The idea of South Asia: Indian exceptionalism and the debate over Rishi Sunak’s origins

[Scroll.in] The idea of South Asia: Indian exceptionalism and the debate over Rishi Sunak’s origins

Rishi Sunak, born in Southampton to parents from Kenya and Tanzania and descended from ancestors in Gujranwala in present-day Pakistan, has become prime minister of a greatly diminished United Kingdom. Tial media of present-day India went into overdrive, appropriating him as one of their country’s own despite the extended migratory path.

A tweet by this writer suggesting that Sunak is described more correctly as of “South Asian” origin than “Indian” attracted a fair bit of rage. Once again, we are confronted with the need to address the semantic confusion that holds us in its grasp.

There are lessons to be learnt all around in terms of identity, perceptions, appropriation and semantics – and most importantly, the distinction between India as handed down and South Asia, the claimant.

When the British-ruled colony of India was divided, the world got India and Pakistan (East and West). Ceylon (Sri Lanka) got freedom a year later. Post-1947, the name of historical India was appropriated by one of these new nation-states. Little has been written about how this appropriation has impacted scholarship, reportage and the lay discourse over the past seven decades, and it is high time that the ambiguity be laid to rest. We must learn to distinguish between historical India and the post-1947 Republic of India.

The Republic has the largest population of the region by far, is the bulkiest country, is located right at the centre, and has the distinctive coastline that simultaneously defines the country and the Subcontinent. It is easy for most, especially those within the Republic, to believe that they are the anointed ones holding the legacy of ancient India down to the present.

But that is untrue and this is the crux of the problem, as it would require denying the existence of Pakistan and Bangladesh to begin with. Yet, the “India”-centricism evident in scholarship and discourse has meant that the world is more or less willing to let the ancient connotation of India be carried by the Republic of India.

There is failure and unwillingness to understand that India after 1947 does not encompass India before 1947, and the intelligentsia of the Republic is hesitant to consider the utility of “South Asia”. Indian exceptionalism that afflicts much of academia within is a major roadblock in pursuit of a term encompassing all of South Asia, contiguous countries that hold a fourth of the world’s population.

Age of the nation-state

The insularity of the New Delhi cognoscenti is explained by the fact that it has been enjoying the inheritance of Indian history as a whole – no matter that Mohenjodaro is in Sindh, Taxila in Pakistani Punjab, and the Gandharan Buddhistic heritage distributed from there to Afghanistan, or that so much of present-day India itself feels estranged from the rigid “nation-statism” foisted by New Delhi. Nevertheless, nation-state India covers so much of ancient India that it does not seem to lose much by disregarding Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other parts.

There is another aspect to this hesitancy: accepting the term South Asia would imply acceding to a need for regionalism, that some form of accommodation needs to be fashioned between the various newborn countries, to chart a course to a cooperative future. At the start, an amount of humility would be required to accept that Indian history is shared and that nation-state India is not the be-all and end-all.

But the amount of trolling and accusations of national betrayal that such a proposal would attract does not make it worth it for many Indian scholars and commentators to take the plunge, and so they busy themselves with other themes and theses. It is a loss that the Republic’s large and capable body of social scientists and opinion-makers with their global reach keep silent on planning for a regional future in this time of pandemics, climate crisis, lethal air pollution, nuclear weaponisation, deepening geopolitical rifts and economic drift.

For so many reasons, it is not viable to promote the illusion of the Republic of India representing “India”. What must one do to include all the people of the Subcontinent and the connected societies into one frame, whether to compare and contrast, to work for peace, or to envision shared economic growth? What do you do if you happen to believe that the present and the future of the landmass must be informed by the past? You have perforce to start with a name. What to call this part of Asia, from the Arakan to the Baloch coast, when “India” no longer works?

Given the rise of nationalism, the people of each country are committed, and sometimes shrill, in claiming a national identity – I am Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi! This is the pitfall of the Age of the Nation-State, where the call to nationalism can stifle the discourse and doubly so when nationalism is fueled by religious certitude. Even as Indian citizens unquestioningly regard their Republic as the inheritor of Indian civilisation, one cannot expect Pakistanis or Bangladeshis to accept the term India to encompass their present national identity, even though they would accept “India” when it refers to the historical experience.

