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Unity in diversity: Can we be South Asians?

Dec 11, 2012

There has been an incredible lack of interest in South Asia among its own people who tend to look out more towards Europe and the US. A discussion organised on the eve of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC) 24th anniversary on December 8, 2012, a panel of journalists writing on issues related to the sub-continent discussed whether forging a South Asian identity was possible.

The discussion, ‘Driving the Narrative: Challenges in Reporting in South Asia’, organised by the Delhi-based regional organisation, No Man’s Land, had journalists from India, Nepal and other countries who have reported on the region.

Kanal Mani Dixit, the publisher of the Himal Khabarpatrika fortnightly and editor of Himal Southasian magazine, said that people have multiple identities but the South Asian identity has been short-circuited. He said: “There has been a rise in extreme disinterest in South Asia. But the only way to re-vitalise interest in South Asia amongst its people is through increased reportage.”

He added that “We have been moving apart as people in the sub-continent as generations that had relatives across the borders are fading away; the new nation States in South Asia are nationalistic, which is bound to be as new countries emerge; and pilgrimages across countries have declined.”

Mark Magnier, Southasia correspondent for L.A. Times, who has covered various parts of Asia including Iraq, Israel and the West Bank and East Timor spoke about covering the regions as a reporter. Magnier said: “The South Asian region is very different to cover. It strikes me that people in India and Pakistan are so similar in their warmth, social aspects etc… but I cannot get my arms around India. I can’t figure out what India is.”

Highlight the current situation in India, Magnier added that there is an overwhelming emphasis on ‘shining India’. “It has been done by both—Indians and Americans—for various reasons of their own. India is now looked at as a counter to China also,” Magnier said.

The audience also warmed up to the spotlight on India. “I find that challenging India and its notions is difficult. The gender index is low, the corruption index is low, India is rated low on the children index also but the Indians do not want to discuss these things.” The audience also discussed that India is no longer considered to be shining. As someone remarked, “It has to deliver now. There are problems. The infrastructure has collapsed. What is also important is Indians’ perception of themselves and the world’s perception of India,” said a member of the audience.

Documentary filmmaker Madhureeta Anand agreed that Indians do not critique themselves enough. She said: “It seems that there is an embargo on being critical in India.”

Dixit veered the discussion back to the visible indifference amongst the South Asians. He said: “Why people are not interacting between themselves has economic reasons. History and a shared culture can only go so far. If blockages on economy, trade and commerce remain, this disinterest will prevail between the people.” Sharing an interesting observation on how the countries themselves contribute to this disinclination amongst people, he commented: “Nepal is interested in India but not in areas where the common Nepali is. Areas close to the Indo-Nepal border or regional centres like Lucknow, Gorakhpur, Benaras and many others where Nepali people find work do not interest Kathmandu.”

Commenting on the lackluster reporting within South Asia, Aunohita Mojumdar from Himal Southasian said: “Our foreign correspondents are so insular that they are happy to report what the Ministry of External Affairs hands out to them.”

Freelance journalist Jyoti Malhotra narrated a recent incident in which a delegation of Members of Parliament from Bangladesh came on a visit to Assam—a first of its kind. She said: “This generated interest only amongst those Indian MPs who hail from the region. Only some Indian MPs came along on such an important visit.”

Noting the regional differences within India, Dixit commented: “The people in the Centre should realise that Delhi is not India. People in the other states feel strongly about Delhi.” He added that often people on the borders of a country have more in common with the people on the other side of the border.

That also is why a South Asian identity may not be such a far-fetched thing, after all.

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