Wednesday, June 30, 2004

"I'm from South Asia"

I'm quite bothered by this business of labelling things subcontinental as "South Asian." I first came into contact with this term during my freshman year at college, when I was asked to join the "South Asian" ethnic group (oh, sorry cultural group) on campus. I couldn't really tell what bothered me about it, until my dad put his finger on it - what is this South Asian stuff? I've never been to Pakistan, never been to Bangladesh, only once visited Nepal, and have never been to Sri Lanka. What is my connection to this vague "South Asian" identity?

Well, thankfully my college offered a course called "South Asian Identities." I took it, only to learn that it was a bunch of post-colonial, post-modern, sub-altern studies, multi-culti stuff. I wasn't as hostile to this type of thinking back then, but in my gut, something didn't seem to sit well. Here's my understanding of South Asian identity: it's a way to say Indian while being inclusive of all the subcontinental people who don't like being called Indian.

Here's the thing though - why not just call a spade a spade? I mean, if my college were to have an Indian cultural group, would that necessarily mean that we Indian students would become hostile towards Pakistani students? The South Asian business serves only one purpose - to blur lines and force a common identity where none (or a very weak one) exists. The whole thing reminds me of the European Union project, especially in its aspect of forced identity creation from above. Worse still, I think it puts Indians at a disadvantage, because it equates all "South Asian" identities, when it's clear that India is the largest component of that.

Take for example, the South Asian Students Association. If that group were split up into an Indian Students Association, Pakistani Students Association etc., one would probably see greater funding and attendance at the Indian group's events to the detriment of the others. More importantly, University faculty and curricula are now chosen based on this South Asian identity. If we were to split it up, it's doubtful that a university would allocate equal resources to Indian and Pakistani studies. So, by merging all these various identities, peddlers of the South Asian identity are basically trying to tie down India's numeric, geographic and cultural advantages in order to create a "more equal" playing field.

Now I'm all for tolerance and fraternity, but I also believe in the truth. It's better for everyone involved if we don't skirt around the issue and state the obvious: there's no such thing as a South Asian identity, and this manufactured identity is detrimental to the exploration of Indian identity (and Pakistani identity and all the others for that matter) because of its misleading nature. I'm glad that Salman Rushdie seemed to have the same take on this.

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