Go away ‘South Asian’!

Exchanging a great brand for a flawed one is self-defeating and dangerous

It is fashionable among a section of Indians to become South Asians after setting foot in a Western country. There is, of course, absolutely no reason for expatriate Indian nationals to bear any ill-will towards expatriate Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis or Sri Lankans living abroad. Just as there is absolutely no reason to bear ill-will towards expatriate Chinese, Germans, South Africans, Nigerians or Peruvians. But it is wholly unnecessary for an Indian to adopt the label of “South Asian” in order to be nice to others. Or to be seen to be nice to others.

Indeed, “Indian” has far greater brand recognition, and far more positive connotations internationally than the meaningless “South Asian”. At least until they gave that name to a mismanaged airline.

The abject failure of the “South Asian” label can be seen when the media reports bad news. Take the case of some of the terrorists who were arrested. Dr Mohammed Haneef—a person who practiced medicine (and succumbed to the jihadi mindtrap) in Britain—is reported as being an “Indian” national, not a “South Asian”, although he is likely to have ended up as a terrorist suspect because of the baleful influence of other South Asians.

But it is the Indianness of Abu Musa al-Hindi, alias Bilal, that takes the cake. Except that he was born in India, to a Hindu family, it’s hard to see what is Indian in him. His family was from Kenya, he grew up in Britain, and converted to Islam in 1991, trained in a Pakistani terrorist training camp in 1995, fought the Indian army in Kashmir, before being arrested in 2004. Yet, his jihadi comrades call him ‘the Indian’ (al-Hindi) and the media (even Wikipedia) still calls him Dhiren Barot, and often plays up his Indianness. (Fareed Zakaria, though, is as true blue an American as you can get.)

What’s this got to do with South Asianness? While that term is currently limited to the politically correct sorts, it can take on a life of its own, especially for good news stories. Like those successful South Asian immigrants, the West South Asians who run most motels in North America, the South South Asians who run good vegetarian restaurants there or the East South Asians who run North South Asian restaurants in Britain etc. Failure and bad news, being orphans, will be laid at the door of the Indian. Like that Dr Mohammed Haneef. He may or may not be a terrorist. But he is an Indian.

30 thoughts on “Go away ‘South Asian’!”

  1. Or that accursed word “brown”

    In immortal words of Quentin Tarantino
    ” Yeah, yeah, but “Mr. Brown”, that’s little too close to “Mr. Shit”.” [*] 😉

  2. Gaurav,

    Or the attempt at home to drive some kind of a distinction between India and Bharat. There’s no respite from idiotarianism.

  3. the more pertinent question is, why is this entire cell [seemingly] comprised of physicians?
    maybe this is a new strategy, and the next cell could be accountants only?

    now that is scary!!

  4. Anuj,

    A cell of accountants is always scary.

    But seriously, the London/Glasgow incident are cause for worry. Because they suggest that cells are forming without explicit links to organisations. Unicellular, rather than merely cellular. They are less professional in their work than the hardcore types, but can cause mayhem anyway. We’ll have to wait and see what the British uncover, but it’s very bad news.

  5. The “South Asian” label is used by the guilt-ridden, “secular, socialist” intellectuals of – what else – South Asian origin in the West, to avoid identification of the Islamic terrorists as such. Labeling them as “Muslim doctors” is less palatable to these folks than labeling them as “South Asian doctors” or “Indian doctors”. Amartya Sen has plenty to say on this in his book, “Identity and Violence”. I guess the Roys and the Sens would like to extend their penchant for “distributive justice” to blame as much as for benefit!

  6. Nitin – I read somwhere that the UK Police are keeping round the clock tabs on, literally thousands of “Unicells”. And yet, those peace lovers managed to do damage.
    Scary, indeed.

  7. Nitin,

    It’s a peculiar British left-wing (lead by beeb’s) thing. I don’t known very many Indians calling themselves South Asian in US or else where.

  8. OTOH – I am waiting for the proverbial shoe to fall, from the foot of an Indian “Intellectual”; who will, no doubt, explain away the [possible] role played by the good Indian Doctors on…who else? the Hindu Right…

  9. A long long time back, when secular-right was still blogging, I had a major run-in their with a gent from sepia mutiny, a “south asian” blog on this entire “south asian” identity thing.

    I think all those who term themselves “south asians” consider it to be some kind of uber-cool, something that distinguishes them from “haters”.

  10. Especially in the light of this NYT article about the Glasgow plot warns that Britons fear “homegrown terrorist attacks among its disenfranchised South Asian population”.

