The emergent peoplehood of Southasia
|Photo: Cath Slugget|
Just how ‘real’ is this region we call Southasia? On the one hand, there are those who suggest that ‘Southasia’ is a geopolitical invention imagined and brought into being only by intellectuals, journalists and academics, through reading and writing about it. On the other hand, others suggest that this is not some ephemeral idea, but rather a tangible thing that exists in the physical world. The eventual understanding of this question has important ramifications for the future possibilities of coexistence and interaction amongst the region’s 1.5 billion people.
A key to conducting this line of inquiry is Benedict Anderson’s seminal work from 1983, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Of Anderson’s many insights, a particularly astute one relates to the role that diverse groups of elites have played in the formation of modern nations. Anderson tells us that, during the late 1800s, when the first wave of nationalist agitation made its appearance in the American colonies, the ‘creole’ elite (native born but of European origin) played a leading role in the movement for national independence. In India, a similarly diverse Westernised elite took the lead in forging national consciousness, even though we now recognise that non-elite groups also took their own initiatives in imagining the shape and character of India as a ‘nation’.
By definition, a creole population is made up of peoples from multiple places and races. Its desire to inhabit a sovereign national territory is fuelled precisely by its shared memory of previous displacement, on the basis of race, religion or territoriality. But what bearing does this fact of elite agency behind nationalist mobilisation have on the imagined community of Southasia? It turns out that the imagining of the entity of Southasia has behind it three distinct groups: the United States policy elite, the Southasian political elite, and the region’s intellectuals, both homegrown and diasporic.
Most readers will be aware of the US-centric genealogy of Southasia as a recently imagined geography. For example how, during the Cold War, the US government’s foreign-policy leaders identified the region as an entity, giving it a new habitation and a name. Their “planetary gaze”, as some have dubbed it, sought to present the entire region as an object of suspicion and desire, to be managed in relation to other comparable geopolitical entities. This geopolitically useful view of Southasia as a crucial node in the map of US global power, requiring minute study and observation, is a familiar claim in ‘area studies’ scholarship. Over the years, Southasians of diverse backgrounds have sought to make the concept their own by means of a syncretic process sometimes called ‘transculturation’ or hybridity.
This process has taken place at the hands of several groups that are either Southasia-based or of Southasian origin. These generally include the region’s political elite, its intellectuals as well as its diasporic populations, particularly those living in the West. Just about the time that Southasia emerged as a subject of regional grouping under the SAARC rubric, during the mid-1980s, the term also made inroads into the diaspora, principally in Anglo-American cities. An early example of a publication that bore ‘South Asia’ in its title is Pradip Ghosh’s Developing South Asia: A modernization perspective, published in 1984. Today, there are community and cultural organisations, student groups, research monographs, college courses and literary-critical anthologies that proudly bear the same label as part of their self-definition. In this way, a label that once was the result of an imperial gaze has become an instrument of self-identification.
The question of why the idea of Southasia has gained such popularity in the diaspora is a legitimate one. Could it be that a strategy of self-aggrandisement is at work? After all, claiming membership in ‘Southasia’ can make an individual in the diaspora feel part of something bigger and better than the individual nation states, particularly in the face of metropolitan pressures that inevitably lead migrants into accepting minority status in their host countries. On the other hand, it is also possible that some members of the diaspora do not want to associate themselves exclusively with their countries of origin, specially when such affiliation makes them feel guilty by association about the fratricidal wars that feed on religious and ethnic exclusion.
Moving away from the national label is a powerful thing. How else could Indians and Pakistanis in New York, Sinhalas and Tamils in London, or Hindus and Sikhs in Toronto befriend one another unless they eschew labels that would partition them into hostile ghettos? One way of doing so is to invoke a geopolitical entity that, in nomenclature at least, transcends those divisions. In this way, Southasia can be thought of as constituting a utopian site of belonging that is available not just to resident Southasians, but also to its worldwide diasporas.
Within the region, however, the imagined entity of Southasia has come to denote other uses. Beyond a superficial mimicry of regionalist movements elsewhere – such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the erstwhile European Community – Southasia’s political elite must have had other ends in mind when, in December 1985, they devoted their states’ resources to the institutional ratification of the idea of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The actual calculations of these leaders are hard to fathom, since the official discourse of SAARC is caught up in a formulaic jargon. Particularly worth scrutiny are the first few items of the SAARC Charter.
The SAARC Charter talks about promoting peace, stability, amity and progress in the region by fostering mutual understanding and cooperation, while respecting territorial integrity of the nation states. It is crucial to note that, in so doing, the Charter seems to envision the regional framework as a harmless supplement to the sanctity of the existing nation states, and thus shunts aside the possibility that the new structure will provide an alternative to the old. In the Charter’s very first item, the signatories seem to acknowledge as much by suggesting that the nation state is still an inviolable principle of organising political life. So, whatever the character of the inter-state relationship being imagined under the SAARC rubric, it would have to exist only as subservient to the nation states of the region.
