November 26, 2013

Does 'South Asia' Exist?

The following article originally appeared on Foreign Policy's 'AfPak Channel'. An excerpt is included below and the full text can be accessed here

While a confusing construct, the term ‘South Asia' persevered in America's strategic consciousness, despite the inevitable dehyphenation of India and Pakistan. Among non-specialists in the counterinsurgency era, it was often used as a casual and more politically-correct synonym for AfPak, marginalizing not just India, but also Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, all important countries in their own rights. I recall reviewing the syllabus of a graduate studies course on South Asia at a major American university two years ago, and you could have been forgiven for thinking that the India-Pakistan border constituted South Asia's eastern frontier.

A real concern is that a conceptual resurgence of ‘South Asia' -- especially as an outgrowth of ‘AfPak' -- could be accompanied by the conscious or subconscious rehyphenation of India and Pakistan, and the prolonged side-lining of other states in the region. As the anonymous genius behind the Twitter handle @majorlyp has caustically written:
Indians are Indians and Pakistanis when caught in tight situations (like in Airports) are Indians too. In other circumstances they are South Asians. Being "South Asian" offers many advantages. Such as an overwhelming numerical advantage.
Example: When faced with the question "Is radicalization a problem"? South Asians can reply with a straight face "Only 170 million, or less than 10% of the South Asians are radicalized". Which sounds entirely reasonable.
The author writes in somewhat cruel jest, of course, but like the best parody, there is more than a grain of uncomfortable truth in what he says. Will U.S. discourse related to South Asia come to be dominated by the problems of terrorism, Islamist extremism, nuclear proliferation, and anti-Americanism at the expense of the incredible opportunities and challenges associated with dynamic economic growth, raucous democracy, immense social and cultural diversity, and broad support for a U.S.-led international system? Let's hope not.