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Colonial notion of South Asia
Sanjay Joshi

South Asia did not exist in colonial times--at least not in the sense we understand that regional label today. For the British, their empire in India defined the entire region. Since the end of that empire, a number of reasons have made South Asia a preferred label when discussing the region. Topping that list of reasons was the partition of British India into India (a.k.a. Bharat) and Pakistan in 1947, and later, the creation of Bangladesh. Of course, the parcelling out of Asia (and other parts of the world) into regional blocks we are familiar with today--e.g., South-East Asia or Central Asia--are to a large extent, also products of the cold- war era. Strategic interests of the United States dictated the study of regions after the end of the Second World War.

The emergence of the United States, first as the major Anglophone power, and now as a unique global superpower, has ensured that the labels they originally deployed have come to be used virtually universally across the globe.‘South Asia’ as the description of a particular region is a product of that historical process, even though the category ‘South Asia’ came into common circulation only after the end of British colonialism. In this essay I seek to argue that the notion of South Asia as we know it today has a critically important historical legacy reaching back to the colonial era. Only by understanding that historical background can we understand the intellectual, political and emotional baggage this label carries from that past. Only by taking into account that history, can we comprehend the range of problems with which we are confronted when we deploy this category today.

What is South Asia? Who is a part of South Asia and who is not? Bodies such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) dictate that the label South Asia be used to refer to a region comprising of the sovereign states of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Yet SAARC simply assumes the existence of an entity called South Asia instead of defining it. If South Asia is simply an expression of geographical proximity, then why, for instance, is Myanmar (Burma) not a part of South Asia, while the Maldives are? Why do some descriptions include Afghanistan in South Asia, while others, including those of SAARC, do not? These questions don’t have answers we can simply deduce from ‘objective’ geographic realities. If fact, these questions themselves reveal that there is nothing natural or objective about South Asia. Most attempts to define the region are fairly arbitrary, and the boundaries this region encompasses, somewhat uncertain. The notion of South Asia today is a product not of proximity, nor is it based on a shared world-view. Rather, South Asia is the product of a variety of global, regional, and local political processes, which in turn, reflect different configurations of power relations and history.

And history does not easily give up its hold. In most conversations not constrained by strict diplomatic protocol, South Asia continues to be used as a synonym for what was British India. A recent textbook, widely used in the region and in the west, is titled Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. Despite the title, however, this work focuses entirely on the history of British India and the post-colonial states which emerged from it. Some SAARC members would no doubt object to the fact that there is no history of Nepal and Sri Lanka in that book, and Bhutan and the Maldives hardly merit a footnote. The contrast between the title and contents of the book, however, do reveal the ways in which history shapes most notions of South Asia we use today, and why that category remains, despite many relevant objections, impossible to separate from notions of British India.

Britain acquired an empire in India, not in a ‘fit of absent-mindedness’ as a prominent British historian suggested, but certainly in a piecemeal fashion. A mix of opportunism, greed, and national rivalries drove the acquisition of this empire over a period of a hundred years from the middle of the eighteenth century. The acquisition was facilitated by outright military conquest, diplomatic manoeuvres, and the use of dubious quasi-legal doctrines. Much of the actual work of territorial expansion was carried out by individuals nominally working for the East India Company (hereafter referred to as the EIC or simply the Company), but who, over time, began to function much more as representatives of the Crown and then the British Parliament. A major revolt in 1857 put an end to most of the territorial expansion and certainly ended the role of the EIC in governance. The Company territories now came under the direct control of the Crown and Parliament, and the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, was formally invested with the title of Empress of India in 1877.

It was easier to declare Victoria the Empress of India than it was to actually create a unified British India out of the tremendous regional diversity the Company, and then the Crown, succeeded to in the subcontinent. The presence of a large number of states nominally under the control of native princes visibly demonstrated the limits of such an endeavour. This was the result of Victoria’s own proclamation in 1858, which guaranteed the integrity of India’s remaining princes. But even within the areas under their control, the British were not as successful as they would have liked, in transforming zamindars of the north, merchants of the west, plantation workers of the east, or priests of the south into homogenised Indian subjects of the empire. It is important to keep in mind that the EIC and then the Crown did not replace a single, centralised empire in India. Rather, the EIC displaced a number of vibrant regional states, which in turn had overthrown or ignored their former overlords of the Mughal dynasty. Moreover, British power was acquired over a long period of time. The new rulers of the region had to try and cobble together a British India from a welter of different regional entities. Through common laws, a common currency, lines of communication cutting across the subcontinent, and with the help of institutions such as the civil service (not for nothing was it called the steel frame of the Raj), the British attempted to create out of regional diversities, a centralised empire in India. This was not an easy task, and to a large extent, this was a project which remained incomplete.

