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It Is India Not South Asia!

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

The essay below was first published in 'The Subcontinental', a new journal that “presents current perspectives on the role and representation of South Asian Americans in public policy and the media.” It is being reprinted here with permission from the Editor, 'The Subcontinental' It is India not South Asia [1]

“Who am I?” or “Who are you?” are questions both profound and quotidian. The answers could be mundane, convoluted, enlightening, “real” or “false”. The eighth century Indian philosopher (788-820 CE) Adi Shankara, following Yagnavalkya, may have argued“ayam atma brahma”(this self is Brahman[2]) and Ross Perot's running mate, Vice Admiral Stockdale, may have gotten all tied up trying to describe who he was. More ordinarily we may simply introduce ourselves by our name and unless pressed further not try unscrambling our multiple identities. Those multiple identities can be avowed or ascribed. Avowal is how I portray myself: I am Ramesh, an Indian-American, a Hindu, an associate professor, a husband and son and father. In contrast, ascription is how others attribute identities to a person. I am a South Asian for some, a Hindutvavadi for some others, a discriminated brown for yet others and an oppressor Brahmin for my politically inclined detractors. We know that issues of identity are particularly important in intercultural encounters and especially so for new immigrants in the rather conflict-ridden setting of the United States. Conflicts arise when there are differences between who we think we are and who others think we are.

There are three main contemporary perspectives on identity [3]. According to the social psychological perspective, identity is created in part by the self and in part in relation to group membership. It is thus claimed that the self is composed of multiple identities and that the notions of identity are culture bound. Erik Erikson [4]argues that our identities are self-created, formed through a series of identity conflicts, diffusion, confusion and crises. Identities are evolved as one explores one's abilities, interests, options and values. These explorations often occur in relation to group membership. While in the US young people are encouraged to develop a strong sense of identity and to be independent and self-reliant, in India it is not individuals alone who make educational, occupational and even marriage choices but often the family through guidance or diktat.

The communication perspective emphasizes the co-creation of identities through communication with others. Identities are thus negotiated, co-created, reinforced and challenged through communication. Central to the communication perspective is the idea that we communicate our identities in core symbols, labels and norms. Core symbols tell us about the fundamental beliefs of an individual/group. For example, core symbols of African Americans may be sharing, uniqueness, or realism, for Mexican Americans family and honor and so on. Individualism is most often cited as a core symbol for European Americans. Labels are a category of core symbols. They are the terms we use to refer to particular aspects of our own and others' identities: For example, Latino, White, or Native American. Norms of behavior are associated with particular identities [5], i.e.. Christians might express their religious identity by participating in activities such as going to church or Bible study meetings.

The critical perspective attempts to understand identity formation within the contexts of history, economics, politics and discourse. The identities that others ascribe to us may be socially and politically determined. A critical perspective insists on the constructive nature of this process and attempts to identity social forces and needs that give rise to these identities. How and why do people identify with particular groups and not others? What choices are available to them? Why do I seek to be called an Indian-American and not South Asian American and why do some others insist on obliterating their Indianness for a pan-South Asian identity? It seems that the critical perspective is what is framing debate about Indian-American and “South Asian American ” identities in the US.

Whence? Who?

From where did we come to the US and who are we? Indian-Americans are, at present, still a small (0.6%) percentage of the US population. Our stories and our origins are still not widely known in this country. The man in the street will think of motels and Quicky-marts when he thinks of Indians. Apu from the Simpsons may come to mind for the average American: an image of a polite, hardworking and somewhat simple man trying to make a living. Or else, there are the other stereotypes: of Indians being doctors and computer engineers; of being vegetarians and accepting arranged marriages; or natives of a country where they worship cows, oppress people because of caste and where there are many poor people.

According to the US census of 2000, there are about 1.7 million people of Indian descent in the US Indians came here not to escape religious or political persecution but to seek economic opportunities as well as in pursuit of the good life. Thus, the overwhelming majority of them came voluntarily as either sojourners or immigrants.

