The Idea of South Asia

EHESS - Salle 638-641  -  190, avenue de France  -  75013 Paris
Journée du Centre d'études de l'Inde et de l'Asie du Sud, Research Group "Of Borders and Boundaries".Organisers: Aminah Mohammad-Arif, Blandine Ripert & Sanjay Subrahmanyam

South Asia, another name for the Indian Subcontinent, is a recent concept (only about six decades old), forged outside the region in the wake of the establishment of area studies by American universities. While it may be preferred to Indian subcontinent for its political neutrality, it is nonetheless a contested concept, both externally and internally. Whether in South Asia itself or in international institutions or research centres outside the region, there is no general consensus about the countries the concept encompasses: it primarily refers to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, as per the definition of the SAARC, which has however included Afghanistan lately (2005) among its members. Some would also include Burma (Myanmar) as it was a province of British India till 1937. Internally, the concept is contested on the political level but in a fairly paradoxical way: on the one hand, as a concept closely associated with India, it is in some contexts rejected by its neighbours; on the other hand, neighbouring countries (especially Nepal and Sri Lanka) have been instrumental in making the concept exist through the creation of journals, associations, and websites that mobilise the term.

Although “South Asia” is used more by international institutions and scholarsthan by local populations, this category is still highly meaningful as peopleacross the region share fairly common social, cultural (clothing, food, thepopularity of Bollywood…), linguistic and religious practices that traversenational boundaries.. The regular crossing of borders, within the region, isalso another case in point of how individuals and groups make this categoryexist on an almost daily basis.

Beside these practices, some individuals and groups, in South Asia and in diaspora, actively contribute to building the idea of South Asia in the wake of tense relations between the countries of the region (mainly between India and Pakistan but also between India and other neighbouring countries). These “good-will” cross-border discourses and practices, which have been insufficiently studied, deserve more attention. Who are these actors? Beyond defusing political tensions, what are the other characteristics of their discourses? What type of cross-border practices do they engage into? What is their agenda? How do they rethink (the former) British India before the creation of contemporary borders? Is this a form of rethinking of the region along pre-Partition borders and beyond nationalism and nation-states? Is this an example of a contemporary use of the past? Is there any such thing as a South Asian identity? If so, how and when is it expressed? To further engage with this category in a comparative perspective, this conference will also include a discussion about the ways in which other areas have reflected upon the delimitation of their own space through the example of Iran.


  • 9h30 Morning Tea/Coffee
  • 9h50 Welcome address and introduction (Blandine Ripert, CNRS)

Deconstructing South Asia and beyond
Chair: Denis Matringe (CNRS)

  • 10h “South Asia”: An (Un)Contested Category (Aminah Mohammad-Arif, CNRS)
  • 10h30: Tea/Coffee break
  • 10h45 India that is Bharat: An On-going Debate on a Strange Equation (Catherine Clémentin-Ojha, EHESS)
  • 11h15 The "Iranian world" between the Turkish, Arab, Indian and European Lands: The Quest for Identity. (Bernard Hourcade, CNRS)
  • 11h45 Discussion Sanjay Subrahmanyam (UCLA)
  • 12h30 Lunch break

Perceptions, Representations and Actors
Chair: Eric Meyer (INALCO)

  • 14h Thinking India in South Africa: Gandhi’s Conundrum (Claude Markovits, CNRS)
  • 14h30 The Strange Love of the Land: Identity, Poetry and Politics in South Asia (Sudipta Kaviraj, Columbia University. Paper read by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, UCLA)
  • 15h Tea/Coffee break
  • 15h15 South Asianism: The Diasporic Construction of a Category or an Ideology? (Anouck Carsignol, CSH)
  • 15h45 People’s SAARC: Building a South Asian Identity from Below (Sudha Ramachandran, Kulturstudier, Puducherry, invited by the Franco-Indian programme of the FMSH)
  • 16h15 Keynote Address and Discussion, Tariq Ali (Historian, Novelist, Filmmaker)
  • le mardi 13 novembre 2012  de 9h30  à 17h30

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