This is an expression of old nationalist pieties more than anything else. Even as the regional idea is envisioned as a subsidiary to the nation state, the leaders also tacitly acknowledge the limits of their nation states to function discretely in an “interdependent” world. This is an interesting contradiction – one that the Charter tries to paper over, but ultimately fails to accomplish.
In practice, it is best to consider the SAARC forum as an attempt by the region’s political leaders to evolve a benign, non-threatening platform. This was to be a place in which small states could try to refract the patronising gaze of their larger neighbours; while big states, such as India and Pakistan, could look to advance their competing interests under the banner of regionalism and cooperation. But this exercise is inevitably marred by some in-built tensions.
In some sections of India’s political class, for example, one suspects that there exists a desire to put into action the mythic identity of Mahabharata – literally, ‘Greater India’. This group of politicians would like to see ‘Southasia’ as a stopgap measure on the way to achieving this expansionist project. If such an Indo-centric utopia were ever actualised, it would most likely find its legitimacy in postcolonial India’s desire to restore civilisational dignity to a long-existing body politic that has been repeatedly brutalised by foreign invasions over many centuries. Outside of India, however, any inward-looking search for past ‘national glory’ that is now recast in territorial terms inevitably serves as a source of considerable anxiety. As a result, these other countries have looked to the idea of Southasia as a means to arrest, delay and modify the content of such a vision.
As has been suggested in the popular media, many Southasians living outside of India suspect that their big, bad postcolonial neighbour could well be harbouring secret colonial ambitions. Some cite the examples of Kashmir and Sikkim as proof. Accordingly, Southasian states other than India have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward India: they seek to preserve their national communities from Indian encroachment by finding recourse in the rhetoric of ‘exclusive’ nationalism, while at the same time they hope to draw their larger neighbour into a regionalist agreement based on a less-threatening language of exchange and intimacy.
To those who adhere to the first view, Southasian regionalism is nothing more than India’s and Pakistan’s political interests writ large. In this way, it is to be considered a failed entity in that regionalism exists only to buttress national ends and is evacuated of its true meaning. By contrast, the second view, being favoured by the smaller states but also by many within India and Pakistan, seeks to preserve “an inviolable national core” (in the words of the postcolonial scholar Partha Chatterjee), while allowing a regional public sphere to emerge out of reciprocal transactions in the areas of culture and commerce. How can these two views be reconciled?
Language of culture
Leaving aside these speculations on the articulation of Southasia for a moment, let us turn to other matters. At its rhetorical core, Anderson’s Imagined Communities contains a paradox. On the one hand, it seeks to explain the rise of modern national communities in terms of collective imagination and will. On the other hand, Anderson tries to account for the rise of the modern nation and its ideology of nationalism in terms of the diffusion of what he calls ‘print capitalism’ and related technologies of communication. Anderson has explained his idea of print capitalism as the increased ability to forge national and sub-national communities following the advent of widespread printing technologies.
If print capitalism did, in fact, allow for the rise of modern nationalism, what media technology do we have today that fulfils itself in the imagining of Southasia as a supra-national community? Clearly, the considerable diffusion of the visual media speaks to that effect. After all, a Bollywood film or even a run-off-the-mill television news clip has the potential to provide something of a narcissistic mirror for our elite actors, who enjoy seeing themselves as not just national but regional and international players. This underscores the vanguard role that media technologies often play in preparing the ground for the emergence of communities that are yet to be imagined into political existence. Traditionally, the newspaper and the novel have operated as paradigmatic national forms, since the nation has often found itself imagined through these genres. By contrast, the audio-visual media respect no national boundaries – even though, like all such communication technologies, their production has to be nation-, class- and interests-based.
But what exactly is it about modern media that could make them the medium of regional formation? An answer to this question must be sought in the realm of culture. Increasingly, culture, along with what the political scientist Ashis Nandy has called a “shared civilisational heritage”, brings Southasians together as co-inhabitants of a shared geopolitical territory. The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner has suggested that modern nationalism can be thought of as an outcome of cultural education, which became available to the larger public in the wake of the industrial revolution. If this is the case, then the Southasian regionalist ethos fulfils a similar logic in the crossborder diffusion of elite, popular and mass cultures. These include meanings and sentiments coded in films and songs, ghazals and television shows. Of course, these also include the daily assault of contradictory emotions aroused by celebrity scandals, political assassinations, cricket matches, communal conflicts, military coups, ethnic insurgencies, natural disasters and the shenanigans of the rich and famous. All of these, after all, are written and spoken about in what needs to be understood as a post-national medium.