The first Indian immigrant known as the “Man from Madras” came to the US in 1790 [6]. Shortly thereafter came others, mostly men as indentured servants or laborers. One hundred years later there were no more than 520 Indians in the new land. Not much is known about these early immigrants because most of them married slaves or returned to India. During the 1890s, more men from the Punjab started arriving as the economic conditions there worsened under the British. Most of these men worked in the Pacific Northwest in lumber mills or on the California railroad and sent money home to their families in India.

Those Punjabis were willing to work for very low wages, which was a threat to labor unions. The unions started petitioning the government to stop Indian (and all Asian) immigration. In one report on Indians, the Asian Exclusion League (AEL) said that East Indians were “untrustworthy, immodest, unsanitary, insolent and lustful.” Tensions between Indians and White Americans escalated through the night of September 5, 1907 when a mob of 500 White Americans raided Indian homes in Bellingham, Washington. The local police did nothing and no one was prosecuted. Smaller riots broke out throughout the Northwest region with similar results.

Each year saw more Indians denied entry into the US and AEL began pressuring the government to stop Indian immigration altogether. Indians became victims of discrimination under various laws and regulations, including the Alien Land Law of 1913. This law restricted the selling or leasing of land to people ineligible for citizenship. Many Indian men married Mexican-American women who were not affected by this law to get past these regulations. In 1917, the Barred Zone Act was passed, which barred people from certain countries (including India) to move to the US.

Teething Troubles

America had a difficult time classifying Indians. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century debate raged about what race Indians belonged to. The case of Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) set a precedent for categorizing Indians. The government rejected his application for naturalization that eventually went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The court decided that even though Indians were Caucasian, they were not white and therefore could not be citizens. The AEL wanted to denaturalize Indian-American citizens and many returned to India. By 1940, half of the Indian population left the country and only 2, 405 remained in the US.

Indians finally succeeded in becoming citizens with the passing of the Asian American Citizenship Act in 1946. The Act also fixed a quota allowing only 100 Indians to enter the US every year. In 1965, the government abolished this quota and the allocation of immigrant visas on first come first served basis came into force. In the 1970s and 1980s more Indians came to the US as the country needed engineers and doctors and there seemed a great supply of these in India. Today, 15, 000 to 20, 000 Indians get student visas every year. Scholars and academics have only recently begun tracing the emigration of Indians to the US What or how we call these immigrants from India is not a “settled dispute” as this article is clearly a reminder.

Labeling Game

Rajeev Srinivasan [7]rejects the South Asian label for three reasons: 1) loss of brand name; 2) refusal to cater to American prejudice; and 3) refusal to submit to intellectual laziness. He points out that nations, like corporations, earn goodwill associated with brand names. Indians, by giving up the India brand name, suffer great loss in terms of brand name recognition and goodwill. Srinivasan reminds us that India has brand value dating back to millennia. The label “Indies, ” sloppily associated with everything from India to Indonesia, marked products that came from India: India rubber, India ink, etc. India has both a sub-continent and an ocean named after it. Srinivasan fears that some use of the South Asian label by Western media to appease Pakistanis could lead to a movement to protest labeling everything Indian as South Asian.

What used to be identified as India in the past is now South Asia, say some. They assert that “for constructive engagement between identities, the larger the common pool of historical resource from where we can all draw sustenance, the more accommodating the encounters will be.” They ignore the fact that after seventeen years of SAARC [8]we have little to show in terms of cooperation and goodwill among the seven countries in the region.

Srinivasan argues that if there were a strong SAARC trading zone, it might make sense to give more credence to the “South Asia” moniker. But it is clear that a strong SAARC zone is a distant prospect dimmed by Pakistan's obsession with India [9] and the other regional countries' fears about “big brother” India calling the shots.

There are other dangers of using the South Asia label. The label is used to assert that “South Asia” is a nuclear flashpoint; that India and Pakistan are rivals of equal importance in the region; that India is comparable to the other SAARC nations in terms of its clout, influence, power and economy; that India is a regional power along with Pakistan and that India's emergence as a possible world power must be curbed. But let us not forget that India's GDP is among the top ten in the world even in nominal dollars and in the top five in the world in purchasing power parity. Also, India is China's equal and counterweight, not Pakistan's; and that Pakistan is a country one-seventh the size of India in population and GDP [10]. To put India thus in its “South Asia place” is not as it seems at first glance.

