Academic institutions in the Global North have for long offered degrees in ‘South Asian Studies’. Doctorand Sambhavi Ganesh reflects on what this academic epithet presumes, means and professes for those who study it, and how it may be reimagined more meaningfully.
Despite having had what many would consider an ‘élite’ undergraduate education in India, I encountered the term ‘South Asia’ minimally — we had an optional module on international relations in South Asia, and an occasional mention of the term during seminars. Most graduates would hardly hear of or refer to the term unless they had studies Politics or Area Studies. However, in the United Kingdom, ‘South Asia(n)’ occurs in my PhD programme, and often in self-definition. This has led to much reflection, mainly centred around the following questions that I hope to explore in this post: what does it mean to ‘do’ South Asian Studies? To whom is the study of South Asia important, and why? And finally, how should it be ‘done’?
Searching for ‘South Asian Studies’
An internet search of the term ‘South Asian Studies’ shows a mix of the following results: university departments, their affiliated academic journals, and the odd Research Centre. Most of these are based in the Global North (US, UK, Western Europe, Australia, Singapore). Their justification for doing South Asian Studies, at first glance, is generally based on the region’s share of the global population or its geopolitical significance, depending on how the parent institution is organised and/or inclined in disciplinary interests (history, sociology and anthropology, political science and international relations, and religious studies, to name a few). This leads to divergent and piecemeal ways of understanding and studying South Asia.
To begin with, the term ‘South Asia’ is a euphemism for post-colonial India or British India (including modern Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). South Asian Studies collections at the British Library in London reveal that the founding moments of what we know as ‘South Asia’ included the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 into India and West/East Pakistan, later Bangladesh in 1971, and the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948. The Cambridge South Asian Archive (1973: vii), for example, summarises an archive project initiated by the University of Cambridge as an attempt to collect ‘primary source material … written by those who had served or lived in South Asia … capable of throwing light on economic, social and political conditions during the period of British rule in the former Indian Empire and Ceylon.’
Further, in a telling title of India’s centrality to the South Asian imaginary, the Introduction to the Civilization of India: South Asia, an Introductory Bibliography (1962) contains an exhaustive bibliography of works about India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Nepal. India’s hegemonic position in South Asia is further reflected in its foreign policy positions, including the Indira Doctrine, the country’s role in establishing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and other more recent decisions. Thus, to do ‘South Asian Studies’ is to foreground the region’s contingent colonial past and post-colonial present, both of which are dominated by India. The unabashed focus given to India (and, sometimes, particular regions within India) in the name of ‘South Asian Studies’ is not spoken about adequately.
South Asian Studies for Whom?
The study of South Asia is necessarily done for the interests of the Global North. The introduction to Sociology of South Asia (2022) demonstrates the emergence of South Asian Studies in US universities; according to editors Smitha Radhakrishnan and Gowri Vijayakumar, the term ‘South Asia’ reflects the US’s post-World War II military and geo-political interests.
To cite another example, South Asia (2004) is the first exclusive regional survey of the region by the UK-based academic publisher Europa — earlier, it was clubbed with the Far East and Australasia. Perhaps the question to ask is, what prompted this new publication? Knowledge production about South Asia has to consider the context behind increasing interest in the region. No study of South Asia can afford to ignore these geo-political considerations and the structures, processes, and ways of thinking and being it has brought forth. Otherwise, the knowledge produced only serves the interests of the powerful institutions and actors in the contemporary global order.
New Directions for South Asian Studies?
I argue that ‘South Asian Studies’ should be done by recognising the historical moments of its foundations (colonialism (or the lack of it), and partition) and the interests of the Global North in the region. Some ways to make this possible include emphasising studies of other South Asian countries while simultaneously acknowledging India’s dominance, foregrounding geographical and cultural continuities with neighbouring areas and hierarchies within.
Scholarship on South Asia is either produced by Indians from dominant caste-class positions or by those who have migrated abroad to study in élite universities and set the discourse (I myself being a case in point). Privileged attitudes are also replicated by those who are born into the majority community/religion favoured by successive ruling governments. So, doing South Asian Studies must not imply showcasing a homogenous minority status with respect to the Global North. There are steep divides between people from the region — a phenomenon that travels beyond borders, as the reactions to recent anti-caste legislation in the US illustrate.
Academia is yet to discover what a ‘decolonial’ perspective of imagining ‘South Asia’ would look like. At the same time, one should not forget the important role of native colluders (along caste and class lines) in enabling the present condition. Caste and majoritarian religious formations are equally, if not more, powerful processes shaping our current realities.
While reflecting on how to study South Asia, ‘method’ is a question I have not addressed. Method depend on the discipline, and vice versa. In this context, it is pertinent to ask whether or not South Asian Studies can (or should) be a discipline. If so, who sets the agenda in its making is the burning question?
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank fellow scholars Mohammed Sinan-Siyech and Zehra Kazmi.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy.
This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail email@example.com for permission.
Banner image © Diego Gennaro, Pokhara (Nepal), 2019, Unsplash.