Questions could be raised about other parts of South Asia. Nepal and Afghanistan evaded colonisation. Bhutan was partially colonised, like Sikkim, which was incorporated into present-day India in 1975. While these were part of the cultural flows that made up India civilisation, they were not formally part of any entity called India in recent centuries. Ancient India, before the British created their tightly centralised authoritarian rule, was marked by the ebb and flow of kingdoms and principalities, a region of interlocking cultures in constant flux.

Remember Saarc

Ancient India was a fluid space, but “India” became progressively inelastic. This brings us to the present and to examine why that name cannot work now for the larger region, besides the fact that it is taken. If today’s India had been named Bharat in its 1950 Constitution, everyone, including Pakistanis of the day, would have accepted the term India as marking historical continuity, but we have missed the train.

This is the point that the opinion-makers, politicians and even diplomats of New Delhi disregard when they oppose the use of the name “South Asia”. But there is the opposite reality that all the regimes of the region formally accepted the term when they joined the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation organisation or Saarc, which was started in 1985. Some heads of governments may have joined reluctantly, others may have soured on the idea over time, but the Saarc exists with its headquarters in Kathmandu. Though not doing much, the organisation signifies the acceptance of regionalism by each country, and a nod to “South Asia”.

(Note: “Southasia” is the preferred spelling of the magazine the writer is associated with, Himal Southasian, as included its style guide.)

The next Prime Minister of Britain, Rishi Sunak, is being celebrated in India as a Diwali gift, as our South Asia correspondent ⁦@BBCRajiniV⁩ tells ⁦@BBCWorld⁩ News America tonight. pic.twitter.com/tIXjXKXKeQ— Laura Trevelyan (@LauraTrevelyan) October 24, 2022

South Asia denial

With Partition, and the birth of India and Pakistan, the question of a name for the region that had been British India was bound to come up sooner than later, because you do refer to the larger space of the splintered countries. It was no longer possible to say “I’m going to India” when you were landing in Lahore, Karachi or Dhaka. This change of nomenclature required a gear-shift by one and all, except many in the Republic for whom it was not relevant.

The geo-strategists of the West were the first to feel the need for a term, and came up with a geographical moniker that could not go wrong. Before long, but inexorably, for want of a better idea, the neutral and even insipid term indicating the southern part of the Asian continent gained traction. And despite the South Asia-denial, it has spread to wherever a term was needed – referring to everything from the overseas diaspora to curricula to cuisine.

Saarc is proof that different eight state establishments have accepted the term, the reluctance is slowly being eroded. Among the latest to sign on is New Delhi-based ANI, which advertises itself as “the Largest Multimedia News Agency of South Asia”. An illustrated book for children, reviewed in Scroll last week by Nikhil Gulati and Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, is titled The People of the Indus and the Birth of Civilization in South Asia.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not at all a fan of regionalism, on May 5, 2017, launched the South Asia Satellite (GSAT-9) built by the Indian Space Research Organisation. At the ceremony, he said: “The successful launch of the South Asia Satellite is a historic moment. It opens up new horizons of engagement in the region’s progress.”

Given that the countries of the region will not be able to achieve unification under the rubric “India” in the foreseeable future, the onward march of “South Asia” is inevitable. And regional thinking even more entrenched as the usage picks up in the vernacular media and discourse: Junoobi Asia (Urdu), Dakshin Asia (Hindi) Thekke Asia (Malayalam), Dakunu Asiyawa (Sinhala), Shumale Asia (Kashmiri), Therkaasia (Tamil), Dokkhin Ashia (Bangla), Dakhin Asia (Sindhi) and so on. To some extent, this is already a trend in South Asia other than the Republic.

A proud day for Pakistan. Rishi Sunak, grandson of Ramdas Sunak, from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan's Punjab), appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. South Asia rejoice!

— Kamran Abbasi (@KamranAbbasi) October 25, 2022

Semantic bifurcation

Seeking Rishi Sunak’s ancestry in the present day will be an exercise to check if the argument holds. Though his father was born in Kenya and mother in Tanganyika (later Tanzania), they were not of African or East African descent. If one considers the fact that his grandfather was from Gujranwala in pre-Partition India and present-day Pakistan, there are several choices. One, could correctly say that for that time he was Indian, but the objective conditions have changed with historical India ceasing to exist, replaced by Pakistan and Republic of India.

