In the last pages of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, the master artisan Ananda Udugama is tasked with chiselling a new Buddha from the ruins of a colossal statue that had been dynamited in the midst of a bloody civil war. Ironically, the Buddha had not been bombed in the immediate dynamic of the war, but rather in an attempted theft of treasures that were thought to be buried in his torso – the bombers were trying, Ondaatje says, “to find a solution for hunger”. Yet even as they were reconstructing the Buddha’s body, Ananda and his artisan cohorts were unearthing bodies that had been disappeared across the country. That landscape of violence and loss that was scarred from clashing political projects regarding statehood and militancy also bore the scars of different struggles against hunger and poverty. Working in this brutalised ground, Ananda examines the artistic vision that produced the ruined Buddha, as he takes on a (re)construction that also gives the Buddha a new perspective. Ananda’s expertise is in eye-painting, and he chisels out eyes facing north, pondering the “figure of the world the statue would see”.
The very act of creating the Buddha is also about this Buddha seeing differently; he remains rooted in the ruins that are the ground from which he sees, but his vision is not confined to yesterday’s landscape. In some sense, exploring what it means to be Southasian is a parallel endeavour: it is to interrogate the invocation of ‘Southasia’, to lay bare that inherited landscape and the different visions of justice and collective life that have been buried in the political cartography of the region. It is to unearth the distributive stakes in that landscape, and examine what became normalised and legitimised in different visions. However, as with Ananda’s Buddha, against and from the ground of those past visions of Southasia, this interrogation is also about (re)construction and new perspectives – reclaiming that ground for different visions and different investments in our intersecting and overlapping futures. What, then, are the projects that have been inherent to the invocation of what it means to be ‘Southasian’?
There are many Southasias that we need to strain against here. There is the Southasia that was inscribed into the region through the geographies of the British Raj and the technologies of colonial governance. There is the Southasia that has emerged through the production of the postcolonial state and its attendant national mythologies embedded in institutions of governance. There is the Southasia that is about notions of security and territorial integrity that are mobilised from Kashmir to the Nepali terrain, from Balochistan to Batticaloa – notions of ‘security’ that are invoked by those deploying the sepulchre of statehood and those aspiring to it, those acting in the name of territorial integrity and those acting in the name of self-determination.
There is, of course, the Southasia that underscores notions of ‘authentic’ regional culture that have emboldened differentiated citizenship and a violent majoritarianism on the one hand, and sepia-coloured, corporatised multiculturalism on the other. There is also the Southasia that is utilised in the invocation of ‘tradition’, in order to insulate ideologies and practices predicated on caste, gender, sexuality or other social axes from dissent, seeking to place these beyond the ambit of political contestation. There is the Southasia that emerges in Cold War geographies of Southasian ‘area studies’, from the corridors of the CIA to the academic hallways of 1950s US social sciences. There is the Southasia that emerges in the world’s business papers, with the financial mapping of the region as an investment opportunity of emerging markets and trading zones. The list is longer. These are but a few ground markers of the invocation of ‘Southasia’ that we need first to explore in order even to begin the project of (re)construction. We have to unpack how the invocation of ‘Southasia’ is invested in the ‘projects’ already mentioned, and their implications for the distribution of resources and meanings, to see whether we can open up that ground for counter-hegemonic possibilities.
Out of the museum
One of the most ubiquitous invocations of ‘Southasia’ is the claim to a collective historical inheritance. Even as schoolchildren, all over the Subcontinent, textbooks laud history’s gifts to the label ‘Southasian’. Early on, we are tutored in the achievements of the Mohenjodaro Harappa civilisation as our collective inheritance, and are told that to be Southasian is about reclaiming a glorious pre-colonial past. Yet if what it means to be Southasian is to have meaningful traction with our lives today, it cannot be about claiming a place in the museum of world wonders. Rather, it has to be about our ongoing struggles for justice and political possibility. Being Southasian in any sense that matters to those struggles has to be about how we confront the present and make the future, not about how we glorify the past. Not that the past is irrelevant.
Like the Buddha statue we started with, we walk forward from histories of many brutalities, whose scars shape our future; from hunger to torture, from vast inequalities to civil wars, we need to seek out new historical paths on those very same landscapes. With the 25th anniversary just past of the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka, we are emphatically reminded that the past is a place we need to reckon with and build from, not venerate as museum trophies. In fact, the Southasia that will be our future will be made and unmade in how we confront the debts we owe for past wrongs. This latter memory of our past is also a certain kind of forgetting; remembrance of past glories is also about the forgetting of past injustices. The German theorist Walter Benjamin argues that all documents of civilisation are also documents of barbarism. Reckoning with the celebration of Indian and Pakistani independences is also about coming to terms with the brutalities of Partition and its reach into our present, from Gujarat to Karachi.
The embrace of universal franchise and first-past-the-post democracy in Sri Lanka was also the inauguration of a mathematical violence of majoritarian oppression. The privileged victims of the War of Liberation in Bangladesh have rendered into the shadows the victims of the liberating army. The birth of Nepal as a republic is itself overshadowed by the preceding decade of killings, disappearances and continued impunity for those crimes. Across the region, we need to recover and revisit the traditions of dissent suppressed in the national myths of monumental histories and epic heroes. How we confront those pasts is about the present: it is about the challenges and responsibilities of today. Those challenges also include creating the ground for new solidarities, not only within Southasia, but also across the globe – from Bandung to Bihar, Jaffna to Jamaica. Being Southasian is not about taking the place from which we act as a given, but about the process of recreating and contesting that place in ways that expand our political imagination, and seek to ignite the counter-hegemonic political possibilities that are inherent in the interstices of justice struggles today.
~ Vasuki Nesiah is the Director of International Affairs at Brown University in Rhode Island, US.