|Artwork: Bilash Rai|
Discussions of any question concerning ‘identity’ in Southasia are always bedevilled by a failure to make one important distinction: that between identity and identification. So, when we ask about the identity of something, we usually look for some trait that makes it the thing that it is; thereafter, we can ask about who shares that trait. As such, we are constantly obsessed with such questions as, What is the ‘Indian identity’, or the ‘Nepali’ or the ‘Pakistani’? What do those we designate by these names share in common? Then, we argue feverishly over what it is that we do or do not actually have in common. But this way of posing the question is a dead end: you may share a trait with someone else, but you also may not identify much with that trait. Conversely, you may not share a common trait with someone else, but you could still identify with them to a significant degree.
The point of this prelude is to say that a question regarding the relevance of the concept of Southasia should not be interpreted to mean, Does Southasia have a discernible identity? Some may feel that it does; others may not. The more appropriate question is not what identity we have at a descriptive level, but rather what it is with which we choose to identify. We can argue for all kinds of cultural connections across Southasia, even a sense of geographical destiny, but these are neither here nor there if the citizens of Southasia do not choose to identify with a specific forward-looking political project. The relevance of ‘Southasia’ will not be found in any fact, as it were, but will instead come from the fact that we want to make something of this concept. Europe as a political project exists not because of common traits, but because its citizens chose to construct their own. When they cease believing in those choices, the concept of Europe will cease to make sense, common civilisational traits notwithstanding. Therefore, we must not base discussions of Southasian identity on arguments over what various people have in common. Instead, we must think of what we would like to have in common.
Is there reason for citizens of Southasia to commit to the idea of Southasia? Indeed, I would suggest there are three such reasons. First, all states of the region would greatly benefit from realising that none of their major problems can be solved within the confines of the traditional nation state. Whether it is the problem of water, of managing migration, security, economic expansion, or resolving questions of identity, the individual states of Southasia simply cannot manage such massive issues within the nation-state form as it currently exists. Insofar as identification with a larger project of ‘Southasia’ helps the formulation of all things considered to be solutions, this would be of great help.
Second, the region as a whole has long been a battleground in which all kinds of foreign rivalries have been fought, because the states of the region were at loggerheads with each other. This was true not only of the 19th century, but also during contemporary times. Foreign powers are able to get a political foothold because states in the region think that they can enlist them against other states in the region; think of Pakistan’s relationship with the US, for instance, or the constant attempts to play the ‘China card’ against India. But if the states in Southasia let themselves become frontline states in the power aspirations of states from outside the region, they will pay a heavy price in the long run. Arguably, Pakistan has paid just such a price. While it is important to be open to the outside world, it is also important for countries not to be politically swept off their feet, and to look at the world through the eyes of the superpowers of the day. The states of Southasia are drawn into the ambit of outside powers largely due to their anxieties about each other. If these anxieties were removed, these states would be more secure, independent and original in their thinking on world affairs.
Third, Southasia can be, if it wishes, an astonishing experiment in human affairs. It is a cliché that the region is the locus of a deep diversity quite unlike any other in the world. But the dominant ideologies of Southasia, and the premises on which the different nation states of the region are legitimised, go against the grain of these historically inherited diversities. In some ways, a nation state is based on exclusionary premises: it makes claims about who is in and who is out, and it requires citizens to have a common identity. In the context of Southasia, each of the criteria by which memberships in our individual nation states are defined is problematic, and generates violent conflict. It is perhaps a bit utopian, but if having a ‘Southasian’ identity helps us to overcome the restrictions of nation-state ideologies, we will have set an astonishing example. Southasia is not an identity; and, if it is conceived as such, it will elicit no support. But it can help to stretch the horizons of what kind of social existence we think is possible. This is not about our identity, but about the identifications we wish to acquire. Our individualities need to be maintained, but we are also fated to sink or swim together.
~ Pratap Bhanu Mehta is President of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)