Thus, over the years, a veritable crossborder ‘language of culture’ has emerged in Southasia. This new language communicates its meanings and sentiments less through words and more through icons and images; as a result, it has managed to transcend some of the divisions built into the exclusivity of traditional languages. This is happening despite the fact that all Southasian countries routinely overplay mutual hostility born out of perceived religious, cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences over a legacy of civilisational intimacy. Gradually, however, the region’s inhabitants seem to be awakening to the possibility of a regional ‘peoplehood’. This is despite the fact that any such recognition will probably go hand in hand with many and violent paroxysms of difference, as has been witnessed in the all-too-frequent national, sub-national and communal confrontations across the region.
A word of caution may be needed before we travel too far in this direction. The mere fact that diverse groups of the region’s elites have managed to articulate Southasia as a collective entity does not really mean that the region has become a popular political force resembling the nation state. Far from it. While there is a politically sponsored bureaucratic structure in place to administer agreements reached between the member states, this fact alone should not obscure SAARC’s weak governance, a dubious attachment to locality, and non-existent sovereignty. Each of these underscores the current disconnect of Southasia as a political community.
Unlike the region’s nation states, SAARC does not make or enforce laws. Its governance is operative only so far as its member states consent to be bound by agreed-upon norms and procedures. It is therefore very unlikely that, anytime in the near future, Southasia will develop ‘affective’ bonds – structures of feeling and affiliation – to the same degree that the nation states of the region have inspired among their citizens. These bonds appear to be an outcome of attachments that are grounded in some form of locality – something largely absent from the aggregation called Southasia.
An intermediary form
Raymond Williams, a British cultural historian, once proposed that we look at culture and society in terms of dominant, emergent and residual formations. Following this idea, it can be argued that, despite the setback the nation state has suffered due to the forces of globalisation, many varieties of postcolonial nationalism still constitute the dominant discourse of imagining political community in Southasia.
At the same time, it is also important to note that the domination of the nation state form has failed to become as powerful and overarching as its ideologues would want. Even as the nationalist discourse has sought very hard to incorporate the regional idea into its own logic, for example in the SAARC Charter, the Southasian sensibility also contains emergent elements that do not speak the language of nationalism. As such, it is possible that the absence of strong affective bonds among Southasians toward Southasia could be due to this emergent aspect of the Southasian idea. It could be that, at the moment, the region’s logic of co-dependability is simply too abstract a concept to give rise to intimate loyalties or feelings of attachment. Over time, though, as cross-regional interactions multiply, one expects that this situation will change.
The emergent aspect of the Southasian community can be witnessed in the current absence of any powerful legitimising narrative, big or small. These narratives are the source of what some scholars have called ‘invented traditions’, with the power to impart a sense of permanence and solidity to a nation’s being. Normally, national narratives seep into histories of the nation as advanced by insiders. They share a range of themes, including the ideas that: our nation has been around for a long time, and has a glorious past; it continued as such until it met with rupture and decline; the national project is still incomplete; the nation faces threats to its core identity from various enemies.
At the moment, Southasia has very few such narratives to justify its political existence. Why is this? Perhaps it goes to show the still-tenuous character of the Southasian idea – and regionalism in general – in the international system. Where such narratives do exist, however, as in some official, academic and popular proclamations, Southasia does justify itself as an intermediary form that mediates between the region’s nation states on the one hand and international formations on the other. Its widely shared story of emergence – from scattered national fragments to a regional totality – is also part of its ideological structure.
National failure, regional hope
At this time, it is safe to say that Southasia exists largely as a managerial construct, but also as a utopian ideal. It came into existence as a geopolitical idea in the service of mapping the world by an imperial power, whose influence has since become dominant in world affairs. Subsequently, the region’s political elite seized upon it with a view to extending their individual nation state’s horizons, while also inserting a strong utopian element into its mission.
In this context, it helps to remember that, not so long ago, the postcolonial nation state presented itself as a project with utopian aims. The memory of our nationalisms, which once promised to stage a heroic tryst with geopolitical destinies while creating “noble mansions” out of colonial ruin, is still quite fresh. However, today these sentiments remain glaring in the absence of their fulfilment. In this regard, one can be forgiven for thinking that, under certain postcolonial conditions, the politics of hope championed by our nationalist forefathers begin to acquire an ideological character, as project after national project promises and then defers the fulfilment of our innermost desires to some uncertain future.
This is historically how it has been. But it is also important to understand that we cannot do without hope in the future, either. Therefore, the possibility that the formation called Southasia possesses utopian elements, which exceed ideological incorporation by national and global orders, should not be readily dismissed. In principle, the Southasian community promises neighbourly civility where in fact there have been too-frequent parochial conflicts. It also promises judicious sharing of scarce resources, and even the holy grail of mutual enrichment by means of crossborder economic cooperation. These are tall orders by any stretch of the imagination, especially when the conditions that led to the production of conflict and scarcity in the region are still intact. However, one must hope against hope that somehow, someday, we as Southasians will rise up to follow our best instincts: to surprise ourselves, by putting the agendas of creating a good crossborder society ahead of our own parochial interests. For millions of people, that tenuous hope today bears the name of Southasia.
~ B P Giri is assistant professor of English at Darthmouth College, US.