When some from the Republic say there was no Pakistan in 1930 when Sunak’s grandfather migrated to Africa, and hence he is Indian – they mean he was of undivided India. The same holds true for Sunak’s grandmother, who was from Ludhiana, not of the Republic but of undivided India. Just the name India has remained constant, the entity is different and truncated.

Just as you could not really say in 2022 that Sunak is of Pakistani descent, you cannot say he is of Indian descent as is the vogue from the London tabloids to New Delhi portals, though his grandfather was Indian of his time, pre-Partition. This is where “South Asia” comes to the rescue, as a modern-day reference to a region that has gone through cartographic and semantic bifurcation. The mistake becomes compounded when people decide that Sunak’s ancestry is Hindu, and hence he is ipso facto of Indian descent, which is so wrong and also contradicts the secularism enshrined in the Constitution of India. “Hindu” hardly equals “Indian”.

What is Sunak’s own position on his ancestry?He told a Business Standard reporter back in August 2015: “British Indian is what I tick on the census, we have a category for it. I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu.”

Self-ascription of provenance is to be respected, and Sunak certainly was limited for choice: the British Census has categories for British-Bangladeshi, -Indian, -Pakistani and -other, and none for British-South Asian. Sunak may just not have considered the changes in the historical usage of the term as related to his ancestry, as certainly there is no raging debate on the issue. In calling himself British Indian, he may also be playing to particular constituencies for political purpose, given the size of the community in the UK that identifies as British Indian.

Even the Business Standard article, meant to emphasise Sunak’s Indian-ness and Hindu-ness, does nevertheless refer to his “campaigning as a South Asian in white Yorkshire”. Amidst all this, Wikipedia was understandably baffled, suggesting that Sunak was the offspring of “Southeast African-born Hindu parents of Indian Punjabi descent.”

British papers call the UK prime minister British Asian, which of course he is but that casts too wide a net. The same for him being “of colour”. Sunak is not British Indian for reasons suggested above. Through a process of elimination, we come to Sunak being properly, if awkwardly, described as British South Asian. But truth be told, “South Asian” is seeming less awkward as usage picks from sheer necessity. Only the most insular or rigid will not board the coach in the days to come. (And if you cannot agree on anything suggested, go ahead with “Rishi Sunak, the Punjabi”, which would please South Asians of the two Punjabs across the Radcliffe Line.)

#Pakistanis are cute!!! Pakistani press should also tell how many #Hindus are left in the country post partition.#RishiSunak pic.twitter.com/yZINQnQUUb— Abhishek Singhvi (@DrAMSinghvi) October 27, 2022

India, that is Bharat

Given the ire “South Asia” arouses in certain quarters – a diplomat of the Indian Foreign Service once told me sardonically, “South Asia is a non-starter, don’t run after it” – it does make sense to look for alternatives. “Indian Subcontinent” immediately comes to mind, but then to be inclusive you want to check if it has traction among the Republic’s neighbours. The New Delhi intelligentsia, of course, has no problem with “Indian Subcontinent”, which again conflates the historical with the contemporary. (There is no demand to change “Indian Ocean” from any quarter, perhaps also because it ropes in littoral regions far beyond the peninsula.)

Given the evolved and constricted meaning of “Indian”, the intelligentsia of Karachi or Bangladeshi would rather say simply “Subcontinent”, its use is in decline. Perhaps because it has too many letters! “South Asian Subcontinent” has been tried, but has not really picked up. Also, strictly, “Subcontinent” refers to the peninsular part; geologically and cartographically the islands and archipelagos of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Andamans and Lakshadweep are left out.

Bharat or Bharatvarsa is the puranic term describing the region, and in its original meaning encompassed the socio-cultural milieu more than governance and exact geography. As the British consolidated their hold over what they called India, the term inherited from Greeks who took it from “Indus”, those opposed to the colonisers revved up “Bharat” as the native response. In the Republic of India’s Constituent Assembly debates, “Bharat” was generally pushed by those who wanted to retain the Sanatan Dharma legacy, while the secularists wanted “India”. A compromise was struck with the preamble striking a compromise: “India, that is Bharat…”.

