Identity; the subcontinent context

Identity-formation; looking at the 'subcontinent' from outside

The ancient and medieval 'history' of the Asian subcontinent is long, complex and varied. In the popular imagination of non-specialists it is assumed that the regional communities of the subcontinent, almost always equated with a core 'Indian space', are all members of the same 'race', belonging to the same family and sharing the same ancestry. It is just assumed that the entire mass of the population from either side of its porous borders is homogenous and undistinguishable. Typically this leads to all sorts of facile notions some of which include the belief that South Asia’s past is in some way intricately linked with present events and that all ‘Indians’, ‘Pakistanis’, ‘Bengalis’ and other 'South Asian' nationalities collectively travel on a course that links past, present and future events together as if the destiny of this vast landmass was predetermined in some higher realm.

To the trained eye and the educated mind, nothing can be so further from the truth, patently false and ideologically crude.

The Asian subcontinent is a vast region with a myriad of different ethnic and linguistic groups. Its climate varies drastically as does its topography. Barren and rugged hills and vast mountain complexes that enclose small valley communities contrast starkly with fertile paddy fields that feed massive populations living on outstretched lowlands that stretch for hundreds of miles unchecked.

The striking differences between regions in the North West to those in the North East, lands on opposite sides of more than a thousand or so miles cannot be exaggerated. The northerly regions of the subcontinent with its Indo-Aryan heritage and southerly regions of Dravidian India genetically connected with the Indus Valley Civilisation perhaps 5000 years old in its antiquity are precursors to a diversity that would call into question claims of some intrinsic coherence. There are many other communities not connected with Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI) scattered all over the subcontinent with a presence that predates the emergence of either of the two communities by thousands of years. 

It is part of this facile way of looking at South Asia or the subcontinent that we imagine it is a uniform place with parallel ‘labels’ that are exhaustive and precise in their application and description. And yet according to pre-modern historical accounts at our disposal, we learn that in ancient and medieval times inhabitants of ‘India’ for example did not view themselves as belonging to an inclusive people inhabiting ‘one’ ‘primordial’ ‘mother India’.

Crucially they did not view or describe their internal-regions through the prisms of today’s political priorities and regional demarcations. How and why so many people came together to ascribe to an ‘Indian’ or ‘subcontinent’ identity that had little resonance in previous centuries is indeed a fascinating journey that will take us back through the annals of history.

If appreciated, it will allow us to understand the importance of cultural spheres when we seek to shed light on the cultural peoples of the subcontinent.

The Asian subcontinent

Let us look at a map of South Asia, what do we see? We see about nine countries all lumped together by virtue of a political construct. As a term of reference, it can also be used synonymously with the terms ‘the Asian subcontinent’, ‘the Indian subcontinent’, and the Indo-Pak subcontinent’. These terms are also political and geographical constructs, no different from the ‘Middle East’ construct, the ‘Far East’ or ‘Near East’ constructs or the ‘Europe’ construct. As constructs they do not embody innate timeless 'truthes' but rather reflect the attitudes of outsiders (historical actors) looking in from a core culture somewhere else. Today, they are just taken for granted with no appreciation of how these regions were individually conceived geographically and the political priorities now underpinning them.

So are there any problems associated with the terms?

The Asian subcontinent we imagine today particularly when wedded to the contours of pre-partition India is the ‘India’ of the British ‘colonial’ imagination. Civilisationally, this vast realm had a lot in common perhaps akin to the commonalities that existed in Europe under the patronage of a Christianised Rome that valued Greek learning. Like Rome and the Greek City States, its influence extended vastly beyond its own core-spaces to include regions in Central Asia and the Far East.

This ‘civilizational’ space whichever of the associated terms we choose included the core countries of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. We can also include Afghanistan and to some extent Iran. According to the United Nation's defintion of South Asia, Iran is included in the term but we shouldn't confuse this version of South Asia with our civilisational South Asia. The Persia of antiquity (not to be confused with modern-day Iran) has had its own distinct civilisation that at one time or another included the North West of the Indian subcontinent. Its influence had also extended well beyond its core regions. In any case the core regions of the Indian subcontinent and the wider regions of South Asia are no smaller than the entire continent of Europe. It has a population so large that it would dwarf the population count of more than a hundred countries put together.

In ancient and medieval times, its population was of course a lot smaller but still exponentially greater than neighbouring regions in Central and Western Asia. To therefore use one label to somehow delineate coherence between these internally-diverse regions whatever the generic definitions we use to delineate them is obviously a tall order.

Even when we zoom in on our modern map of the subcontinent, we see large states in India and provinces in Pakistan, each with ethnic ascriptions for vast terrains that are no more homogenous than the countries that make up the aggregate. So what would this tell us of its sum-parts in any meaningful sense? What would we learn of the individual histories of a particular ‘cultural’ region as opposed to another distinct ‘cultural’ region subsumed within a sub-division of that larger aggregate?

Of course it is the case that the history of the subcontinent is a shared one; that the present nation states of India and Pakistan (and we can easily add Afghanistan) have a lot in common is not contested at all. But this is akin to saying that Europeans have a shared heritage on account of Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian traditions or that the ancient peoples of the Americas spoke languages genetically connected to the same linguistic source. In fact as human beings we all have a shared heritage as our earliest human ancestors first saw the light of day in Africa. No educated person would dispute this but what about the things that make us culturally ‘different’ and why then do we celebrate our cultural differences even within the same political regions? 

It is here we must understand the nature of illusory claims embedded to political or nationalistic agendas at the cost of cultural realities. Mapping a cultural region will help us navigate terrains and spaces and cultural ecologies that bind people together by the real stuff of culture and not through political aspirations or social expectations borne of a murky past that yield nothing by way of a genuine cultural awareness. This is especially true in our very modern and conflict-ridden world where all sorts of ideological claims are being made about the ‘priorities’ that distinguish ‘us’ from our supposed ‘enemies’ even when those enemies are essentially our own people.

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