Yet, incomplete does not mean insignificant. Economically, culturally and for strategic reasons, ‘India’ became central to the British imperial mission, and in turn the empire had profound transformative impacts on the people it sought to incorporate. It has become a fashion, of late, for revisionists of imperial history to argue that British imperialism was merely a blip in the long history of continuities in the subcontinent. It is suggested that the British Raj was in fact completely undermined by local interests, and that what appeared to be new in this era--whether imperial governance strategies or nationalist responses to these--were no more than a continuation of older forms of politics with new labels. The artisans who were deprived of a living with the competition from machine-made yarn and fabrics, the peasants who were made subject to vagaries of an international market at terms unfavourable to them, the soldiers who fought to expand or defend imperial interests across the world, or the indentured workers who were herded into plantations in India and overseas, would, no doubt, disagree with this revisionist assessment of the Raj.
Equally, India was important not only to ensure the economic prosperity of the British Empire, but was central to the very self-imagination of Britain and British nationalism. To defend these imperial interests, initially the Company, and then the Crown sought to extend their domain from India to include modern day Sri Lanka, they annexed territories from the Nepali kingdom, incorporated for a while what was then known as Burma into British India, and suffered serious setbacks in their attempts to seek control over Afghanistan. If today these territories are, in some eyes, seen as part of South Asia, then it is certainly due to this attempt by the British to expand or defend their empire in India. Equally, when other lexicons regard South Asia to be synonymous with India, then that too is part of the same colonial legacy.

The notion of India and its product, the notion of South Asia, are also the products of nationalisms directed against the colonial rulers. Yet most of these nationalisms too were a ‘derivative discourse’--to use a phrase coined by Partha Chatterjee. Drawing their arguments from a vocabulary and world-view, in a large part borrowed from that of the rulers, educated middle-class nationalists used imperial categories to mount what became challenges to the British empire. Early nationalists though, took pride in their loyalty towards the British empire. Their demands for greater representation in the institutions of colonial governance--whether on councils or in the civil service--were couched in the rhetoric that as natives they were better placed to represent the needs of the loyal subjects of that empire.
That their identification with the empire soon turned to a project of emphasising the cultural differences between British rulers and their native subjects, was in large measure a product of colonial racism which delighted in ridiculing the aspirations of ‘brown sahibs’ to positions of equality with that of the rulers. However, whether they reacted, resisted, responded, opposed or accommodated with the structures of empire, for most part, organisations such as the Indian National Congress, and the All India Muslim League, as their very names indicate, worked within and were limited by, the territorial framework established by the colonial presence in the region. Thus the All India Muslim League, though concerned with a wider, global, Islamic community, never sought to represent Muslims outside of the area circumscribed by British paramountcy. The Indian National Congress too, did not seek to extend its scope of operations to, say, Sri Lanka or Burma, which were deemed to be outside of ‘India’ proper by the British authorities. Administrative boundaries of British India clearly limited and curtailed the geographic extent of nationalisms within colonial India.

More significant perhaps than the territorial limits imposed by colonialism, was the extent to which colonialism circumscribed the very imagination of nationalists. Nothing illustrates the devastating legacy of these frameworks better than the partition of the sub-continent. Ultra-nationalist historians aside, most analysts today would agree with the proposition that it was the inability or the unwillingness of the major participants to break with colonially constructed categories of thought and politics which resulted in the partition of 1947. The political division of British India into two nation-states was certainly not the product of religious plurality alone. Rather it was the product, ultimately, of a colonial imagination, which translated religious diversity into political distinctions and created political institutions, which furthered those distinctions. There is always the danger in analysis of this sort, however, of attributing all agency for historical change to British colonialism. In fact, the structures and imaginations of colonialism would have been of little significance in this context, had they not also served the interests of middle-class nationalist who inhabited these structures and furthered the devastating reach of the colonial imagination. Religious nationalism, or what is called communalism in South Asia, was a product of colonialism taken to new and devastating heights by self-serving nationalist leaderships.