Bharat even might have served as a name for the region given its origins in deep history, though some communities including along the South Asian rimland would have had a problem with it, but the Constitution of the Republic also appropriated the term. Going one step further, the rise of Hindutva has meant that “Bharat” now increasingly comes attached to “akhanda”.

Among the social media reaction to this writer’s tweet on the proper descriptor for Rishi Sunak, a majority of respondents were not bothered about country or region – they claimed Sunak because he was Hindu. They had no qualms conflating “Indian” and “Hindu”, and this is the mindset that also proposes Akhanda Bharat as the authentic name for our expansive land.

The campaign for Akhanda Bharat seeks a exclusivist history for the region, claiming the Rigveda and Aryans as indigenous to the soil, as opposed to all other latter-day arrivals. This linearity ignores the Muslim past and present of the Subcontinent, and the 600 million Muslim people present across all the countries. Neither does Akhanda Bharat encompass the Buddhist heritage (other than claiming the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu), not to mention the distinctive indigenous identities of the Indian North East, as well as the vast diversity of identities under Sanatan Dharma that Hindutva seeks to subsume under accelerating Ram-bhakt monotheism.

Akhanda Bharat is a Hindutva project, a continuation of the attempt to substitute mythology for history, and to create a centralised state controlled by rigid faith. South Asia is a neutral geographical construct, despite its etymological provenance, and is better suited for our complex geopolitical and demographic space, and for the plans we have to make.

The Indian government, and its supporters at home and the UK have no right to celebrate Rishi Sunak being PM - my article in Sunday Times.Britain is becoming a country that celebrates diversity; India is turning into a nation run by, and for Hindus onlyhttps://t.co/tFVreLH9X8— Sunny Hundal (@sunny_hundal) October 31, 2022

Hindustan hamara

One could say “Hindustan”, the Persian term conjoining Hindu (people of the Sindhu) and asthana (home) that came into vogue during the Mughal era. Referring originally to the Sindhu/Indus plain, the term was extended to the Subcontinent, and during the Mughal era took on connotations of statecraft and governance more than did the socio-cultural Bharat. Like Bharat, Hindustan was the term used indigenously to refer to the region, and the rallying cry for Independence of what became partitioned India was Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s ghazal, Sare Jahan se Achha, Hindustan Hamara.

The drafters of the Constitution of India snubbed “Hindustan”, agreeing instead on “India” and “Bharat”. For no fault of its own, the term had collected baggage along the way. To many Constituent Assembly members, including some in the Indian National Congress, the Urdu term did not do justice to the Hindu heritage of the Subcontinent. To make matters more difficult, Pakistan had posthumously named Iqbal its national poet.

Ironically, from a Persian term referring to a particular geography had evolved a term denoting the people of the Subcontinent who followed Sanatan Dharma. Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar even sought to Sanskritise the Persian Hindu-stan, proposing Hindu-shtan as the authentic historical Sanskrit term. Thus, in a convoluted way, Hindustan came to be unacceptable to many non-Hindu non-Indians who had lost touch with the historical stream, because of present-day connotations of Hindu faith. In the meantime, many citizens of the Republic reject it for its perceived Urdu-ness. If not for all these cross-cutting misgivings, “Hindustan” would have sufficed for much of the region.

If you really want to be a stickler, “India” should be unacceptable to many in the Republic because its etymological origin is the river the Indus, which after 1947 is more or less a “Pakistani” river, the supposed adversary. A poignantly written blog in June 2013 by Salman Rashid, the raconteur of Lahore, goes in the other direction, to explain why he is “Hindu”. He writes:

“Now, the Sindhu flows through what is Pakistan. And so the land that was its asthan really was what we today call Pakistan. That is, we are the real India, the land of the Sindhu. If anything, the country that we so erroneously know by that name should be Bharat, as it was called after the heroic prince of the Mahabharata. One could say that they across our eastern border have usurped upon our name. But they haven’t. Only the founding fathers of Pakistan, not having been grounded in classical history and geography, went amiss. The result: that even today we drift across a wilderness of a soul-destroying identity crisis seeking illegitimate Arab, Central Asiatic, Persian and Turkish fathers for ourselves… I, a child of the Maha Sapta Sindhu, should rightfully be called a Hindu.”

