Observations made at the plenary session of the conference, 'Reimagining South Asia: Explorations in the History of Ideas' organized by the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, 17th February 2017:
Besides, I am often invited to seemingly South Asian gatherings to offer these events some exotic flavor given the fact that I do not carry an Indian passport or the privileges of Indian citizenship, which invariably offer these events some sort of simple and simplistic plurality of citizenship by virtue of what I lack and in the same sense, what I have – citizenship of another country in South Asia. All this by virtue of my accidental, and in the case of conference organizers, serendipitous and inexpensive presence in Delhi.
Similarly, the the idea of ‘regional consciousness’ often stressed by my own university, euphemistically called the South Asian University and established by South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is anything but regional in its outlook or the way in which it works. Besides the name and and the matra-like deployment of the term, it is very much like any other university in the country.
What is more shocking is the banality with which the words ‘South Asia’ are used by everybody from students to colleagues to administrators and bureaucrats beyond the university. That is why, very recently, in this liminal existence of South Asia that the Board of Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences insisted that our research should ideally attempt to stay within a South Asian perspective.
So I think, given my institutional and personal locations and the experience which comes from these, I am very well within my rights to be skeptical of what South Asia means in the way it is deployed today in most hegemonic discourses.
|Peter De Souza at the Conference|
It is in this scheme of things that I was pleasantly surprised when I realized this workshop is organized by a mainstream political science department with a clear International Relations presence as well. The concept note of the workshop says this is an “attempt to find out possibilities for the creation of new episteme in order to understand the idea of South Asia.” It further notes, “The search for new episteme is impelled by our disenchantment with the existing parochial definition of the idea of South Asia which is often confined within the colonial/post-colonial bounds of a cartographically marked region.”
I stress the words, our disenchantment, new episteme and bounds of a cartographically marked region. But if you are serious about what all these lofty ideals mean, then it is necessary to take the venture you might begin today way beyond the confines marked by the traditional understandings and disciplinary domains of political science and international relations, and for that matter sociology as well. In fact, one will need to cultivate closer proximities with cognate disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, literature, dance, music, film and theatre studies and so on if one were to embark on this journey more meaningfully.
This might seem messy, but I think such a seemingly messy beginning is the only option to think South Asia more inclusively and closer to the experiential and historical realities of people as opposed to the anticipations of those who govern nation states and the work of those who simply document such statecraft, which almost clinically remove the messy and muddy realms of what may broadly be called 'culture' from these reckonings.
To me, in today’s dominant academic discourse, South Asia is often seen as a concrete reality, imagined primarily in geo-physical or cartographic terms, which the conference organizers also readily flag. I think this limitation in thinking is mostly due to our inability to transgress what might be called ‘nationalized’ domains of knowledge production, which hinders the possibility of comprehending the region across both disciplinary and national borders. This is because whatever knowledge we produce, some of which can be serious, tend not to transgress beyond the borders of the nation.
In general, my concern is, when all of us take South Asia for granted, as does SAARC and much of contemporary academic practice, do we get a fuller and a nuanced perception of the region and its political and socio-cultural complexities? Or in other words, does South Asia as a modern finished entity communicate its latent as well as manifest incomplete personality? Is our knowledge of the Maldives for instance, comparable to that of India? Or, to take a less extreme example, do we know at least as much of Maldives as we do of Sri Lanka?
Or, does our perception, understanding and knowledge of the region remain merely at the level of rhetoric?
Despite incessant meetings, cultural events and conferences, where South Asia seems to be clear, why is it so difficult for some of us to imagine it, and even more difficult to achieve? Providing a partial answer to this question, Asish Nandy has described South Asia as the only region in the world where most states prefer to define themselves, “not by what they are, but by what they are not”. According to him, “Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal try desperately not to be India” while Bangladesh “has taken up the more onerous responsibility of avoiding begin both India and Pakistan.”
Despite Nandy’s exaggeration of regional politics, it seems to me that at some level, he is referring to these countries’ established practice of being the antagonistic ‘other’ of each, based on the manner in which contemporary political compulsions of nation states unfold locally, rather than with reference to some of the shared cultural practices that no longer take centre stage in regional or national-local politics. More insidiously, these practices and histories are no longer within recallable collective memory for most people as well.
In this context, what if we try to take a different route? What does it mean when Bhartha natyam is so popular in Sri Lanka when most young people hardly know anything of Indian history in general or its cultural history more specifically? What does it mean when Bollywood music and cinema touch people in such distant places as Colombo, Dhaka, Katmandu and Lahore despite enmities authored by actors of nation states, which flow across international borders? What is the kind of cartography created by Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims who annually come to India? Do they see the Indian nation state as it exists today or the land of the Buddha they have learned of from books, or do these two worlds meet, and if so, how??
What is the nature of the cultural cartography that was created when Binaca geetmala broadcast popular Bollywood songs all the way from Non-Hindi speaking Colombo to the Hindi heartland of India from 1952 to 1988? What is the kind of South Asia the well-connected contemporary artists of the region create today in their work?
These are simple examples of the possibilities that can be opened up if we take sociology, political science, international relations and other disciplines to places where one least expects to find them in our explorations for South Asia.
I think what I have said so far should make it very clear that I prefer to see ‘South Asia’ as an incomplete idea or as a problem we have inherited from the way modernity and its intellectual and political practices have manifested in our region, and from the ways in which the nation states in the region have interacted with each other, rather than as a concrete and coherent reality.
It should be self-evident however, that this incomplete picture of the region, with its inherent contradictions and uneven play of politics, and the difficulties these situations throw out, are not taken into account whenever South Asia is invoked in both political and academic rituals of our time.
My hope is that this conference might open some space for such obvious, necessary and subversive thinking. But one must have the will to do so. It is in such a context that Nandy has noted, “the more the scholars, artists and writers talk of the common heritage of the region, the more the functionaries in the region nervously eye their neighbours as enemies planning to wipe out their distinctive identities.”
My conviction is, much of these limitations in understanding South Asia are conditioned by modern cartographic strategies, as I have already suggested. Some effort to broaden the discusrive framework by factoring in the not so obvious realms of culture, which may not be conducive to dominant academic practice could bring about the possibility of starting a discussion of a different sense of contemporary South Asia.
For me, what is important is this sense of embedded subversiveness in the acts of people like all of us. But I am not sure if many of us have invested as much time in these possibilities as we could and should. In fact, when it comes to the issue of South Asia, I have very little confidence left in my own generation of scholars barring a few exceptions like Imtiaz Ahmed, Shiv Vishvanathan, Ashish Nandy, Kanak Dixit and so on. That is because we are satisfied merely with intellectual output as opposed to intellectual output tempered by a passion, an imagination and a sincere ideological and intellectual commitment to South Asia.
I hope the next generation such as the young people who are presenting their ideas today have better sense and much more entrenched passion than their predecessors.
Thank you for your time.