In all fairness though, it must be said that not all nationalisms were self-serving, though even many of these alternative visions did come to be co-opted or marginalised by colonial political processes and institutions. A variety of radical visions of the nation, not necessarily tied to the structures of colonial rule flourished among a population where a majority had reasons for disaffection from not only the colonial rulers, but also their immediate, native, superiors. Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s vision and rhetoric addressed much of this disaffection. The towering presence of Gandhi in the nationalist arena need not, however, blind us to the popularity of more revolutionary and socially transformative imaginations of the nation which co-existed with and at times were as popular as the world envisioned by the Mahatma. However, there is no doubt that Gandhi’s critique of modernity, and his call for total non-cooperation with colonial institutions in the 1920s, became the starting point of mass nationalist politics in British India. Yet even in the 1920s middle class leaders of Gandhi’s own party, the Indian National Congress (INC), participated, and indeed revelled in the power and patronage they could access through participating in the elections and institutions sponsored by the colonial state. The leadership of the Muslim League, was, if anything, even more elitist and self-serving than that of the INC at that time. By the middle of the fourth decade of the twentieth century, different sections of the middle-class nationalist leadership (as well as the colonial authorities, of course) were concerned by the potential threat to their own interest posed by Gandhian ideas and the revolutionary potential of popular nationalisms. They eventually succeeded in marginalising these all together, so as to define a ‘mainstream’ of politics primarily concerned with elections, councils, and control over institutions of the state.

The partition of 1947 was a product of the inability of the participants in the new mainstream of politics to come to an agreement about how to share power between them. The elections of 1937 were a watershed event in this history. The INC did spectacularly well in these elections, while the Muslim League fared disastrously. Envisioning themselves as the new rulers of India, the INC leadership adopted the high moral ground and rhetoric very similar to that deployed by the British colonial administrators. Claiming that they were the sole representatives of Indian nationalism, the INC now began to relegate the Muslim League to the status of a party which represented sub-national or ‘communal’ interests. The League, in turn, replied by insisting that there were not one, but two nations in British India, a Hindu nation represented by the INC and a Muslim one, of which they were the ‘sole spokesmen’.

The coming of the Second World War did not interrupt this conflict. Moreover, the massive outbreak of popular anti-colonial violence during the Quit India movement of 1942, outside the control of the major nationalist parties, worried the British leadership considerably. The end of the war saw Britain economically impoverished, militarily exhausted, and under mounting pressure from the Indians, the international community, and even large sections of their own population, to relinquish control over India. After a few failed attempts at brokering a compromise between the League and the INC, the British decided to divide British India between the two and quit with as much speed as possible. Meanwhile some nationalist leaders, for their own limited political purposes, were escalating popular anger against other religious communities. The real tragedy of the partition--the death of over a million people and the forcible displacement of around 10 million--was a result both of the actions of a short-sighted nationalist leadership and the hasty transfer of power, which left little time to prepare people for the momentous changes with which they were to be confronted.

There is a lot to be said for names. A rose by any other name is not a rose. The new Pakistani leadership protested the appropriation of the label ‘India’ by the INC leadership for their section of the country. Even today, most official Pakistani communication uses ‘Bharat’ rather than ‘India’ to refer to its eastern neighbour. The INC, on the other hand truly believed that it succeeded to the British legacy of being the paramount power in the region. Thus, when thinking about South Asia, the Indian state has often sought the same role as a regional hegemon as the one enjoyed by the empire in its heyday. One could argue that the totally avoidable war with China in 1962 was a product of remnants of this misguided belief. Of course Pakistan was a visible and vocal obstacle to this ‘imperial’ imagination of South Asia. But in the Indian imagination, Pakistan was, and to a large extent continues to be, regarded as an artificial creation, brought into being from naturally-existing India by the machinations of the British and some self-serving Muslim politicians. The description of partition as a ‘tragedy’ in this context, refers not to the millions of dead and displaced, but to the very existence of Pakistan. The Indian state helped their argument regarding Pakistan’s artificiality somewhat by supporting Bengali separatism in eastern Pakistan, and even going to war for the ‘liberation’ of Bangladesh. The colonial legacy continues to haunt the Indian imagination of South Asia, particularly in the way it seeks to represent its role in the region as a benevolent though vastly superior lord of the manor. There is no doubt that this is an imagination which the Indian leadership needs to transcend, if it is to avoid the sort of disasters it has perpetrated in the past-whether it be the China debacle of 1962 or sending an Indian peace keeping force to deal with ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. We cannot, however, transcend what we don’t first recognise.

That the notion of South Asia today is rife with problems is not hidden from any one. To begin to discuss these problems and their possible resolutions, we need to realise that this regional label itself has a history. The region continues to be configured through a geographic and cultural imagination created during colonial times. South Asia today is India-centric, but only in part due to it being the largest and most powerful state in the region. This India centricness is equally the product of a history where the region itself was defined in terms of British interests and objectives, to which India was central. If the Indian state acts as the big brother of the region, then that too is the product of the same history. Claiming that the situation today is the product of history does not, of course, mean we accept the status quo or do not try to change it. But in order to solve a problem we need first to understand it, and in understanding South Asia today, we ignore the historical baggage this category carries with it only at our own peril.

(Sanjay Joshi is an associate professor at the Department of History, Northern Arizona University, USA)

Produced By: Free Media Foundation For South Asian Free Media Association