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Of ‘South Asia’ and the colonized speech of the Brown Folks

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Saumya Dey
Saumya Dey
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.

We Indians are ancient people and take justifiable pride in many accomplishments of our civilization over the roughly fifty centuries for which it has endured. We, in other words, have a lot of history behind us. Presumably, there is a lot in this history worthy of academic attention. And it does receive this attention, both from the Indian and western academics. But their approaches are different. One ought to know that universities in the western hemisphere, in Europe and North America, generally do not have departments of Indian history. They, instead, have departments of ‘South Asian Studies.’ For more than two decades or so, the terms ‘India’ or ‘Indian Subcontinent’ have been studiously avoided in western academia. Indeed, so widespread is this practice that last year there was a move (later aborted) in the United States to replace ‘India’ with ‘South Asia’ in the history text books in the Californian schools.

For some time now, ‘India’ and ‘Indian Subcontinent’ have been eschewed in Indian academic writing as well. We too have begun to call ourselves ‘South Asia’ and have followed up by producing learned theses on ‘South Asian literature’ or ‘South Asian religious traditions’ and holding academic seminars on ‘caste formations in South Asia.’ With what logic have we followed suit, and with such extraordinary alacrity? As far as my own discipline, history, is concerned, the reason sometimes adduced for the avoidance of using ‘India’ is that the territory covered by the present Indian state generally has not been (but for some imperial intervals such as the Mauryan, Mughal and British) one political unit prior to 1947. Further, not all ‘Indian’ history happened within the bounds of the current Indian state. A fair amount of it unfolded in areas which are no more politically parts of India – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Hence, we are told, it is preferable to employ ‘South Asia’ in academic writings and conversations. This might sound at least empirically fair, after all our country happens to lie in the southern half of the Asian continent. But is it really so? Let me dwell on this issue by pointing out the very different academic treatment meted to another country which, like our own, has a lot of history behind it – Greece.

Classical Greece was not politically united; it was a congeries of scores of city states. In fact, the first time a Greek state was founded was in 1821. In the preceding two and a half thousand years there was a never a united Greek state. Instead, the country, following its city states’ phase, was a part of multiple empires – Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine and, finally, Ottoman. Yet, ‘Greece’, ‘Greek’, ‘Grecian’ and ‘Hellenic’ enjoy the status of being legitimate academic parlance. ‘India’, ‘Indian Subcontinent’ and ‘Indic’, on the other hand, are now academically almost taboo. Greece does not get called ‘South Eastern Europe’ though it is precisely that in plain geographical terms. The unfortunate fate of India, in marked contrast, is to be effaced beneath the appellation ‘South Asia.’ The famous University of Harvard has an Ancient History Department dedicated to the histories of Greece and Rome. Greek history is not banished to some department of ‘South East European Studies.’ I am sure, the very idea of doing so will appear rather ridiculous to the savants at Harvard. In the same institution, the history of our own country is studied and taught in a Department of South Asian Studies.

There is another fact about Greece which a lot of us are unaware of – some of the most well-known characters of Greek history did not come from what is today Greece. Not all ‘Greek history’ unfolded within the limits of contemporary Greece. Homer (if he existed at all) was an Ionian. Ionia will correspond to the northern coastline of present day Turkey. Pythagoras was born on the Island of Samos (in the Aegean sea) and spent most of his life in the city state of Croton which lay on the southern tip of Italy. Archimedes lived and worked in Syracuse which was a city state on the island of Sicily. Yet, all these gentlemen are regarded ‘Greek’ and their accomplishments naturally figure in any standard narration of ‘Greek history.’ Implicit in this practice is the acceptance that the history of ‘Greece’ transcends the territorial limits of the current Greek state. Thus, histories of northern Turkey, southern Italy and Sicily are effortlessly accommodated within the history of ‘Greece.’ And this is done while retaining the name ‘Greece.’ But, alas, the same courtesy is not extended to us. Histories of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal cannot anymore be justly accommodated within an academic account of Indian history. This collation can be done only within a narrative of ‘South Asian history.’

The name ‘India’, in such a situation, has to be given up in academic writing. To my sensibilities, this is an unpleasant academic habit that has gained some unfortunately widespread acceptance. This acceptance is an indication that the academic language that we brown folks speak and write is yet to be decolonized. Many years ago, the French philosopher Michel Foucault had conceptualized and elaborated upon the relations between structures of power and knowledge. The two, he had said, presuppose and produce each other. In other words, structures of power (social and political) conceal structures of knowledge – they are based upon a specific understanding of the world and they seek to enforce this understanding upon the people they control. In the same vein, structures (or systems) of knowledge have relations of power inbuilt in them – they might privilege certain people with a certain way of seeing the world more than others. How does this privileging operate? We might say that it happens when certain people supply the ‘correct’ concepts and nomenclature for a certain system of knowledge and certain other people unquestioningly accept their verity. We brown folks are guilty of privileging the west by allowing it to decide the ‘correct’ concepts and nomenclature which we can employ to relate our history. We no more suffer political colonization, but we have allowed the west to colonize our academic speech. We have done this by taking to calling ourselves ‘South Asia’ and silently tabooing the use of ‘India’ and ‘Indian Subcontinent.’ As far as I am concerned, ‘South Asia’ is a badge of disgrace that we ought to cease to wear. I am not a ‘South Asian’, no more than a Greek is a ‘South East European.’ I am an Indian and my country is a part of a broader geographical and civilization whole which I would like to be called the Indian Subcontinent. This because the broad cultural and civilizational pattern across this whole is Indic, just as the broad cultural and civilizational pattern in ancient Ionia, Croton and Sicily was Hellenic. For me it is only incidental that the Indian Subcontinent happens to lie in the southern half of the Asian land mass.

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Saumya Dey
Saumya Dey
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.
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