    No, you imbeciles, that would be its disgruntled muslim population. Who do you think you’re kidding?

  11. This “south asian” and “brown” identity is usually pedlled by AB”E”D (AB”Enlightened”Desi) types who are confused about their identity anyways.
    Their argument basically goes like this :

    Indians, Pakis and other S Asians look the same. They eat almost same food. They speak a language that even sounds the same. To some extent they even have a common history. Heck, they even enjoy C grade Bollywood movies together. So the person who believes in different identities must surely be delusional.

    India is the land of Gandhi and non-violence. Indians fight violent wars withs Pakis. Violence is bad. S Asia is violent region. They have same problems like “caste”, “Hindutva” and “Islamic Terrorism” and hunger and illiteracy. So a common solution is warranted to all these. Hence they must be grouped togetehr.

    For more on such line of thinking please visit sepiamutiny.com

  12. Nitin: agree with you on dilution of the brand and agree with Chandra. I don’t know any Indians in the US calling themselves South Asian. When did the Indian subcontinent become South Asia? The others – with due respect – are marginal players.

  13. … Indians, Pakis and other S Asians look the same. They eat almost same food. They speak a language that even sounds the same. To some extent they even have a common history. Heck, they even enjoy C grade Bollywood movies together. So the person who believes they are to be on the same level as expat Chinese, Germans, South Africans, Nigerians or Peruvians is er… perfectly sensible?

    I havent really found too many Indians in the US going for the South Asian label but I think they do and always will have some intimacy or kindred spirit with other South Asian expat communities. I think this is quite OK. I am more worried about the dilution of “Indian” as an identity when it gets to 2nd and 3rd generation, you have people identifying themselves along the lines of “British Sikh” “US Gujarati” etc. and the “Indian” kind of loses out to both ends of this duality. I dont know if 2nd/ 3rd generation of Pakistani-origin identify themselves as American Sindhi etc.


  14. South Asian is replaced by the word desi in the US. ABCD – American Born Confused Desi is an example.

  15. “If my theory of relativity is proven correct, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.” — Albert Einstein, speech at the Sorbonne, Paris (December, 1929)

  16. “India is the land of Gandhi and non-violence. Indians fight violent wars withs Pakis. Violence is bad. S Asia is violent region. They have same problems like “caste”, “Hindutva” and “Islamic Terrorism” and hunger and illiteracy. So a common solution is warranted to all these. Hence they must be grouped togetehr.”

    Such stupidity is beyound bound. It doesn’t even make sense. India is non-violent but wages violent wars with Paks (that’s right Indians started all of them)? Huh? Solution to fighting caste among Hindus is the same as fighting Islamic terrorism? That’s right visit sepia mutiny and get lot more of this garbage.

  17. Interesting post, Nitin. A few comments.

    I certainly have not met anyone in the UK who would rather call themselves “South Asian” than “Indian” or “Pakistani”. “South Asian” is not a commonly used phrase in the UK. The generic term for people from the subcontinent used to be “Asian”. In recent times, due in no small means to efforts from Britons of Indian descent, a distinction is beginning to appear in the media between “Indians”, “Pakistanis” and “Bangladeshis”. This distinction became important in the aftermath of 9/11 and the London bombings. The media began to use the phrase “British of Pakistani origin” rather than the generic “British Asian”. Following on from this, media references to Dr. Haneef being Indian does not seem so unfair or misguided.


    “It’s a peculiar British left-wing (lead by beeb’s) thing. I don’t known very many Indians calling themselves South Asian in US or else where.”

    Wrong. The British left wing does not champion the use of “South Asian”. The “beeb” does not lead the usage of the phrase “South Asian”. In fact, other than to use the geographic reference to South Asia as a region, i have never heard them use the phrase “South Asian” to describe an individual.


