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S. Akbar Zaidi

Draupadi, contemporary pop culture

I have often wondered at the terms ‘South Asia’ and ‘South Asian’. They have now become part of the English language. We even have departments for South Asian Studies. This geographical entity called South Asia is celebrated in conferences and art exhibitions, and in the SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) organisation. Yet, as a non-Indian citizen of South Asia, I often wonder whether the concept is meant to achieve anything beyond the legitimisation of Indian hegemony — cultural, geographic, economic.

This feeling is strengthened when one reads Indian writers — even in The Little Magazine, where Ashis Nandy (Vol. 3, Issue 2, 2002) writes: "I have always grudged the patronising, arrogant Brahminism that has tinged South Asia’s academic secularism". Arrogant Brahminism? In Pakistan? In Bangladesh? It was brought home to me sharply on a recent visit to Delhi. I came across a hoarding advertising a new television serial called Draupadi. I asked an Indian friend who Draupadi was, and she was shocked. "Hai Rama!" she cried in disbelief, "what sort of South Asian are you?" As she told me who Draupadi was, a feeling that I have always had in India was re-emphasised: all of us who live in South Asia are now Indians.

Should I know who Draupadi is? I live in a country where 97 per cent of the population is Muslim and has been so for at least 50 years — where Islam is dominant, culturally and politically. While India has a huge influence on Pakistan, the stories from Indian mythology do not inform our reality or consciousness. For a non-Indian South Asian, the assumption that all of us outside India should be Indians too, influenced by the same cultural, social, historical and religious experiences, is strange indeed. After Partition, the South Asian countries have followed diverse and divergent trajectories, away from any assumed unity or similarity.

My (Indian) friends have reacted almost with hostility, saying that it is not possible for me not to know Indian (Hindu?) mythology, when I must be familiar with Zeus and Adonis. Unfortunately, because of the history of undivided colonised India in the last century, and as a consequence of the manner of Partition and/or Independence, Draupadi or Hindu mythology cannot be treated as something benign, like the Greek gods. If Pakistan sees itself constantly in contradiction and confrontation with India — and vice versa, as has happened more recently — then whether it is Hindu mythology or Hindu culture, it is seen as antagonistic to the Muslim/Pakistani nation.

Nevertheless, India does dominate South Asia in every respect. Increasingly, in the academic institutions in the West, Indian history, Indian studies and Indian art are being replaced by the supposedly inclusive term, South Asian Studies. But it’s just window-dressing. Students still study Indian history, culture and politics, with perhaps, the last three lectures of a term devoted to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

One finds the same over-representation/hegemony at conferences, seminars, cultural shows and workshops on South Asia. While at times there is participation from other South Asian countries (often window-dressing again), the discourse is primarily Indian, emphasised by the larger number of Indians present at such meetings. The issues discussed are mainly Indian, as are the symbols, the histories and the instances.

Given India’s presence and dominance in the region, this is not surprising. With three-quarters of the landmass, population and economy of the region, India has a much larger share of writers, artists and scholars. Even in terms of quality, Indians have made a mark internationally in almost every discipline. There are fewer well-known or accomplished achievers in similar fields from the other South Asian countries. In terms of merit and achievement, Indians excel.

The alternative to the hegemonising/domination argument is that of learning from Indian excellence and experience. Why shouldn’t the other South Asian countries acknowledge India’s obvious dominance and excellence where it exists, whether this is in terms of the economy, art or scholarship? The answer probably lies in the politics of the region and particularly that of India. While there are numerous advantages of greater integration to all countries, there is also the fear of being swamped by an increasingly Indianised Hindu (or a Hinduised Indian) culture.

Fifty-five years ago, when we all emerged as independent nations, perhaps a South Asian identity would have been possible and may have addressed the numerous problems which affect us collectively and severally today. The possibility of hegemony would have caused no less concern than it does today, but perhaps it could have been dealt with.

Today, however, South Asia is just another name for India. If South Asia is to become a more meaningful concept, one which is truly inclusivist, which recognises and acknowledges cultural diversity, the dominant country of the region has to take the initiative. This will require India to become a secular, progressive, open, democratic and, most of all, accommodating, cultural and political entity. Sadly, as India falters on many of these ideals, it is unlikely that we will ever become South Asians.


S. Akbar Zaidi is a social scientist. He lives in Karachi