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March 20, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

Why I am not a South Asian

For a long time now, I have been unhappy about the "South Asia" fixation a lot of US-based Indians exhibit. For some reason, these people cannot conceive of anything "Indian" -- it has to be "South Asian". I object to this on several grounds: a. loss of branding, b. catering to American prejudice, c. intellectual laziness.

First, the loss of a brand. Many companies have gone to great lengths to ensure that their brands remain viable -- and there is tremendous goodwill associated with good brands. Remember the fuss we made over the 'basmati' brand? Nations, too, have capitalised on this. The best example is Japan -- once, "Made in Japan" was a guarantee of poor quality; now, it is one of the best guarantees of high quality.

India has tremendous brand value going back millennia. In fact pretty much all of this region used to be called the "Indies": this name was sloppily associated with everything from India to Indonesia. There were many products that came from India: India-rubber, India-ink, etc. India has both a subcontinent and an ocean named after it. Western media has already started calling it the "South Asian" subcontinent to appease Pakistanis; perhaps it will become the "South Asian" ocean soon too. Similarly the "Indian elephant" and the "Indian lion" have become the "Asian elephant" and the "Asian lion". Why?

The ocean is interesting -- on my trips to Indonesia, I have noticed their maps call it the "Indonesian Ocean"; also at one point a Chinese official fumed that just because the ocean is called the Indian Ocean, it doesn't belong to India. I laughed at this, because China believes that the South China Sea belongs to it -- after all, it is named after China!

If there were a strong SAARC trading zone, it might make sense to give more credence to the "South Asia" moniker. After all, the ASEAN grouping has helped the smaller Southeast Asian nations to gain some visibility through banding together. But it is pretty clear that there will never be a strong SAARC zone because of Pakistan's intransigence.

Even if SAARC were to gain prominence, I doubt if anyone will label their products "Made in South Asia". ASEAN nations don't do that -- it still bears the brand of the individual country. So, there is not much point in promoting a "South Asia" brand.

There is, in fact, considerable downside to the "South Asia" brand. As we have seen, Clinton recently used the excuse of a "South Asia" trip, rather than an India trip, to include Pakistan in his itinerary -- a major snub to India. American strategic (flawed) axioms are the following:

a. "South Asia" is a nuclear flashpoint

b. India and Pakistan are rivals in "South Asia"

c. India is a regional power in "South Asia"; so is Pakistan.

This completely devalues India's stand-alone weight as a nation of significance, whose GDP is in the top ten in the world even in nominal dollars, and in the top five in the world in purchasing power parity. India is a colossus, a power in all of Asia; India is China's equal and counterweight, not Pakistan's. Pakistan is a tiny country one-seventh the size of India in population and GDP. It is a comparison between an elephant and a rabbit.

Granted, the perception of India is not great, but at least it is seen as a substantial country, albeit beset with problems. What is the world perception (and to some extent the reality) of the other South Asian countries we so eagerly embrace?

a. Pakistan -- terrorist state, rogue nation, breeding ground for mercenaries.

b. Bangladesh -- basket case, but interesting for its newly-found natural gas reserves

c. Sri Lanka -- lost paradise, beset with terrorism and separationism.

d. Nepal -- mystical, good place for 'tuning out'

e. Bhutan -- unspoilt Buddhist Shangri-la

f. Maldives -- island paradise in danger of being submerged by global warming.

So exactly what does India get by being lumped in with this crew? Nothing. On the other hand, they all gain from the reflected glory of India. It would make sense for them to cozy up to India to gain this recognition. This is exactly what happens in regards to the Canadians -- have you noticed how they always say, plaintively and diffidently, "North America", not "America", to include themselves as well? Americans don't say "North America". Unfortunately, 'progressive' Indians delight in talking about "South Asia" instead of India. Brand dilution, indeed.

The South-Asia-wallahs are happy to pile on to good things done by Indians. But when something bad happens to Indians in America, they beat a hasty retreat. Reddy Bali Lakireddy is not "South-Asian-American" -- he's "Indian-American". The H1-B guys are "Indian programmers", not "South Asian programmers". Why this inconsistency? Fine fairweather friends they are, as suspected.

Look around at others in Asia -- even though Americans generally think "Asian" means "yellow person", neither China nor Japan nor Korea has submerged its identify under a generic "East Asian" label. They remain nations in their own right.

The second reason for the preponderance of the term "South Asia" may well be a catering to American prejudice. I thought "South Asia" might be an invention of the Americans, but my erudite librarian friend Reeta Sinha found a reference that indicated this usage in an Australian journal in the 1850s or so. But I think it is the Americans who use this term the most.

