|Photo: Carey L Biron|
For me, Southasia has always been an imaginary landscape. I never thought of myself as a ‘Southasian’, and never had to deal seriously with the category until, aged almost 40, I went for the first time to England. Despite having travelled to many places in Europe by then, I had studiously resisted the UK, due to an early anti-imperialist political position, which had manifested in me as an almost visceral distaste at having anything to do with the former colonisers. But it was only upon reaching there that I realised how this mulishness had contributed to the retarding of my own political understanding. For it was there that, for the first time, I saw the practical application of the principle of divide et impera (divide and rule).
In London, Birmingham, Bradford, one is physically confronted with the colonial dismembering of the Subcontinent into Hindu, Muslim, Punjabi and Bengali, now re-unified on British soil as ‘Southasians’. Over the past 60 years in the UK, and also across the Atlantic in the US and Canada, ‘Southasia’ is now established as a funding category, particularly in education but also in arts and culture. Indeed, many of those governments, in order to display their alleged ‘fairness’ to ethnic minorities, end up sanctioning higher grants to Southasian organisations and artists. However, it is interesting to see how this pans out on the Subcontinent itself. Since the 1980s, when the idea of Southasia emerged as a meta-nationalistic category – aspiring to hold its own with other ‘basket’ geographics such as West Asia, Central Europe, the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia – every effort has been made to obliterate the fact that the concept of ‘Southasia’ is, in fact, an illegitimate offspring of colonialism, nurtured strategically to further the hegemonies of surrogate regional supremacy of former colonialists and present-day neo-imperialists. The idea of the region, though, is not all that new or unique. The sheer geographic bounding of the Subcontinent – with the Hindukush and Himalaya blocking it off on the west and north; and the east, west and south being further encircled by waters – made the evolution of an inward-looking civilisation, largely self-conscious of its own location, inevitable.
In fact, this dates back some two millennia, to the period of that wondrous Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, and his inspired celebration of the region in his long poem “Meghadootam” (The Cloud Messenger). “Meghadootam” is the story of the rebel Yaksha (a celestial being) undergoing a punitive sentence up amongst the peaks of the Himalaya. Eventually, he commandeers the services of a free-floating dark cloud to be a message-bearer, to convey his romantic missive to his beloved down in the plains. The poem describes the journey of the cloud across the entire region, in the process describing all that it witnesses from its aerial, bird’s-eye perspective. In a strange way, this is one of the very first ‘Southasian’ perspectives on offer. What the imagery provides is a fascinating description of cultural integration through differences. Practically every region of the Subcontinent has its own specific character, which contributes to its unique and specific identity. The totality, however, as pictured in this classical poem, presents us with the cartography of a unique idea of regional co-existence.
This colourful, romantic bird’s-eye view is, however, of at least two thousand years’ vintage. Contrarily, the recently confected postcolonial nation states of the region provide the worm’s-eye view. The assorted bundle of inchoate and mutually colliding Southasian nationalisms have rapidly set up some of the most brutal, backward-looking, violent and anti-people democracies imaginable, successfully undercutting and overriding the emergence of scores of radically new political and cultural formations. The plural and parallel 20th-century national movements of the Subcontinent threw up diverse ways of imagining ‘the nation’, which were repressed and, sometimes, co-opted within dominant tendencies.
By the 1920s, the first Other Backward Classes (OBC)-led Dravidian movement had begun in South India, which would lead to the demand for a separate Dravidsthan – a demand that continued into the 1950s as the secessionist Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) movement, and into the 1980s by the as yet unsolved Tamil Eelam issue in Sri Lanka. The Communist Party too had been formed by the 1920s, and galvanised into a grand politico-cultural movement by the 1940s. Post-Independence, left ideology became a significant part of the political impulses in the Subcontinent, and has led to three Indian states electing communists to power, even as a larger chunk of territory and popular sentiment swings towards extra-parliamentary leftist affiliations. In Nepal, it led to the overthrow of the monarchy and, for the first time in the region, the Maoists as the largest party in the elected Constituent Assembly. Within the nationality struggle, the Dalit movement was galvanising into the major demand for a separate Dalitsthan.
This demand continues to manifest following every anti-Dalit caste atrocity, and the ascension to power of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh puts such an eventuality beyond the pale of mere speculation. Since the late 19th century, Adivasi movements in India projected a unified Gondwanaland, stretching as a horizontal tribal belt from the Aravalli ranges of Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west, through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Bengal, Assam and the states of the Northeast, as well as into Burma, Kampuchea (Cambodia) and Thailand. Meanwhile, the religious majoritarian tendencies were converging around the idea of a Hindu rashtra and an Islamic Pakistan.
The Hindu factions went underground after Mohandas K Gandhi’s assassination, and slowly worked their subterranean ways upward over the following 40 years. Today, nurtured in the womb of Southasian-ism, the Subcontinent is poised to embrace a rapid Hinduisation or Islamisation of the region, bulldozing every other political nuance. Political nationalism returns to plague us as cultural nationalism. The Southasia paradigm, thus, has little on offer to the majority of the populations of the region. It certainly is a talisman for the elite, exclusive and prosperous regional bourgeoisie, for whom it constitutes a ‘new market’. In the high-profile game of ‘security’ – regional security, food security, energy security, etc – all sorts of ill-considered global adjustments and compromises are being made (such as the infamous Indo-US nuclear deal), which are only destined to push the region further into a war theatre for which the scenes and acts are being scripted elsewhere.
The cloak of Southasian conviviality hides the collective impotence of failed governance, rapid mass pauperisation, minority exclusions, the crumbling edifice of education, ecological devastation and the spectre of mutually assured nuclear destruction. All in all, if Kalidasa’s cloud were to float over Southasia today, it would hardly wax poetic over what lies below or ahead.
~ Sadanand Menon is a Madras-based writer, photographer and stage-lights designer. He is currently adjunct faculty at the Asian College of Journalism.