According to Srinivasan, the term “South Asia” was first used in an Australian journal in the 1850s, but the term has gained coinage in the US because the label “Indian” was reserved for Native Americans. The State Department, with its penchant for seeing the world through its specially crafted lenses, may prefer the South Asian label more as a matter of convenience since in the US an “Indian” (a “Red Indian” as school textbooks in India still gauchely point out) is a Native American, not a resident of or immigrant from India. Thus, the “Bureau of Indian Affairs.” American academe with its penchant for neologisms and political correctness loves the “South Asian” label [11]. That there are few takers for the “South Asia” moniker among the general public but too many of them in academe should itself be a serious and interesting topic for study. Were the first immigrants who came from India to the US referred to South Asians, or Indians, or Hindus, or “colored” or Asians or what? Why do some people now insist that Indians merge their identity with citizens persons of other countries from that region?

An analysis of media reports about Indian immigration in the early 1900s shows [12] how Indians were then referred to as “Hindoos”. It seems that was the result of a conflation of religion and region. Thus, the San Francisco Chronicle(September 28, 1907) reports a speech by Senator Frank P. Flint: “I don't propose to have this Coast a dumping ground for Hindoos… There is plenty of room for good citizens. There is no room at all for fakirs and mendicants.” Indians have been the victims of White prejudice in the past and it is only recently that India and Indians have achieved a level of visibility and power that could give them some standing and recognition in the multi-cultural society that the US is. To eschew the Indian label now therefore makes little sense.

Moreover, why should Indians accommodate American prejudice? Just because Americans cannot figure out what to call Native Americans, an independent, sovereign republic and its peoples cannot sacrifice their name and identity to please bureaucrats in the US Indians are Indians, not East Indian, or Asian Indian, or South Asian. It is time for Indian-Americans to avow their identity. Those who love to embrace their South Asian neighbors and make them feel “comfortable” should remember that the embrace here will make no difference “back home” where people are at loggerheads. Also “the presumption of commonality” is an indication of intellectual laziness and willful ignorance of ground realities. South Asianists may proclaim that, “South Asia's nation-state approach to identity has spawned an introverted polity that clips history to suit short-sighted nationalism [13]. But it would be foolish to abjure the nation-state model that now provides the majority of the world's human denizens their primary identity. Last time I read, the United Nations Organization still was a forum for nation states and that East Timor is the latest one to join the “comity of nations”. But more pertinently, what else will we replace the nation-state with? Academics may argue endlessly about how the concept of nation-state has contributed to a variety of hostilities within a country and how the modern ideas of nationalism and state have sanctioned the concept of a “mainstream national culture” that is fearful of diversity and intolerant of dissent. Unfortunately, these very same academics have come up with nothing else to replace the nation-state. They may hark back to “traditional community ties” and the “traditional socio-economic and cultural interdependence of communities” of the past. But what they will not tell you is that the old dynamic prevailed under non-democratic forms of statehood: kings and potentates ruled and passed on power to their progeny and warred with neighboring kingdoms and fiefdoms. Those of the Left who may want to bring back that old dynamic want to do it under state control, which means the totalitarian control of the people. If indeed we have democratic nation-states, the “will” of the people may indeed translate into seeking something like a “mainstream national culture.” We may try to influence the will of the people and the majority of the people may decide to seek “diversities” and “a multiplex society” but the same majority may seek something else too.

Some people claim that, “attempts to give a single identity to a group through the garb of nationalism have failed miserably everywhere, even when jackboots have been used to assure compliance [14]. They ignore both the good of the idea of a nation and the reality of nations. If indeed they wish to transcend “nationality” why then do they embrace “regionalism” and not the grander “common humanity”? Why not transcend humanity and embrace all life? Why focus on brownness other than to imagine some dark, just-round-the-corner discrimination that people are waiting to practice in the US? The constant cry about discrimination here in the US will not unite people in whose “homelands” ethnic, regional, religious and national conflicts continue to keep them divided. As such, the adoption of the “South Asian” label is simply band-aid politics that garners easy publicity for those who have learnt to play politics well.

The South Asian region, once grandly India or Hindustan or Bhâratavarsha is home to myriad peoples with common history, culture, languages and ways of life. To deny this is foolish. Equally foolish is to deny the divisions, the distrust and the disinclination of the people in that region to co-operate and live amicably. SAARC notwithstanding, the conflict in the region is on a scale large enough that facile and clichéd calls for South Asian co-operation and commonality is no more than politically correct posturing by “India-negators”. That these calls mostly come from Indians and Indian-Americans is not only indicative of the inclusivist streak among Indians but of their desire for self-effacement. The contradiction between those two desires -- for inclusiveness and for self-effacement -- and the complex political dynamics that make some embrace “South Asianism” should indeed be studied carefully. To be sure, the inclusive embrace could very well be felt as suffocating by those who are already suspicious of Indian “hegemony” in the region and who therefore don't want to erase their identity under some vague South Asia label.

The South Asianists

For the first generation young Indian students (I teach in a public undergraduate liberal arts institution with an enrollment of about 30 to 40 students from India) the most important identity issue seems to be one of distancing themselves from India and their Indian identity. Not one of them turned up when I organized some lectures by a visiting Indian scholar on matters Indian! For Hindu second-generation Indian-American students the options seem to be quite a few but somehow problematic. Starting a Hindu Students' Council or an Indian Students Association could be exciting but somehow they find it unattractive. Why it is unattractive is never explained or made explicit. Is it that they don't want to identify themselves as Hindu? As Indian-American? The South Asia option therefore seems to be a way out: no one can really figure out what “South Asia” stands for, unlike what a “Hindu” or “Indian” stereotypically is.

What psychological and emotional afflictions that second generation Indian-American students have seem to be reflected by the hundreds of academics across American college campuses who continue to be part of the South Asia bandwagon, inspiring the young second-generation Indian Americans in their classes on Indian women, polity and society to embrace a pan-regional identity or forsake their connections to India and to Hinduism [15]. And there are the fashionable, unlettered-in-their-Hindu-culture socialites who believe that anything with the label “Hindu” or “Indian” in it must refer to the RSS or the BJP. These academics and socialites do not care much about the Sri Lankan, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi societies and the persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh, the fight for Eelam in Sri Lanka, or the reports of ethnic cleansing of minorities from Pakistan.

Indian ambassadors and votaries of multiculturalism feel more secure and comfortable in the West, marketing the fashionable and “modern”, than plumbing the depths of the traditional, the classical and the Indian. I have found that many Indians who usually cry hoarse about multiculturalism, or who flay Hindu “majoritarianism, ” have very little knowledge about the Indian past and the Indian arts. These people are the products of the “Macaulayite/Nehruvian” education system, which has made them more fluent in English than in their mother tongue. They are more familiar with Western popular music or jazz than with the text of“Bhaja Govindam”or the nuances of Carnatic classical music and more conversant with the ideas of Derrida and Kristeva than with the shad-darshanas of Hinduism.

It is this deracinated group that assert the Indian Sub-continent is a region whose peoples share a common cultural and historical past and therefore see no need for identifying oneself as Indian in their new American milieu “where coalitions need to be built to get things done.” Why we can't get things done as Indians or Indian-Americans is most often brushed aside. I am not arguing against coalitions if coalitions are built on solid rock foundation and not on shifting sands. If coalitions are going to be built simply because of some hate crimes committed after Septermber 11, 2001 should we then selectively ignore the more heinous crimes of ethnic cleansing, massacres and ritualistic bloodletting that our “brothers-in-arms” commit back home? Once again, the major thrust for this coalition building comes from Indians.

Check out the names of the founders and members of the various South Asian American groups (including the one publishing this article) and you will find that they are mostly Hindu and Indian. They desperately seek people from other countries of the sub-continent to join their groups, for without the token Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan or Nepali member the claim to their South Asian American identity is suspect.

Discovering South Asia After 9/11

Who are against the South Asian label and why? In Sarah Wildman's article in The New Republic [16] the writer says only a “handful of vocal Hindus” reject the South Asian label. She claims that these people are all first-generation Indians who challenge the supposed commonalities between Hindus and Muslims. The author goes on to assert that the South Asian label may give Americans of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent greater influence over domestic politics. She provides no evidence to support that claim. In fact there are no “South Asian” groups demanding from their local and state representatives a hearing to alleviate their suffering as there are only Indian-American [17], Pakistani-American and Bangladeshi-American groups busy in the nation's and state capitals.

Wildman seems to have neglected the magnitude and import of the Indian-American and Pakistani-American lobbying efforts in Washington DC She claims that the South Asian -American label “may be less a step away from unmodified Americanness than a step toward it.” This claim shows the pervasiveness of the assimilation model where new immigrants discard “narrow” national identity and embrace a regional identity as a half-way house to that final destination: a non-hyphenated, singular American identity. Ironically, this is the discarded kind of American assimilation model that our South Asianists embrace in their own short-term pursuit of an amorphous and woolly regional identity.

The events of September 11, 2001 have given a new thrust to the South Asian agenda. Since Sikhs wearing turbans and men with swarthy complexions and wearing beards and moustaches have been attacked, there is legitimate worry that members belonging to certain minority groups or religious groups are being specifically targeted. Talking to The New Republic(TNR), one interviewee said, “The fact that I could be a target -- that really brings people together, that shared vulnerability.” The TNR writer did not ask what should have been a logical follow-up: But why did people from South Asian countries form groups before September 11? If women wearing bindis were attacked by “dot busters” in the 1980s, was it not incumbent upon those whose religion bids their women wear burkhas join a campaign against the “dot busters”?

The TNR reporter claims that post September 11, South Asian communities have united. She provides no evidence of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans forming neighborhood watch groups to stop hate crimes, nor of lobbying groups approaching lawmakers together as a South Asian coalition. A few sound bites from disparate people and that constitutes coalition formation. And when reminded that the author of the essay did not mention even one non-Indian South Asian, she claimed that they were not mentioned because of space constraints! [18].

A volunteer and board member of Manavi, a “South Asian” women's organization says that her group deals mostly with issues of domestic violence: “We work with women of 'South Asian' origin in New Jersey who are going through marital difficulties. I find that while organizing in the US, the South Asian identity comes quite naturally because of our cultural commonalties. Also, the assertion of being South Asian doesn't distract us or make us lose our focus. In any case, Indians tend to dominate because of sheer numbers”. What this person says is the problem of sheer numbers of Indians ignores the more important “problem”: other South Asians are not all that fond of the moniker and in building coalitions with Indians.

People who simply want to bring Indian Muslims and Christians into the group also embrace the “South Asia” label. The label could be more useful to attract Indian Muslims and Christians than to attract people of other nationalities. Indian Muslims and Christians have their own organizations and associations in the US (e.g., Federation Of Indian American Christians from North America and the American Federation of Muslims from India). In an article about South Asians coming together after 9/11 it is reported that: “But while Muslims constitute about 15 percent of the Indian population, out of over 60 groups invited to the park only one, the Indian Muslim Relief Committee, was Islamic [19]. The report adds: “Instead, the event was dominated by Indo-American Hindus, some Sikhs and a handful of other religious leaders. South Asian leaders in the Bay Area unequivocally promote the need for unity, but for Muslims and Hindus, especially the older generations, the task is not simple.” And one may wonder where were the Indian-Christian organizations? Many of India's Christians merge and identify with local Christian groups/churches and their “need” for a South Asian identity is less than that of the Hindus who dominate the push to make India South Asian.

In that report is the other reason for Muslims from elsewhere to use the South Asian label for their own agenda. An alliance of South Asian student groups protested in the office of the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian which had printed a cartoon depicting two of the dead terrorist hijackers as Muslims in hell waiting for Allah to reward them with virgin women for their deeds. One of the organizers, Abdul-Rahman Zahzah, leader of the “Arab Americans and Muslims United”, said South Asian groups have been forced to unite as acts of bigotry in recent weeks alienated the community from mainstream America. He claimed that his organization had organized two workshops in collaboration with South Asian groups to educate the public about who they are, emphasizing their Americanness.

I do not have problems with those who argue that the “South Asian identity cannot be conceived without acknowledging its rich regional histories that cannot be contained within any of the current national boundaries [20]. But then I find the next leap they take into regionalism meaningless. Transcending national, ethnic, religious and other boundaries should take us into a pan-human realm rather than leading us into merely another constricted and constricting identity, that of a regional identity. Until and unless the votaries of South Asianism resolve that contradiction, I prefer national identities.

I know I am Ramesh. I was born in India and I am now an American citizen. I am an Indian-American. Doubts about identity are for sages and seers. We, mere mortals, know what we are unless we are in search of fashionable, multiplex, deracinated identities.


[1]I thank Dasu Krishnamoorty, Subhash Kak and Rajiv Malhotra for their advice and suggestions on this article.

[2]Brahmanis The supreme soul of the universe, self-existent, absolute and eternal, from which all things emanate and to which all return.

[3]Martin, J.N. & Nakayama, T.K. (2000).Intercultural Communication in Contexts. Mayfield Publishing Company.

[4]Erikson, E. (1968).Identity: Youth and Crisis.New York: W.W. Norton

[5]Hecht, M.L., Collier, M.J., & Ribeau, S.A. (1993).African American Communication: Ethnic Identity and Cultural Interpretation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage

[6]Prior to British interests in India and traditionally, this region was referred to domestically as Bhârat or Bhâratavarsha: India, as having been the kingdom of Bharata. With the occupation by Muslim kings the term “Hindustan” became equally accepted. After the establishment of the British Raj, the region from what is now Pakistan to Burma was India, save a few independent princely states like Kashmir, Mysore and Hyderabad. In 1937 Burma was separated from British India. In 1947, India was divided into modern day India and Pakistan comprising the present Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 1971, Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) separated from Pakistan. References to Indians and South Asians take these boundaries into account. Note that other countries included under the South Asia label are Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives.

[7]Sreenivasan, R. (March 20, 2000).Why I am not a South Asian. Rediff.Com

[8]The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was established when its Charter was formally adopted on December 8, 1985 by the Heads of State or Government of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

[9]“India scuttling SAARC process: Pak”, The Indian Express, December 20, 2002

[10]According to the latest World Bank report, India has retained its position as the world's fourth largest economy after the U.S., China and Japan. The Indian economy is more than nine times the size of that of Pakistan.

[11]The South Asia desk at the State Department also deals with Afghanistan, but SAARC does not embrace the former Taliban-ruled country,

[12]Shah, H. (1999). Race, Nation and Citizenship: Asian Indians and the Idea of Whiteness in the U.S. Press, 1906-1923.The Howard Journal of Communication, 249-267.

[13]Gyawali, D. (Spring 2000). Cogito (I'm a South Asian), Ergo Sum!Harvard Asia Quarterly.

[14]Gyawali, ibid.

[15]That “religion” is itself a Semitic term foisted on worldviews and cultures of the rest of the world is slowly beginning to be acknowledged. Thus “Hinduism” as a “religion” is full of conceptual holes.

[16]S. Wildman (December 24, 2001). All For One.The New Republic.

[17]The three major grassroots political networks lobbying for Indian-Americans are The Association of Indians in America (AIA), National federation of Indian-American Associations (NFIA) and Indian American Forum for Political Education.

[18]S. Wildman (February 4, 2002). Dividing Line.The New Republic.

[19]North Gate News, September 17, 2001.

[20]Gyawali, op cit.

Originally published on Monday, April 28, 2003.

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