Subcontinental semantic

"South Asia" is a neutral term for the region, and has neither historical nor political baggage.

In the Urdu language goes a saying something like this: A cauliflower will not smell like a rose if you call it a rose. That is clearly not where the foreign policy mandarins of Pakistan drew their inspiration from last month when they protested the use of the term "Indian Subcontinent" by Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani while on a visit to France.

Taking umbrage, the Foreign Office in Islamabad released an official statement: "As India is only one of the countries of South Asia, the term ´Indian Subcontinent´ is entirely inappropriate as a description for the whole region. Its use betrays India´s long-cherished dream of exercising hegemony in the region, a dream that India has failed to realise and it will never succeed in achieving. The Government of Pakistan there-fore hopes that the use of the term "Indian Subcontinent" to refer to South Asia will be avoided."

If there was an example of raising an issue unnecessarily —typical in what is rapidly evolving as the India-Pakistan non-relation-ship — then this was it. True, the 1947 transition has created certain problems having to do with the political meaning of words —Hindustani can no longer be used in either country to refer to mellifluous khari boli, and the entire history of ancient, medieval and colonial ´India´ has been willingly waved away by a modern Pakistani State which regards its history as having begun in 1947.

When General Pervez Musharraf´s Information Minister and chief spokesman Javed Jabbar was asked by this writer why all the fuss with "Indian Subcontinent", he responded that there were other countries in South Asia. True enough, but how come only Pakistan was miffed, and not the other countries? "They have not praised [the Advani statement] either," Jabbar replied, cautioning that "There is no such thing as the Indian Subcontinent. There is only South Asia." The minister added that the term could be properly used only in the context of the pre-1947 period.

That was perhaps a bit ingenuous, for Pakistan has itself been making liberal use of the term "Indo-Pak Subcontinent" to describe the South Asian region until recently. It started with the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and continued through the regimes of General Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto and the late lamented one of Nawaz Sharif. New Delhi did not object to the use of "Indo-Pak Subcontinent" probably because India was included, but the term has lately lost currency because none outside Islamabad´s incestuous circles cared to use it.

The charge of insensitivity being showered on Advani could obviously apply to those who use or used "Indo-Pak Subcontinent", for where indeed does that leave Bangladesh and the others? Trying to be politically correct, we would ultimately end up trying to use ´Indo-Pak-Nepal-Bangla-Bhutan Subcontinent´.

Actually, the biggest problem with ´Subcontinent´, and one which goes quite unremarked, is that it leaves out Sri Lanka, a much valued member of SAARC which happens to be an island outside the subcontinental mainland. This rankles Sri Lankans, just as the use of Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani in South Asian conclaves irritates them and other South South Asians.

The ideal formulation for the region is of course already with us, and that is "South Asia", a term that received official sanction through the very name of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC. The term is neutral, if unexciting (but no more than "Subcontinent"), and has neither historical nor political baggage.

But that does not do away with history, and the hundreds of thousands of books and billions of references all over which refer to "Indian Subcontinent". And if one were to really decide to do something about "India" cropping up everywhere, what about "Indian Ocean" and other generic references that contain "India"?

Ignoring history does not make it go away. in fact, if an attempt is made, more often than not it only tends to repeat itself! Diplomats assigned to Islamabad, among others, say Pakistan´s Foreign Office should have better things to do than make semantic mountains out of molehills. Wasting time and energy over a term that has been in use for a long time, even if it is not entirely appropriate for all present day purposes, more than anything else reflects the insecurity that Islamabad suffers from on and off. In its endless tussle with a bigger enemy, it is the past that constantly haunts Pakistan, an the Foreign Office´s tantrum to prove it.

The past is another country. It would do a world of good for Islamabad to smell the roses and get on with the future.

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Himal Southasian