“Hunger is more powerful than nationalism.”

• Is there such a thing as a South Asian civilisational community?
There is no such thing as a South Asian ´community´, only South Asian ´communities´. Even the term ´South Asian´ is defensive, a substitute for ´Indian´. Unfortunately, the term ´India´ has been hijacked by the Indian nation-state. I do wish the old term ´Hindustan´ had survived. I myself use ´South Asian´ because I do not want my non-Indian colleagues to feel I am appropriating their space. In the original sense, India´s civilisational spread is from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

• Is there a validity in narrowing it down to a South Asian region?
Culturally we are close to each other. It is a land mass of hundreds of interlocking communities, they are not less than 600. In the past, these communities kept a check upon each other and at the same time provided a certain vivacity and dynamism to the larger region. Today, we´ve lost that. I do not care how many nation states are drawn up behind rigid boundaries; the nation-state is a borrowed concept from 19th-century Europe.

• Is it possible to consciously forge a South Asian community?
We have not even been able to develop an Indian community, a Pakistani community, a Bangladeshi community! It is bogus to seek a monolithic South Asian society. What we have to have, instead, is a concept of interlocking communities constituted in a kind of confederation of cultures, to use a term used by Ali Mazrui in the African context.

• Have we lost these interlocking communities in modern times?

Take the Sindhi refugees who came to India at Partition. One of their great fears is the gradual decline of their culture. As their children grow up without Sindhi, picking up a standardised version of Hindi, they feel they have not only lost their property and their land but also a part of their religion. That religion, they shared with their Muslim neighbours, including some of their holy figures and places of worship. This kind of inter-relationship has been lost: that I am not only what I am, that I can properly define myself only with reference to you. This kind of cross-reference was one of the binding cements of the Subcontinent´s civilisation, and I think that is dissolving.

• Are we romanticising the past when we seek a consensual South Asian future?

That´s an urban middle-class response. The fact of the matter is that the majority of the people in the region live that life. It is not in the past, I would say it is an attempt to export into the past what is next door to you, what is actually at the ground level the dominant force. When we did a survey in 1997, we found that the majority of Indians, including Hindus, opposed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. I am very proud of that.

• Do we know each other any longer as we move into the third post-1947 generation?

I remember an old illiterate Muslim from Jama Masjid being interviewed on television last year. Asked what was different after 50 years, he said, previously we did not eat with each other and we did not inter-marry, but there was some kind of understanding of each other. Today, he said, there was much less resistance to mixing, but more and more we live in separate worlds.

• Have our history books reinforced prejudices ?

On the contrary, our [Indian] history books emphasise our commonalities. However, these commonalities are defined very mechanically. Our history books have been secularised, which basically means that they are hostile to all religions, as encumbrances which have survived. I am not a believer, but most do believe. There is no respect for that.

• History in Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka has also to serve the nation-building project of reinforcing their ´otherness´ vis-a-vis India.

 India is a very large country. It is natural that in their attempt to define their identity, these countries have denied cultural exchange or cultural encounter on which the vivacity and vigour of their own cultures have depended. That is disastrous. In Pakistan, even the Pakistanis know the history books are known to be atrocious. But there is also a reaction against this sort of thing. It is very difficult to sustain an anti-Hindu rhetoric when most people have not seen a Hindu for 50 years. There are hardly any Hindus left in Pakistan. In fact, there was much greater exposure to the domination of a Hindu minority in Bangladesh. Anti-Hindu rhetoric in Pakistan has been sustained by the poor relations with India, and I wonder what would happen if that relationship improved.

• There is a heightened siege mentality in all the countries. In India, there are moves to amend the Foreigners Act to expel Bangladeshis.

I suspect that all this is transient. While some Indians are pushing out Bangladeshis, others have very strongly taken up their cause. If they [Bangladeshis] have come here they should be given work permits. People have crossed national boundaries for centuries, and they will not stop doing so just because you´ve declared a part of the land Bangladesh and another Pakistan. It will take quite a few generations to accept the notion of impenetrable boundaries. In any case, refugees will come whenever economic factors push them out. Hunger is more powerful than nationalism.

• What are the prospects for a regional consciousness, given the mounting problems of governance all over and the growing insecurity of our ruling elites?

The more our problems with governance, the more the institutional decay, the more there will be need to create external enemies. But there are countervailing forces: the more there are official versions of history, of what we should believe, the more the young will be sceptical. The Indian public, for example, does not trust those very people who are busy building up this ´other´, the enemy. The whole political class is getting discredited in all our countries.

• Do you see the saarc organisation promoting a South Asian consciousness?

No, perhaps among intellectuals, but I doubt even that. Basically, saarc is an official initiative of governments which realise that they cannot do without each other in simple matters like trade and visas. I do wish the organisation had more promise, but much more helpful is the way ngos have started working together on theoretical and practical matters. It is commitment which has pushed them together and therefore their effort will not die easily.

You see, everywhere in South Asia there are societies which are independent, which cannot be ignored. They work within the everydayness of political change rather than seek to en¬gineer political change from above. Among such people, there are cross-cutting interests everywhere. As the first generation South Asians die out, many of the cultivated animosities will lose out. Time takes care of a lot of problems.

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