Reclaiming the idea of South Asia

By Binit Gurung

Another South Asia! Pathak, Dev Nath. 2017. Delhi: Primus Books.

‘Another South Asia!’ edited by Dev Nath Pathak makes a critical engagement with the questions about South Asia: What is South Asia? How can one pin down the idea of regionalism in South Asia wherein inter-state relations are often characterized by mutual distrust, as is evident in the workings of its institutional avatar – SAARC? Is the institutional form of South Asia the only viable manifestation of South Asia?

These questions require serious deliberation and courage to think outside of the box. The proverbial box, in this case, refers to the confines of the disciplines and the nation-states. It is only by defying the accepted boundaries which dictate our thinking that the concept of South Asia can be revitalized. Taking this idea as a point of departure, the 14 chapters of the book, including the introductory chapter by the editor, constitute a wonderful exploration of ‘Another South Asia’.

‘Another South Asia’, as the authors demonstrate in the book, is an organic South Asia whose realization is obviated by the logic of nation-state and the corresponding compartmentalization of the social sciences into various academic disciplines. These academic disciplines share a proclivity to study nationally-bounded societies and thereby naturalize the boundaries of the nation-state. While demarcation of boundaries defines the territorial sovereignty of a state in the modern nation-state system, these boundaries often fail to contain the social and cultural processes from spilling across the boundaries into the other nation-states. The book deplores the failure to engage with these very processes, which the editor attributes to the ‘intellectual nationalism’ of our social sciences. The ‘another South Asia’ explored in the book is located in these processes that can become apparent only when/if the boundaries, disciplinary as well as stately, are overcome.

The task of re-imagining South Asia gains further urgency when one considers the lack-lustre performance of SAARC in projecting South Asia as a region marked by continuous interactions at different levels. Different contributors to the book have highlighted such processes across the borders in the region.

Navnita Chadha Behera critiques the state-centric modality of SAARC which disables the ability to function as a regional entity. Instead, Behera notes, the countries in the region are better connected through shared civilizational history and non-state civil society networks. A telling example of the latter is provided by Sasanka Perera’s essay, which focuses on the existence of art networks that straddle the region. Although such cross-border art networks and their collaborative projects do not necessarily influence the nationalistic orientation of South Asian countries, Perera argues, they offer possibilities of re-imagining South Asia based on the peoples’ culture, experiences and emotions.

Echoing Behera and Perera among others, Ravi Kumar makes a case for dispensing with the instrumental imagination of South Asia reified by the frameworks of SAARC and nation-state to attain an organic and non-instrumental imagination of South Asia keeping ‘humans’ at the centre. The re-imagination of South Asia, suggests Imtiaz Ahmed, should be expansive, inclusive and receptive, uninhibited by the strictures of political and bureaucratic systems. Shail Mayaram advocates for a conceptualization of South Asia as a world-region which would entail ‘revisionist cartography’.

Other contributors to the book similarly highlight vibrant exchanges in the realms of arts, literature, activism and religion in the region. The idea that the masses of South Asia operate differently than the political elites and the institutions that embody their interests weaves together different chapters in the book.

Santosh Kumar Singh, for instance, argues that the masses in South Asian societies largely operate with a fuzzy sense of boundaries which enable them to maintain amicable inter-community relationships within and across the territorial borders, despite the pressures from the local and global elites to rigidify the boundaries of their faiths. The essay co-authored by Jyoti Sinha and Abha Sur and another essay by Kiranmayi Bhusi provide insights into the lives and experiences of South Asians in the US, thereby familiarising readers with the landscapes of ‘another South Asia’ that maybe cartographically dislocated yet intricately interconnected with its cartographic avatar through culture, kinship, languages, food, memories and so forth.

However, the term ‘South Asia’ evokes some confusion, a terminological conundrum which the book discursively addresses. This conundrum has its origin in the way the term was coined and deployed outside South Asia that glossed over the complexities existing in the region.

For one thing, South Asia is largely studied as India in the academic departments in the US operating under the logic of area studies, writes Arjun Guneratne in his essay. This renders India’s neighbouring countries like Nepal invisible in the scholarship on India and, by extension, South Asia. The ‘another South Asia’ that comes alive in the pages of the book is not a monolithic India in the guise of South Asia. It is a South Asia where India has been duly ‘provincialized’.

However, like most edited volumes on South Asia, the book has limited success in bringing together discourses of South Asia from across the region. Be that as it may, the book excels not only in projecting South Asia as a dynamic region but also in exploring the possible trajectories of South Asian regionalism in its real sense.

(The reviewer is a Lecturer of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, Thames International College, Kathmandu. He can be contacted at