New Delhi Notes: Where you stand = what you see

October 11, 2009

Geography determines many things, including the perspective that one holds on international relations. The way Indians from different parts of the country view South Asia has been a good example, although this is changing somewhat.


In the last few days during my meetings with people in Delhi, several people have expressed an interest in knowing what I would say or write on matters related to Pakistan. Only one person actually was interested in talking about Sri Lanka. It’s almost the opposite in Chennai, although Pakistan does hold an enduring fascination everywhere.

India is the only one of South Asia’s states that shares borders, and therefore, communities, languages and culture, with every one of the others. Even the atoll-state of Maldives has something in common with one part of India—Minicoy. Along this long, multicultural frontier, perspective shifts to reflect neighbourly concerns and ethnic kinships. Thus, from the point of view of West Bengal, the view of South Asia begins with Bangladesh. For Punjab, it begins with West Punjab and Pakistan. For Tamil Nadu, it begins with Sri Lanka. A more careful reading would show moreover that within a region, say the Indian east, primary preoccupations vary too. If for someone from Assam, it is immigration from Bangladesh, for a policy-maker in Tripura it could be the easy passage across the porous frontiers of the region of militants and arms.

Similarly, for people on the other side of these frontiers, India begins with their neighbouring/ co-ethnic region and is largely imagined as an extension thereof. For Sri Lankans, therefore, India begins with the state of Tamil Nadu and the ‘60 million’ Tamils that they see as an extension of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The rest of India is an add-on for many imaginations.

Happily and unhappily, these perspectives are now becoming complex. The advent of the Internet and satellite television carries programming in the region’s languages far from their area of origin. Thus, Chennaiites can now hear Nepali news! People are chatting, commenting on each other’s blogs, networking and tweeting across borders. Travel across the world is providing an opportunity for South Asians to meet and adding nuance to their understanding of each other’s states. This is the ‘happy’ part.

Terrorist attacks are the unhappy part. Because terror groups do not see their issues as local, they strike far from their area of contestation. There is no more striking example than the repeated attacks on Mumbai, especially 26/11. Mumbaikars now think about Pakistan.

Would that such a broadening of perspective were not due to insecurity and would that it were accompanied by a deepening! I have also had two or three conversations here about the fact that given India’s location and natural interest in its neighbourhood, we do not have the multi-disciplinary programmes or conferences that are seen elsewhere on South Asia. Where a single department might have a political scientist, an agricultural economist and an ethnomusicologist, giving students the opportunity to learn broadly. Where simultaneous panels in a conference might discuss poverty, law, textile and text. There are of course, South Asia programmes in India, but security, strategic studies and politics dominate the agenda, even though we know from historical experience across the world that it is broad-based knowledge that is most useful even in these areas. A depletion of area expertise made US intelligence-gathering on South, Central and West Asia very difficult in very recent memory, for instance.

Indian debates about educational reform, non-governmental and state initiatives and big funding should take a little time to support the creation of such spaces and platforms for research and teaching that will nurture this broad and deep learning about this complex, interconnected neighbourhood. In their absence, in the long run, we will continue to see policy underpinned by shallow understanding from perspectives skewed by narrow expertise. And globalization will carry the consequences of bad policy across continental frontiers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s