rain slowly slowly

Let the Sur of yours and mine meet and be the Sur of Ours)

                                           Works Cited

1: Mojmdar  Aunohita.‘Himal Southasian’, The Newsletter, International Institute for Asian Studies,65. Autumn2013.

2- Coll  Steve. ‘On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia’ New York: PENGUIN BOOKS, 2009. Web.

3- Rushdie Salman. ‘Commonwealth Literature Does not Exist’ “Imaginary Homelands”. London N1 8BE. Granta Books.1981. Print

4- Phuntsho  Karma. “The cultural construction of Bhutan: an unfinished story.” The Druk Journal, Royal Government of Bhutan. Bhutan 2020. 1999. Web

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