‘India’ or ‘South Asia’: How students should be told of the history of these peoples?

By: Ram Jagessar

A small group of South Asia studies faculty recently asked the California Board of Education to replace the word ‘India’ with ‘South Asia’ and there was an opposition to this suggestion. A petition of protest against such move was presented to the Board.

It may be difficult to win this battle for retaining India instead of changing to South India, for different reasons than posted in an article on this website.

Let me give our experience in Ontario Canada where in 2001 we got the Ontario Legislature to accept South Asian Heritage Month as a celebration of the arrival and heritage of “South Asians” in Canada.

I was the secretary of the Indian Arrival and Heritage Month Committee and know all the details. It’s not that our group in Toronto did not want to use the word Indian.

For several years before we had been celebrating Indo-Caribbean Heritage Day, Indian Arrival Day and then Indian Arrival and Heritage Month.

We made it clear that by Indian we meant people of the Indian sub continent, including present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan. In other words, Greater India. In other words, Greater India, ethnic India, cultural India rather than political India oftoday.

The Caribbean Indians here in Canada accepted the Indian tag quite willingly, as we considered ourselves to be ethnic and cultural Indians, our ancestors had come from the old Greater India.

We have been celebrating Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and several other Caribbean nations since 1979.

But there was serious resistance from others here. The Pakistanis would have nothing to do with Indian Arrival and Heritage Month as they did not consider themselves Indians in any way. The Bangladeshis similarly did not respond to invitations to celebrate Indian Arrival and Heritage Month for the same reason as the Pakistanis. The Tamil Sri Lankans here were angry with India about political matters in Sri Lanka and were not interested. Neither were the Sinhalese Sri Lankans. We could not detect much enthusiasm from the Afghanistanis here, and not much either from the Nepalese and Bhutanese.

Much to our surprise, we found that some Punjabi Sikhs didn’t buy the Indian Arrival and Heritage Month idea. They were at the time very angry with India over problems with the Indian government and some were pushing for an independent state of Khalistan. Gurudwaras had pictures of Sikh martyrs killed by Indian soldiers on their walls.

That left just the Indians with roots in India, including those who had come directly from India, the Indo-Caribbeans, the Indo-Fijians, the ethnic Indians from East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda) and one or two other small groups.

We have in Canada ethnic Indians who have come from over 15 countries.Indian Arrival and Heritage Month and the general use of the word Indian to cover this million strong community were not working out too well, and seemed to dividing us rather than uniting us.

The word South Asian was around, used in academic circles and in some government circles as well, but few of us considered ourselves South Asians. It was just a made up word.

In 2001 we were quite happy to see an Indian member of the Ontario Parliament introduce a bill to legalize Indian Arrival and Heritage Month, and to hear that all major political parties liked the idea. But after a while the legal drafters discovered a problem with the Indian Arrival and Heritage Month Act. Canada already has a federal Indian Act of 1876, which applies to the province of Ontario, and deals with various native or First National “Indians”. An Indian Arrival and Heritage Month Act would cause immense confusion with the Indian Act 1876 and the various “Indian” bands like the Sioux and Cree and Meti .It would probably not get approved in the legislature at all.

Would we consider changing the name to South Asian Heritage Month Act? What choice did we have?

It was either South Asian Heritage Month Act or no act at all.

South Asian was the politically correct word, which would cause the least problems. We said yes to South Asian Heritage Month and it was signed into law the same year 2001. May 5 was chosen as South Asian Arrival Day, referring of course to May 5 arrival of the first Indians to Guyana in 1838.

I have to report that South Asian Heritage Month has had much greater overall acceptance and support than Indian Arrival and Heritage Month. Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Afghanistanis, Bangladeshis and others have joined in, and this celebration is spreading out from Ontario to many other provinces in Canada. Some of us Indo Caribbeans celebrate South Asian Heritage Month and others continue with Indian Arrival Day.

Almost none of us consider ourselves South Asian as our identity statement That is something we use with outsiders, with government agencies, with funding applications and some publicity.

Using South Asian hasn’t helped much in unifying this group (by whatever name we are called), but then it hasn’t caused roadblocks and opposition as the use of the word Indian for us all did in the past.

We can all live with South Asian whereas some of us previously could not live with Indian.

I will ask those who want Indian instead of South Asian: what would you have done when told that Indian Arrival and Heritage Month was not going to work because of the word Indian?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Authors of posts
    Apr 03, 2016 @ 10:02:03

    It is natural that countries get divided and united with the passage of time. But the history should not be distorted. I think any sensible person should use the word ‘Greater India’ when describing these peoples now living in different countries. Of course, this problem is limited only to history. Presently there are different people. Your suggestion of ‘Greater India’ is better than ‘Indian Subcontinent’.



  2. Santanu Dey
    Apr 03, 2016 @ 15:32:18

    It is good to be sober to all sections of the population in your country including the minutest minorities also as long as the minority population accepts you as their own. But if sobriety on the part of majority (to the extent of approx 80% of the total population) is taken as granted irrespective of how majority is looked at in return for its magnanimity then that magnaminity on the part of the majority is nothing but ‘idiocy’ on the part of the majority. And that is what India and its majority population has been practicing (or more precisely made to practice) in all these 68 years. What prompted the bunch of politicians in power in India to encourage such a stand on the part of its population, which is tantamount to ‘you slap me where it pains the most but I will not even look back at you; rather in return I will extend my arm towards you begging you to please shake it’, is very hard to fathom unless there were some prodding by some foreign power with some quid-pro-quo arrangement between them and the polticians in power in India for nearly 50 of those 68 years with big backing from the leftists who have never bothered for India throughout their history. Whenever there have been the slightest change in this bending-completely-backward approach on the part of the majority population in India, fingers have been pointed at them, not only by the international community but also the so-called elite population living in this country itself, calling it by differnt names at different times, the latest term used for this was ‘intolerance’. It is because of this approach on the part of the majority population all the others have been used to be treated as V.I.P’s. Even if the ‘V’ is plucked out of this equation, no wonder all the fringe population would be up in arms. Only if ‘Sardar’ was the first PM of this country, which was almost a certainty till the vital last moment when some dirty politicking was on display with the silent presence of a British hand, things would have been altogether different. History of so-called independent India is replete with instances of such backstabbing for which we are suffering still – is there an escape from this scourge?



Leave your reply:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: