Beyond the nation state in South Asia

RIGHT SIDE UP: This map of South Asia by Himal Southasia magazine in which ‘north’ is reversed to force a different perspective on the nation state, was deemed to be unnecessarily subversive at the South Asian University in New Delhi.

Against the Nation: Thinking like South Asians contains 22 essays authored by three sociologists -- Sasanka Perera, Dev Nath Pathak and Ravi Kumar – who argue that adherence to the nation-state concept is preventing the South Asian region from building upon its shared myths, culture and more.

The book promotes a non-statist discourse of South Asia, which is especially relevant at a time when Pakistan-India, India-Nepal relations are strained by Kashmir and Kalapani, and SAARC is being sidelined. The authors focus on existing regional links in myth, folklore, religion, art, literature, food and popular culture which can be the building blocks for re-imagining South Asia. The essays are prefaced by an intellectually provocative and boldly reflexive chapter co-written by the authors, who are affiliated to South Asian University in New Delhi.

Re-imagining South Asia is imperative in the face of perennial bickering among nation-states in the region, which the authors argue, has made the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) hostage to nationalist politics.

Read also: Re-imagining South Asia, Shrey Mehta

The authors attribute this state of affairs to the parochial framework of the nation under which SAARC continues to function despite its regional rhetoric. They assert their opposition to the idea of nation, taking a crucial step towards realising a South Asian mode of thinking.

Written in a markedly passionate tone, the book makes no pretence of academic objectivity. Rather, the authors call their approach ‘ideological’, informed by their own politics of knowledge. Anyone familiar to sociology of knowledge knows that what we call ‘knowledge’ is always rooted in particular social and temporal contexts and shaped by the politics of social actors. It is an intellectual fallacy to view knowledge as universalistic and disinterested, particularly so when the knowledge claims to represent human society. Such fallacy blinds us to alternative ways of seeing and, thereby, enslaving them to the dominant discourse.

The authors suggest that the official imagination of South Asia, as a coming together of eight nation-states for regional co-operation, is ideological. This ideology is that of the nation-state, which imagines the existence of hostile ‘others’ across its boundaries, something that impedes the mainstreaming of organic regionalism. The book deconstructs this ideology by showing several instances of amicable artistic and cultural crossovers in the region currently, as well as in the past.

Yet, it would just be all talk and no substance if the proposed re-imagination of South Asia was not substantiated in some ways. The authors, based at a university established by SAARC, are apparently in a position to take concrete steps towards promoting a truly regional consciousness that defies the insular imagination of ‘nation’. Yet they confront the messiness of everyday life inside the university.

The book mentions an incident when a senior academic took exception to the inverted map of South Asia (pictured above), first conceptualised and published by Himal Southasian magazine, which was used by one of the university's departments in a presentation. The upside down map was envisioned to promote a re-imagination of the region centred on people rather than the nation-state. At the university however, it was deemed unnecessarily subversive, and it was suggested that the department get rid of it.

The authors deplore such nationalist modes of thinking among colleagues and students, which make critical discussions on South Asia, inside and outside the classrooms, difficult. They advocate an alternative regional framework in teaching and research, recounting their interventions in the sociology curricula at the MA and PhD levels in the university.

Academics have little or no incentive to write for the popular media and prefer to converse with peers by publishing in discipline-specific academic journals. In their ‘publish or perish’ world, popular writings are either ignored or frowned upon in the university system.

Against the Nation tries to engage the public outside such enlightened spaces of academia. Far from being an instance of populist anti-intellectualism, the accusation that the authors have anticipated, the book is steeped in the traditions of reflexive and public sociology. It can therefore resonate with a wider audience and will especially appeal to those who are intellectually interested and emotionally invested in the idea of South Asian regionalism.

 Against the Nation: Thinking like South Asians

By Sasanka Perera, Dev Nath Pathak and Ravi Kumar

New Delhi, Bloomsbury, 2019

Price: INR1,299

ISBN - 978-93-88630-22-1

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