South Asia’s nation-state approach to identity has spawned an introverted polity that clips history to suit short-sighted nationalism. It ignores other ethno-linguistic and religious tapestries that define South Asianhood.
With apologies to René Descartes, am I a South Asian? If yes, when did I become one?
Identities, we are told, are not innate to individuals but are socially constructed. If the SAARC region between 60 and 100 meridians south of the Hindukush-Himalaya cordillera can be characterised by anything, it is by its surfeit of identities. Whether in terms of language, ethnicity, fairly racist varna, property-based class, religious rituals, physiographic zones, ecological niches, urban-rural divides, modern political ideology or tradition-ascribed roles, identity abound here as perhaps nowhere else on the globe.
This multiple identity characterises not just the South Asian region or groups of people within this region but also the individual. A simple statement such as “A Nepali is…” cannot be completed with a single noun or an adjective, except by the grossly ignorant. A dweller of this mountain kingdom—or indeed of any other country in South Asia—can be many things at the same time. Which is why attempts to give a single identity to a group through the garb of nationalism have failed miserably everywhere, even when jackboots have been used to assure compliance.
Where does the South Asian identity fit into this medley of identities in our midst? Is it even necessary? The pull of success and the poor-cousin syndrome seem stronger than history or geography when, for instance, Pakistanis try to become West Asians and Sri Lankans or the Burmese try to think of themselves as Southeast Asians. What benefit does South Asianhood have to offer?
I into infinity
In an apocryphal story, Adi Shankara-charya heard a knock at his door. When he asked, “Who’s there?” his disciple replied, “It is I.” Shankara is supposed to have retorted, “If this ‘I’ is so dear to you, then expand it to infinity, or else get rid of it altogether!”
Such a Vedantic or Sufi solution might not be every hardworking South Asian’s cup of tea, but the idea of embracing a larger ecumenical fold (or being absorbed by it) is fundamental to addressing many of our destructively divisive identities. For constructive engagement between identities, the larger the common pool of historical resource from where we can all draw sustenance, the more accommodating the encounters will be. If identities are constructed from a smaller social gene pool, the possibility of accepting the ‘Other’ is so much lesser. And destructive encounters can be easier for fundamentalists to engineer.
The journey into South Asianhood will be different for different people since we all start from unique baskets of identity patches. Can one become something one is inherently not? Should not the seeds be there for the potential to unfold? Two trips several years back stand out in my memory as identity- shaking events: a visit to Taxila (or Takshy-asheela to Sanskrit purists) in Pakistan and to Nalanda in the badlands of Bihar, both remains of the seats of ancient learning in South Asia.
The Taxila ruins lie in the western Punjab plains on the route of the most mass migrations from Central Asia to the Indus-Ganga plains. Its artefacts are vestiges of several millennia of culture, from Aryan to Gandhara Buddhist and also includes one of the earliest Syrian Christian churches this side of the Khyber Pass. The most famous Taxila relic is, of course, that of the Fasting Buddha (now in a Lahore museum).
My personal link with ancient happenings in the plains of the Indus lies among the many genealogies being re-constructed in Nepal, of which my family’s is also one. It builds up the idea that the Abraham of this line was a certain Ananta Bhatta who left what is now Punjab over millennia ago (before Islam’s advent in South Asia or even before the Anglo-Saxon race had begun to exist) to head for the sanctuary of a king in western Nepal’s Achaam Jumla hills. With this impression, mythical or otherwise, I could not stand in Taxila and not feel a deep sense of reverence. Which of my ancestors, on my father’s or mother’s side, had taught at this ancient university? Where have all the distant cousins spread, as wars and bad rulers plundered the land over the centuries in cycles as repetitive as the monsoons?
Geneticist Richard Dawkins argues in River out of Eden that “we are all cousins of the queen” and we don’t even have to go too far back, just a few dozen generations, to find out—especially if we do not confine ourselves to patrilineage alone and allow for a dash of promiscuity to our ancestors. It is perhaps this subliminal cousin-hood that allows a Nepali Hindu to feel a sense of cultural ownership of Shahjahan’s Badshahi mosque in Lahore, but less so of the Faisal mosque in Islamabad. Perhaps his language also helps a Nepali in this imperialism. The word lahurey (from Lahore’s mercenary recruitment centres during the time of Ranjit Singh) refers to any economic out-migrant and the Indus-Ganga plains are still referred to in the Nepali hills as “Muglan”, the land of the Moghuls. History, when it transcends the limitations of ‘national’ history, can be quite liberating and enriching.
Seeds of hope
The ruins of Nalanda lie in the Rajgir hills just before the river Ganga leaves the plains and enters the Bengal delta. In its heyday, this university was the font of Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism that still hold sway over Bengal, Mithila, Nepal and Tibet. This site is also very close to Rajgir where Buddha punished his body with six years of fasting and penance (as captured in the Taxila image) before heading along the ridge to Gaya and enlightenment.
