It was an innocent question by a gentleman from Norwich that finally set the cat among the pigeons. The setting was delightfully innocuous: a panel discussion at the formal opening of the South Asia Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The discussion had been preceded by a Tagore song by a young lecturer, a few speeches on SOAS and the new institute by its director and his colleagues and a soulful Punjabi song lamenting the tragedy of Partition (which immediately prompted a retort by Pakistan's United Nations permanent representative that her country was proud of its nationhood).
The question was short and snappy. The Narendra Modi government has increased India's international profile and enhanced its global standing. How, asked the Norwich man, is this being viewed in the neighbouring countries?
For the previous 20 minutes, the discussion had centred on a common South Asian identity that transcended borders and conflict zones and how initiatives, such as the one in SOAS, was contributing to it. Now, the fissures began to show. The Pakistani diplomat lamented that the hand of friendship extended by the Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, hadn't been met by Modi's warm embrace. "A big country," she suggested "must have a big heart." Pakistan, she indicated, was excited by the emerging Asian century which, to her, was being led by China and the Southeast Asian nations. And yes, India and Pakistan would find a place in that brave new world.
The editor from Nepal wasn't so carping. He conjured up the familiar story of post-national identities and regretted that the multilateralism underpinning the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was being diluted by the with-you-or-despite-you approach of Modi. There was, predictably, no mention of the logistical and other assistance extended by India to Nepal after last month's devastating earthquake.
Maybe I am guilty of over-reading the significance of the panel discussion in SOAS or a slightly silly debate in a trailer version of the Jaipur Literature Festival held at the Southbank in London last weekend. At that debate on the efficacy and durability of the Westminster model in South Asia, there were no representatives from Pakistan or even Sri Lanka - the speaker from Bhutan didn't get her visa on time and didn't catch the flight from Delhi. But the distinguished British academic with his expertise of Nepali and Nepal quite rightly indicated the prolonged turbulence in the Himalayan state over a workable and acceptable Constitution. His argument was that while India had a loving relationship with the Westminster model, the experience couldn't be generalized across South Asia.
Since a public debate where the timekeeper starts to either bang on the drum or emit strange noises from a strange hand-held clapper after four minutes can hardly be called serious, my response was suitably flippant. It is generally believed, I suggested, that Scotland was won quite conclusively by the Scottish National Party in the British general election earlier this month. However, such an assertion can just as easily be challenged by the fact that voters in the distant Shetland Islands where sheep outnumber electors had preferred a Liberal Democrat. Did this aberration distract from the larger point that Scotland did indeed vote SNP? I think not. It would be injudicious to overemphasize the role of exceptions in a democracy.
Nepal is, of course, considerably more significant than the Shetland Islands. Yet, the fact that Nepal, along with Bangladesh and Pakistan, has a trajectory of its own is not without significance. To me it suggests that the term South Asia doesn't signify anything much more than a geographical expression. True, there are cultural continuities that link each South Asian state with a neighbour: Bangladesh with West Bengal and Assam, Pakistan's Punjab with India's Punjab, Northern Sri Lanka with Tamil Nadu and Nepal with Uttarakhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh. However, when examined a little closely these cross-border cultural expressions are merely suggestive of the sheer expanse and range of the Indian Union.
The term South Asia is utterly meaningless without India. Indeed, for a very long time the term Indian subcontinent was the preferred expression for the land mass that incorporated multiple nation-states. At one time, even in a political sense, it incorporated both Afghanistan and Burma but those connections have passed into history.
For the past four decades or thereabout, the term South Asia has replaced the Indian subcontinent as the preferred description. British and American universities were the first off the mark, changing the nomenclature of Indian history to South Asian history. By the late-1970s, with the advent of multi-disciplinary Area Studies, university departments had replaced India with South Asia. Even Indology, the shorthand for the study of classical languages and religio-cultural forms was discarded and subsequently decried in sneering tones as Orientalism.
To some extent, this shift was an understandable response to the reality of post-1947 international relations and the undeniable reality of nation-states that were not merely sovereign and independent but were also steadily departing from the orbit of Indic civilization. The presence of large immigrant communities from Pakistan and Bangladesh also forced the issue, not least in a Britain whose diplomatic relations with India were frosty, at least until the mid-1980s. There was a distinct political motive to a shift away from any perceived India-centric approach.
Today, unfortunately, the shift appears to have gone a bit too far. What I discerned in SOAS earlier this week, as I detected in Oxford's Queen Elizabeth House in an earlier era, was an attempt at equivalence. Under the guise of a South Asian identity, both real and contrived, was an attempt to question the centrality of India in the Indian subcontinent. India was in effect being put on par with neighbouring countries whose collective experiences were riddled with shortcomings. There may certainly be misgivings in the subcontinent over India's departure from passivity and its aggressive quest for economic parity with the advanced economies of the West. To, however, question India's self-image by treating it on par with Pakistan where the "failed state" debate is not yet over, strikes me as being far-fetched. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening and why a discussion on a South Asian identity can be conducted without even a fleeting reference to the incompatibility of jihadi violence with democratic values. By putting the focus on South Asia as an entity, Pakistan looks better than it should and India worse than it actually is.
There is an associated complication too. When South Asia becomes the reference point, the emphasis shifts to 'development' studies, a relatively new discipline that has been lavishly funded by both multilateral agencies, Western governments and even NGOs. By implication, the range of disciplines earlier under the protective cover of Indology are pushed to the margins - a phenomenon that, alas, has also engulfed India.
Fighting the South Asian label is a challenging project and can perhaps even be seen as a diversion into trivialities. It would be a far better idea for India and the Indian government to push for the primacy of Indian or Indic studies in the Western academic environment. Institutions such as King's College, London, have already effected this shift thanks in no small measure to donations from India-based corporates and even the government of India. I believe it will also have the explicit support of serious Western scholars of India and its civilization who feel hamstrung by a political agenda that generates certitudes based on slogans. Studying facets of modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal is entirely compatible under the protective cover of Indian Studies. It is time India becomes a little more demonstrative in asserting its strategic and civilizational centrality.