‘South Asian’ identity signals alignment without being aligned to anything specific

Of late, a growing number of Indian-Americans look to assert a South Asian identity for most of their sociopolitical and cultural expressions even though actual residents of ‘South Asia’ don’t claim this identity in any way, home or abroad. I realize that second-generation Indian-Americans embrace ‘South Asian’ forums in reaction to various domestic conditions. However, they ignore the polysemy of the term ‘South Asia’ when they project it internationally, for example, to express ‘South Asian’ pride over Kamala Devi Harris’s historic election for the Vice Presidency, instead of just Indian-American pride. Of course, I’m not talking about African-American pride here; it is beyond the purview of my discussion.

According to my understanding, increasing application of the term ‘South Asia’—just like the Middle East—precludes a nuanced perception of the particular countries that make up the region. It permits Americans to perceive the region like it is a monolith. Although the impression of the United States is striking in the Indian imagination, the image of India, as it turns out, is not very obvious for the average citizen in the United States, not even among second-generation Indian Americans, as I see it. To gauge American curiosity in a particular region, language enrollment in US universities is a decent metric. It turns out, around seven times more American students study Russian than all the Indian languages combined. The study of India compares unfavorably with China in nearly every higher education metric, and surprisingly, it also fares poorly compared to Costa Rica! As an aside, to understand India and her neighborhood, an alternate perspective to CNN or BBC on ‘South Asian’ geopolitics is WION (“World is One” News – a take on the Indic vasudhaiva kutumbakam). I highly recommend the Gravitas section of WION for an international audience. 

Back to the central question: ‘South Asia’ and why Indians do not prefer this tag?

For decades, the United States hyphenated its India policy by balancing every action with New Delhi with a counterbalancing activity with Islamabad. So much so that the American focus on Iran and North Korean nuclear proliferation stood out in total contrast to the whitewashing of Pakistan’s private A.Q. Khan network for nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, in a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that gauges how Americans perceive other countries, India hovered between forty-six and forty-nine on a scale from zero to one hundred since 1978, reflecting its reputation neither as an ally or an adversary. With the civil-nuclear deal, the Bush administration discarded the hyphenation construct and eagerly pursued an independent program between India and the United States. Still, in 2010, only 18 percent of Americans saw India as “very important” to the United States—fewer than those who felt similarly about Pakistan (19%) and Afghanistan (21%), and well below China (54%) and Japan (40%). Even though the Indo-US bilateral relationship has transformed for the better from the Bush era, the increasing use of ‘South Asia’ on various platforms by academics and non-academics alike, while discussing India, represents a new kind of hyphenated view or a bracketed view of India. Many Indian citizens in the US like me find this bracket unnecessary, especially in the present geopolitical context. 

What geopolitical context? There are several reasons why South Asian identity pales in comparison to our national identities:

  1. The word ‘South Asia’ emerged exogenously as a category in the United States to study the Asian continent by dividing it. So, it is a matter of post Second World War scholarship of Asia from the Western perspective.
  2. Despite scholarship, ‘South Asia’ has low intelligibility because there is no real consensus over which countries comprise South Asia. SAARC includes Afghanistan among its members; the World Bank leaves it out. Some research centers include Myanmar—a province of British India till 1937, and Tibet, but leave out Afghanistan and the Maldives. For instance, the UK largely accepts the term ‘Asian’ rather than ‘South Asian’ for academic centers. The rest of Europe uses ‘Southeast Asia.’
  3. Besides, geopolitically, India wants to grow out of the South Asian box; it cares a lot more about the ASEAN and BRICS grouping than SAARC. 
  4. Under Modi, India has a more significant relationship with Japan than with any South Asian neighbor. With Japan and South Korea, India plans to make Indo-pacific a geopolitical reality. 
  5. South Asia symbolizes India’s unique hegemonic fiefdom, which is viewed unfavorably by neighboring Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
  6. According to the World Bank, South Asia remains one of the least economically integrated regions globally.
  7. South Asia is also among the least physically integrated (by road infrastructure) regions of the world and this disconnect directly affects our politics and culture.

Therefore, the abstract nature of ‘South Asia’ is far from a neutral term that embraces multiple cultures. It is, at best, a placeholder for structured geopolitical co-operation in the subcontinent. However, in socio-cultural terms, ‘South Asia’ used interchangeably with India signals India’s dominance over her neighborhood. Contrarily, in India’s eyes, it is a dilution of her rising aspirations on the world stage. These facts widen the gap between the US’s intentions (general public and particularly, second-generation Indian-Americans) and a prouder India’s growing ambitions. 

Besides, it is worth mentioning that women leaders have already held the highest public office in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. So as you see in this video, the Indian international actress, Priyanka Chopra, tries her best to be diplomatic about this nebulous ‘South Asian’ pride thingy, but she rejoins with the more solid identity, her Indian identity. The next time, say a Nepalese-American does something incredible in the US, and you want to find out how another Nepali feels about this achievement, as a matter of experiment, refer to the accomplishment as Nepali pride, instead of South Asian pride, and see the delight on the person’s face. Repeat this with another Nepali, but this time use the ‘South Asian’ identity tag and note the contrast in the reaction.