One of the stupas at Nalanda is supposed to encase the relics of his favourite disciple Sariputtra. Close enough to Nalanda are Pawa Puri where the founder of Jainism, Mahavir, cast off his earthly body, and the Gurdwara in Patna where the last of the Sikh gurus, Govind Singh, was born. One can thus visit Nalanda and holy sites associated with three major reformation movements in one day.
Among the fossilised rituals a Nepali Bahun (hill Brahmin) still has to engage in is the annual shraddha ceremony, a type of ancestor worship meant to cement hierarchic patrilineage and assigned roles in society. (This is the antipode of the Sherpa practice of not mentioning the name of the dead, which allows the living to be more egalitarian and unburdened with their past.) One of the lifetime requirements—like a Haj to Mecca—is that this ceremony be done in Gaya in Bihar and Hardwar in the UP hills. Since Nepal has no dearth of holy places, this fossilised tradition does not make much sense until one visits Nalanda and Rajgir and engages in a bit of historical speculation.
Since this ancient seat of learning produced many Buddhist scholars as well as those of the Mithila and Bengal Tantric schools before being pillaged in the 12th century, its influence on everyday life of eastern South Asia must have been significant. There is a saying reverentially accepted by the faithful that “giving daan (gifts) to Brahmins ensures the samrakshyan (protection) of Dharma”—translated today as bribed booking of prime seats in afterlife.
Given that Tantric Hinduism enjoys predominance in the hills of Nepal, could it be that the tradition of the Gaya shraddha is the antiquated remains of the practice of endowing Nalanda University with trust funds and its learned professors research grants in the names of the dear departed? Are the Nepali Bahuns merely upholding the vestiges of a glorious tradition of learning that swept the continent north and south of the Himalaya? If a South Asian renaissance is to occur, it may be necessary to pick through these dead imprints to find the few living cells of hope and clone them back to contemporary everyday life.
It is difficult to think that such a vibrant and outward-looking intellectual life ever existed in what is now the territory of present-day Bihar or the eastern fringes of Afghanistan. With TV images of hijacked Indian Airlines IC 814, Kandahar today symbolises not Gandhara art but the bestial banality of evil, and Bihar no longer means a community of peaceful Buddhist ascetics but the home of political thugs. What has given birth to these low points of civilisation, however, is the truncated consciousness of nation-centric identity building that tries to jettison from collective memory the historical experiences of the periphery. Kandahar comes out of the insecurity of Kashmir, and Laloo Prasad Yadav’s kleptocracy is merely an art perfected through half a century of water resource contracts.
But even in these dens of iniquity, precocious flowering of global culture did occur, as also in other parts of South Asia. Those efforts continue to guide the beliefs and practices of South Asians today. The legend surrounding a gurdwara in northwest Kathmandu has it that Nanak himself practised austerities there. From Kshir Bhawani in Kashmir through the Shakti Peeths of Nepal to Kamakshya of Assam, millions of faithful believe that the relics of Sati Devi have been strewn across the Himalaya to provide it a legendary unity. The eastern Nepal Tarai and north Bihar are united in the Mithila parikrama of sacred spots that link the life of Sita and Ram.
The same applies to Buddhist places of pilgrimage, from the Indo-Gangetic plains north to Mongolia and south to the hazy history of Buddhism in the Maldives. The tales of Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura and Kandyan kingdoms, with dynasties and queens imported from the heartland of Buddhism between today’s Andhra Pradesh and Bangladesh, invoke a sense of history that embraces much more than the ideologies of today’s belligerents of Serendib.
Similar intermeshing threads between Hinduism and Islam could probably also be found in the lives of Chisti saints. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had a Sufi guru and another Sufi mystic, Sai Baba of Shirdi, has so many Hindu followers today that his Islamic heritage is almost forgotten. Legends like these that abound and tie us need to be re-visited in the process of forging a larger identity.
If a South Asian personality is to be built, it has to be true to our historical heritage that is ecumenical rather than fractiously selective of only certain historical timeframes that further the interests of the ruling powers of the day. Any South Asian must be able to stand at the ruins of Taxila or Nalanda, the exquisite carvings of Ajanta, Kathmandu or Anuradhapura, or the forts of Lahore and Agra and say, “I too am part of this”.
Swami Vivekananda, another globa-lising intellectual phenomenon of recent South Asian past, had said that what modern South Asia needs is a Vedantic mind in an Islamic body. He might have added: a Vedantic mind with a Buddhist heart in an Islamic body that is truly ecumenical. Of course, he did not say “South Asia”, textual purists will claim. He said “India”. But he said “India” when he meant South Asia because South Asia existed even then, when neither India nor Pakistan nor Bangladesh of today existed.