  18. South Asian is a term used by ignorant guilt-wracked non-square-root academics in the US (like the Vijay Prashad variety not that I know if he uses the term) to make Pakis feel nice that all this Indian ‘prosperity’ is not Indian but “South Asian” i.e., the India of yore and our times has had nothing to do with the emergence of an Indian elite; but the ‘South Asian’ culture is responsible. So you have self-smearers like the SAJA and SALSA conjuring up common interests for all ‘South Asians’. As if… But jealous Pakistanis have seen through this weasling and now find only condescension in it. It’s a numbers thing you see. Even if it were called South Asian there would be heck a of a lot of Indian origin folks in such a group. And beyond that if you look at half-****d organisations such as DIA (earlier named Duke (University) Indian Association) that celebrates not Dipavali but some monstrosity called Aawaaz, it is simply not possible to celebrate certain things without reference to India and Hindu culture. Because when you look at the arts and literature of the last 1000 years in India romance, gaiety, filial love, juvenile playfulness, duty, passion, and many others sentiments have all been explored within the Hindu tradition by poets from nominally Hindu and Muslim persuasion. Holi, Basant, Ram Leela, Janmashtami, Dipavali are celebrated in song, verse, and dance by Hindu and Muslim alike. Bangladeshis I know continue to hang out at Durga Puja get togethers. Sri Lankans get together on occasion with Tamizh people for the New Year. While Bangladeshis (who for the most part prefer to be known as Bengali “We are from Bangladesh, we are Bengali”) and Sri Lankans have never as a rule liked the South Asian tag, and Pakistanis I have known tire of the South Asian chimera pretty soon. The latest genus within the South Asian spouting species is the low rent token exotic hire academic of the Priyamvada Gopal (whose monumental academic contribution is all of one book) variety, all in the UK! These bozos seem to be late to the party. SepiaMutiny.com is severely into cognitive dissonance. I believe the South Asian identity issue has been put into the past following the plain-talking posts of a few senior no-nonsense contributors. SepiaMutiny.com has a rather limited intellectual capability, but otherwise the kids who run it are harmless. All good fun.

  19. I believe the term “south asian” was coined by the CIA in their attempt to classify various groups in Asia. There were several discussions on this matter in the early days of Sulekha.com. Second generation American desis co-opted the term to describe themselves because they could not perceive any difference between second generation people from any of the countries in the subcontinent. And I don’t blame them. They need to determine an identity for themselves in a European dominated world. However, that is a peculiarly American (and British?) phenomenon and does not concern the rest of us.

  20. The worst part is when the Pakis and Bangladeshis run “Indian” restaurants in the UK. If you were to go upto them and ask “Right, so which part of India are you from” They’ll nonchallantly reply “Pakistan” or “Bangladesh”. So if one of these restaurant waiters turns out to be a jihadi I wouldn’t be surprised if our nation earns the flak for it.

    Hah! They are not even proud of their nationality to display it on their restaurants and they talk about jihad and all that jazz.

  21. Kirthi,

    On the contrary, it’s a good thing that Pakistani, Bangladeshis and even Sri Lankans run Indian restaurants. Provided, of course, the food is good. We should be concerned if they fob off lousy dishes as Indian food, as part of (or otherwise) a grand conspiracy to bring India to disrepute!

  22. Observed in New York – One can guess the “Indian” restaurateurs’ national origins by the hierarchy of countries listed below the outfit’s name. i.e., if the eatery name is followed by – Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisine, then the owner is from Pakistan. And if it is, Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani cuisine, then the owner is bound to be from Bangladesh.

  23. Pretty late into this thread..anyways here is my two cent worth:

    I am told by my US based Cousins that after Y2K and 9/11,it is advantageous for Indians to be identified as Indians and not South Asians coz they are the smart, calm and trouble free.

  24. “Dr Mohammed Haneef—a person who practiced medicine (and succumbed to the jihadi mindtrap)”


    What do you mean by “succumbed to the jihadi mindtrap”? Are you already pronouncing him guilty?

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  26. Shankar (or as my buddy would say he who is always Right),

    Apparently you don’t read/listen to the same Beeb (or other British papers) that I do.

    Mohib, good point! Australians have been down playing the arrest from day one – the guy may have just boarded with the other Jordian and Iraqi docs, who seem to be the main master minds of, at least, Glasgow.

  27. Well, considering that the words “sand niggers” are suddenly coming to the fore, i can understand why pakis,indians and lankans like to call themselves “south asians”. Though i do agree with you tat the reputation of just “Indian” is way greater than “south asian”.

  28. pakistan IS part of India ,the region known to geographers and historians of the past, but of course not the nation-state going by the same name that occupies much of the same space. THe people that want the Indian subcontinent to be known as “south asia” wish or are allowing the sub-himalayan civilization to be divested from the word “India” which they perhaps feel has been hegemonically co-opted by the REpublic of India. It leaves space for pakistan to claim the lodhis, tughluqs, timurids, adil and qutub shahis ect. as its heritage and not that of ROI(1950)…its all clerical really and i dont buy into it btw

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