Several other terms could apply to the region that encompasses the countries of Saarc, but they have not gained currency in contemporary times: Jambudweep, Aryavarta, Al Hind and so on. Saarc itself is used by many to refer to the regional expanse, but the acronym should rightfully apply only to the inter-governmental organisation. Indic could be used as an alternate to India, but it is an adjective and what is needed is a free-standing name. “Undivided India”, referring to the pre-Partition region, looks back instead of ahead.

Through the process of elimination, we come back to South Asia, even if we believe former Indian Supreme Court justice Markanday Katju, who said in a recent tweet, “The people of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are really one people, and that one day they will all come together under one umbrella.” If that day does come about, then what retired Indian administrator V Sundaram suggested in 2005 might be considered prescient:

“It will not be historically or culturally or geographically correct to call our country by the general name India. Pakistan is also India, Bangladesh is also India, our country India is also India – all these three Indias together can legitimately be called India in the larger geographical sense.”

As things stand, however, the entrenched nation-states and the bureaucratic, political, military and corporate masters in each of them are not about to let go of the privileges and will stoke ultra-nationalism to stay in place. In the absence of a socio-political upheaval overtaking the entire region, which would certainly be unwelcome given the history of massive bloodletting, the only solution is to work with and within the nation-states to fashion a regionalism for the good of all inhabitants of the land.

On #Indus we're getting reaction to @RishiSunak becoming the first South Asian UK Prime Minister. He's also our youngest PM and the first to be a Hindu.We speak to @AniGhoshMU Senior Lecturer in Modern Indian History at @OfficialUoM🔊 https://t.co/FSf2AEWzM5⏪ @BBCSounds pic.twitter.com/tJZq3rkO5V— BBC Radio Manchester (@BBCRadioManc) October 30, 2022

Awkward rationale

How to sort out at least some of the semantic confusion? “India” does of course apply to the historical period before Partition, such as in “Indian history”, but you will also find increasing use of “South Asian history”. To encompass the many countries of the region as a consolidated entity in contemporary times, there is no getting away from “South Asia”. No doubt many find this awkward, but it is an awkwardness born of the great tragedy of Partition.

One way to make “South Asia” less threatening to each of the national elites is to reassure them that the exercise is not meant to create a supra-regional nation-state of South Asia to replace the individual countries and governments and wrest their privileges. Supra-nationalism is what the Akhanda Bharat ideologues want, whereas the concept of South Asia envisions devolution of power to smaller units (states or provinces), especially in the two larger countries, India and Pakistan. This South Asia, by its very nature, would embrace the Gandhian vision of local empowerment.

The rationale for workable, people-friendly regionalism in our part of Asia boils down to two issues: a) our identity is made up of myriad elements, on top of which is citizenship of a nation-state, but if we introspect we will find that no citizen of our region is “complete”, with the ability to achieve his/her genius, in the absence of the additional identity as South Asian; b) the concept of South Asia is not a feel-good attempt to revive a romantic past, instead it is a progressive concept seeking to reduce cross-border animosities, usher growth through rationalisation of economies and a sizeable peace dividend, and lead toward good governance through empowered federal units, local government and social justice.

But we would still need a proper noun, and appellation. There is rampant confusion in the academic and lay discourse because of the inability to distinguish “India” of the past and “India” of the day. The same goes for “Indian”. The other countries and societies tend to be excluded when reference is made to anything that is pan-regional but is termed “Indian”. While the point will not be entirely applicable to the non-colonised parts of our common space, it is true to say that many of South Asia’s people are not allowed to own the collective past. Their history is wrested in the service of the Republic of India.

The campaign for South Asia is not organised, certainly there is no project office. It is a haphazard attempt to rope in the past to serve the present and future, to keep multiculturalism and syncretism alive, to provide more of a sense of agency to individual citizens locked into the machinery of overwhelmingly powerful nation-states.

Above all, those who accept the nation-state but root for regionalism are seekers of a workable formula for peace, prosperity and social justice. Before we proceed any further with the vision (not mirage), we must agree on a name. Indians of today should be aware of the dissonance when they knowingly or unknowingly appropriate everything “Indian” without thought for the rest of the people of South Asia.

Kanak Mani Dixit is a writer, journalist and publisher, as well as founding editor of Himal Southasian magazine.

Source: Scroll.in