Monday, March 14, 2005

Amardeep has an quick post on the term "South Asia" that I wanted to comment on but the comments won't come up on his blog. I'm sure Blogger's poor service is to blame. But, hey, you get what you pay for and I'm not willing to pay anything.

Ashis Nandy wrote a column in the Times of India that seems to see the term "South Asia" as problematic. It's not a great argument to me for a few reasons. The first is that he starts the article off by making a statement that is in error. That statement is

"South Asia is the only region in the world where most states define themselves not by what they are, but by what they are not."

Has he ever heard of Canada or New Zealand which both do a lot of identifying with what they are not (The US and Australia respectively). That puts me off right away.

Secondly, he argues that "South Asia" has been largely unsuccessful as a term. I disagree. It is the preferred geographical notation for the region that was once called the "Indian Subcontinent." Nandy doesn't seem to like the coldness of this physically derived name. But, geographers love these types of names as they have the best chance of remaining politically neutral. Although, eventually every name gains political significance as Nandy demonstrates here. Still, there is unyielding hope that a name will remain neutral.

Thirdly, Nandy claims that "South Asia" has allowed India to "hijack the right to Indic civilisation." I've always known the term "South Asia" to be an attempt to reduce the influence of India. There are primarily two reasons in the US that people say "South Asian."

1. It reduces confusion as to which population one is referring -- Native Americans or Asians.

2. It has been used instead of Indians so that people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal (and to a lesser extent Bhutan and Myanmar and rarely Afghanistan, Singapore, and Malaysia) are included without being identified with a national name that is not their own.

So, the second reason (the more globally transferable reason) intends to be inclusive of all the nations in the region. Sure, India is far and away the largest of these countries by both size and population. Consequently, it will likely be more influential in the region. Would anyone expect to find Denmark more influential than France or Uruguay more influential than Brazil? I think one could make an argument that when the term "North America" is used it has more of a slant toward one country than the term "South Asia" does.

These arguments will always go on because place names are somewhat inconsistent with reality. Boundaries are fuzzy. And, place names are part of our everyday lives. Each day we encounter them and use them to understand our world. Naturally, we're going to question them.

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