Herein lies the kernel of the problem of South Asianhood. The last ecumenical sovereigns of these lands were the Akbari Moghuls, but their rule took a wrong, regressive turn in history with the beheading of the syncretist crown prince Dara Sukhoh by his narrowly orthodox brother Aurangzeb. The failures of the Moghuls in subsequently uniting their people contributed to the successes of British rule that was ecumenical only for the practicality of housekeeping since the Europeans decided only to strike commercial, not real, roots. While departing these shores, the British left the basic civilisational problems of South Asia exactly where they had been during the fratricidal battles among the sons of Shahjahan—in a state of destructive identity wars rather than of constructive engagement.
South Asian identity cannot be conceived without acknowledging its rich regional histories that cannot be contained within any of the current national boundaries. If this is an obvious problem for the Other Six of South Asia’s seven SAARC members, in reality it is a bigger problem for the Indians. This is because the vivisected successor state to the Raj inherits the name but not the spirit of the Raj’s commercial administrative order that has been unravelling with the likes of Lalooism over the last half a century.
Phrases like “Indian Subcontinent” or the “Indian Ocean” imply an ownership without the legitimacy and a vestige of power without the potency. They give an illusion of the whole while leading towards a shrinking of perspectives. Nothing epitomises this contradiction better than the erroneous platitude one hears during state functions, that “Nepal-India relations are age-old”. Nepal-India relations are only half a century old, and a very troubled half a century at that. Before that it was Nepal-Britain relations, before that Nepal-Moghul/Nawab relations, and before that neither Nepal nor India existed. What is age-old are people-to-people relations all over South Asia, which probably go back to the time of Ramapithecus, and to confuse that with state-to-state relations is an exercise in diplomatic deception that avoids a hard look at real problems.
The last half-century of history has left South Asia with centres nurtured on the milk of colonial insecurity, and peripheries that are always angry over where they find themselves. This is as true of Kathmandu and the rest of Nepal as it is with Dhaka and Chittagong, Colombo and Jaffna, Islamabad and Sindh as well as Delhi and south or east India. While democracy has vented some of this pent-up anger, even within the longer timeframe of Indian democracy, there has been a steady strangling of cultural creativity and South Asia-wide engagement in other metropolises due to the proximity of power enjoyed by those in Delhi.
It is not uncommon to hear writers and artists in Madras or Calcutta complain of the patronising offers to move to Delhi (and not waste their time in the fringes) since they are so good. Come to Delhi, they are told, which is where all the GO or NGO fundings are. Perhaps the rise of regional and coalition politics in India will give more space to the Indian periphery, and these in turn will find more fulfillment in creative engagement with the region’s Other Six that may expand the historical consciousness of South Asia as a whole.
Even the problem of getting genuine secularism—essentially taking off from the point where Dara Sukhoh left—lies in embracing the ecumenism of South Asianhood that is built on crazy-quilt patches, each steeped in history. The current nation-state approach to identity also means an introverted polity that clips history to suit shrinking nationalism while ignoring other ethno-linguistic and religious tapestries. The average Bihari peasant does not feel South Asian simply because he has not even had a chance to feel properly Indian. Ditto for highland Dolpopas and Tarai dwellers in Nepal, Ahmediyas and Baltis in Pakistan, Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka, Lhotshampas and Sarchops in Bhutan or the Chakmas and Hindus in Bangladesh. Many in today’s South Asian peripheries may find South Asianhood more enriching and liberating than the uncaring nationalistic straitjackets they are strapped into.
Much of the centrifugal polity in South Asian states plays out within the Westminster model of democracy where the legislature gives birth to the executive and thus degrades its own role as social auditor or watchdog. The French, Swiss or the Americans have cleaner separations between the two, but in South Asia the legislature becomes a poor cousin to the executive and fails to prevent an erosion of the sense of justice and fairness in society. This imbalance results in political competition not for legislating good governance but in exercising executive power so as to be able to afford the race the next time around. The parliaments of horse-trading “aya Rams and gaya Rams” just have not become that watchdog institution of larger values, broader vision and sagacious guidance.
SAARC is the “region-building” official project of the governments of South Asia that is now a troubled teenager. As with all adolescents, the energy till this point has been spent in feeding the body and ensuring the physical growth of its various limbs, mostly official. That done, from now on, more effort will have to be directed towards the development of its social and intellectual skills, the most important of which is the question of a common identity. This can only come about with a common sense of history and geo-climatic ecology that guide common activities, not so much of governments but of the people with their values and creativity.
Will there be joint investments and trade across the borders that innovate with efficiency? Will civil society leap across administrative and political walls to lend a hand to the oppressed on the other side? Will civil servants compete for integrity and politicians for role-model sagacity and fairness? Will intellectuals see themselves as inheritors of a long South Asian tradition, and not be bound by political boundaries? Will the current crop of South Asian leaders allow those who have begun to sense a common geography and a common historical identity the space to intermingle and work across borders as true internationalists? Will they be brave and statesmen-like enough to do so? Or will they buy time with inane gestures to placate truncated identities, petty point-scoring to export their nation-centric insecurities, and the rigmarole of escapist rituals to satisfy smug mediocrity?