Americans have expropriated the word "Indian" to mean Native American. Look at the irony of this -- a foolish Italian navigator, Cristoforo Columbo, arrives in the Americas, and thinks he has reached India! And therefore he names these people Indians. This leads to the imperialistic Americans usurping the name of a civilisation that has existed for thousands of years, and attributing it to their aboriginals!

I think Indians need to fight to get the name "Indian" back to mean "native of India". Of all the major US newspapers, only one so far as I know has decided to drop the use of the term "Indian" to mean "native American" -- this is the Los Angeles Times. I think we need to pressure the media, and the US government, to stop using names like the "Bureau of Indian Affairs" -- even the native Americans would prefer other names like Amerindians to describe them.

This linguistic imperialism is no more acceptable than the deplorable use of the racial term "colored" versus "white" -- as though "white" people were normal, and all others were an unfortunate aberration. In point of fact, "white" people are actually "pink", so they too are "colored". Much better to use "non-white"; or for that matter "non-brown", depending on one's point of view.

You will also notice how American scholars use the word "Hindu" to denote ancient Indians. For instance, they will say "Hindu astronomers" when they mean Indian astronomers. The 'progressive', 'secular' people should object violently to this. The ancients were not all Hindus, many were Buddhist, Jain, etc. Here, at last, is something the 'progressive' 'seculars' and I can agree on: the naming of ancient Indians as Indians, not Hindus.

I mean, let us turn this around and refer to Americans consistently as "Yankees". This is in fact how a lot of Latin Americans refer to them. Do you think Americans will like this? Of course not. It is not appropriate for anybody to randomly assign names to another nation. It's nomenclature imperialism, just as the British mangled place names in India; only this is worse. So why should Indians cater to American prejudice? We can't let our very name be taken away; we have enough of a problem with self image (vaastuhara, we are) already.

Furthermore, there are these other horrible terms Americans use -- "East Indian" and "Asian Indian". East Indian, like West Indian? And what are the East Indies? Indonesia, not India. I abhor the term East Indian, as it is a meaningless neologism. Asian Indian is a little more sensible, but why put in that qualification? Indian = native of India. That reminds me, the 2000 census of America has a new category, "Asian Indian". Are the non-Indian "South Asians" going to choose this category? Not likely.

The third reason to oppose "South Asia" is the presumption of commonality -- an intellectual laziness if you will. There are all these mailing lists, South Asian Journalists Association, South Asian Literature, South Asian Women's Net etc. Why couldn't these be "Indian" this or that? Because, they say, it will encourage participation by the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc.

This may be true, but that should be the concern of the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc. Indians are bending over backwards to create a comfortable environment for these other people. Why, I don't know. Why can't they have their own Pakistani Literature (such as it is) newsgroup? We are not bridging the real gap between Indians and Pakistanis by patronizing them on some email alias.

This is a vacuous assumption made by 'progressive' diaspora Indians, the Non-Resident Indians. The creators of all these mailing lists are, I suspect, laboring under the misconception that by their woolly acts of friendship they are making a difference. Hardly. Unilateral acts of kindness and magnanimity are of not much use if the recipients are not grateful. Remember the old Gujral Doctrine?

And then there is an assumption of some common culture. For instance, I look at the Pakistanis I have come across on the net. I have absolutely nothing in common with them. There is nothing that makes me feel kinship with them, apart from the small matter of their sitting on the sites of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation of my ancestors. But the Urdu-poetry-reciting Gujral-clone people, refugees from the Punjab, do go into paroxysms of wah-wah-ing. I am left cold by all this.

What exactly does the average Indian have in common with a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi or a Nepali or a Maldivian? Very little. I think we need to figure out what the Gangetic plains person has in common with the hill people of the Northeast -- rather than trying to appease a bunch of foreigners. Especially Pakistan and Bangladesh -- they split off from India in 1947. Let them eat cake now.

There is an inclusivist streak among Indians -- I call this a wool-gathering lack of clarity. That's what is on display here. However, when Pakistan's entire raison d'etre is implacable hatred for India, it becomes inappropriate to 'include' them. "South Asia" is an illusion, other than as a trading forum. If at some point in the future, Pakistanis can get over their congenital hatred of "vegetarian Hindus" then maybe we can talk about South Asia. As of now, it makes much more sense to push the "Indian" brand forward. We lose by pushing "South Asia".

Rajeev Srinivasan

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