The notion of Southasia is not a cartographic grid of a specific geographic region, but an India-centric approach that dominates the region as a whole. For a resident of Northeast India, this vision of Southasia is frustrating. This narrow approach has emerged out of a Big Brother-type mentality of dominant state perspective on history, politics and people in the region. Although the Northeast seldom appears outside the security-and-insurgency framework in India, it is one of the most diverse areas in all of Asia, where groups speak a different tongue every 30 kilometres, and which shares boundaries with five countries (China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma). Yet what ultimately dominates the region’s imagination is the 22-km ‘chicken’s neck’ strip that connects the Northeast to the rest of India, or the New Delhi security analysis.
While the possibilities of extending the SAARC trade-and-commerce project in the Northeast have been highlighted, the area will occupy only a marginal position in the national imagination of states and regional forums such as SAARC if we fail to question rigid and dominant notions of history, politics and spaces. In essence, SAARC is a state forum to oversee economic cooperation in the region and, for that reason; it represents exclusive and hegemonic history and politics, where real people are relegated to the margins.
Meanwhile, the university system has engaged with Southasia in a different manner. Within the ‘area studies’ regime, scholars and researchers have been trained as ‘Southasianists’ for decades, especially in Europe and North America. For those so-trained, intellectual cliques, area-studies conferences and seminars have established a firm academic ground. But while the depiction of Southasia as an exciting and vibrant intellectual playground is legitimate, the geographical boundary of Southasia has also produced an insular approach towards studying the region.
In academia, Southasia has meant a huge concentration on India, with very little space for the rest. Like the state, the pursuit of knowledge has seldom overcome the geographical boundaries. Accepting spatial limits as normative, the academy has often remained incapable of imagining the region as a fluid, mobile space where people’s histories, politics and geographies meet. While there are state restrictions and regulations about conducting research, universities, considered as a bastion of knowledge production, often do not challenge such restrictions. For instance, the National Archive of India in New Delhi has strict regulations about granting access to students seeking post-1914 archival documents. Researchers credentials are checked on an individual basis, prior to granting access to documents said to be “of interest to national security” by an unimaginative bureaucracy. Many students working on Northeast India and Kashmir have been denied access to archival materials crucial to their research.
The National Archives is a typical case of postcolonial paranoia, where state archives are viewed as the sole purveyors of history. Within such conditions, research and intellectual pursuit in the region have been limited both spatially and intellectually. Creative research on such issues as the nationalities inhabiting the Himalaya, stretching from Nepal to the Indian Northeast, the downstream impact of mega-dams along the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin, or notions of sovereignty of Tamil fishermen, is actively discouraged by state-centric research institutions. One wonders therefore, whether the South Asian University in the process of being established (significantly) in the outskirts of the Indian capital will only end up reproducing a stultifying research agenda.
In this context, the NGOs have also followed a standard template, where terms such as country representative are used to refer to their respective regional heads. However, unlike state initiatives, NGOs, especially those that work with alternative media, social movements and environmental issues, have managed in some instances to bring life to the idea of a regionally rich and varied Southasia. Bringing people and not governments to talk has led to significant social and political transformations. Whether it is a regional civil-society initiative such as the India-Pakistan Friendship Forum, a local collaboration such as the Ahom-Naga Oral Testimony Project in Northeast India, or the alternative media involved in community radio in Nepal, such initiatives bring out the vibrancy of people’s politics in Southasia.
Is SAARC an inclusive or an exclusive forum? What is the notion of Southasia? Afghanistan’s entry into SAARC as a member state in 2007 might provoke us to engage with the idea of an inclusive Southasia. Located at the junction of South and Central Asia, Afghanistan has always defied geographically unimaginative area-study categories. Similarly, Northeast India defies lazy territorial categorisations. Yet these regions are only reluctantly admitted to the decision-making table because of SAARC’s exclusivist orientation.
States and universities have often worked along rigid boundaries for policymaking purposes. Knowledge production in university centres has stifled creativity and vibrancy, and failed to keep pace with genuine desires for regional cooperation among people in the region. For those of us who are placed far away from the mechanics of SAARC’s bureaucracy and state-centric notions, the fears of being subsumed under yet another series of policymaking and knowledge-production processes are real. The only way out of such a knot is to keep defying the state-centric, Big Brother tendencies within SAARC, and to be sceptical about its homogenising attempts to make policies for a wonderfully diverse region and people.
~ Dolly Kikon is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, in the US.