South Asia


NOTE: This is not a normal opinion piece, since I’m not actually advocating for one point of view over another. Rather, this is just speculation, and musing like this seems more like providing a perspective than just impartially imparting information.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and sometimes Afghanistan), is usually included with East Asia in academic discussion, business strategies, bureaucratic organization, racial categorization, and journalistic parlance. Bowing to common practice, I’ve categorized it as such on this site. But is this fair?

South Asia has as much in common with West Asia as it does East Asia. Geographically, the region is defined by its mountainous borders, but in the west, the mountains are lower and taper off before meeting the sea. Also, there is a famous, much-used pass over the Hindu Kush (the mountains). On the other hand, East Asia is separated by the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. Contact over these peaks is much harder, and there isn’t much of a gap between the Himalayas and the sea.

This has meant that historically, people came to South Asia from the west more than the east. The Aryans — the main racial group in the area — originally invaded from the west. Alexandros the Great invaded from the west. The Kushans invaded from the west. The Ghaznavids invaded from the west. The Mongols, despite being situated to the north and east of South Asia, invaded from the west too. The Mughals invaded from the west. And so on. The only invasion South Asia suffered from the east was the Ahoms in the 1200s — and they only conquered Assam, a small corner of the region.

West Asia’s great philosophical tradition is Islam, which came to South Asia thanks to all those invasions and is now the second-largest religion there. East Asia’s great philosophical traditions are Buddhism and Confucianism. The former originated in South Asia but is now very minor there, while the latter has negligible influence.

South Asia’s main languages are Hindi and Urdu (which are sometimes lumped together as “Hindustani”). They (especially Urdu) share much of their vocabulary with Persian and Arabic — West Asian languages.

Artistically, there is much in common between West and South Asia. Persian styles of painting and calligraphy influenced South Asian art beginning in the Middle Ages. South Asian sculpture is thought to be influenced by Greek artistic standards practiced in Afghanistan long ago. Much of South Asian architecture — domes, minarets, imposing gateways and courtyards — is imported from Persia as well. The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable landmark, has more in common with Persian buildings than many others in India. South Asian musical instruments descend from West Asian cousins.

In the culinary sphere, South Asian food shares features with stuff cooked up in West Asian kitchens. Bread is the staple food, and it’s usually flat, like breads in West Asia. Dairy is ubiquitous (which is why cows are so revered in India) — butter, milk, yoghurt, ghi (clarified butter), panir (a type of cottage cheese) — while traditionally, at least, it’s absent in East Asia. South Asian sweets like halva, kulfi and faluda have roots or counterparts in West Asia.

Racially, South Asia’s people much more closely resemble Persians and Turks than Asians further east. There are broad variations across the region, of course, but Aryans (especially Pashtuns, an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are related to Iranians. The Mongoloid facial features of East Asia are rare in South Asia apart from the Himalayas. South Asians also dress much more like West Asians than East Asians: men sometimes wear turbans, women sometimes wear veils. The salvar kamiz, a commonly worn tunic-and-trouser combo, originates from West Asia. Anecdotally, I have noticed foreigners tend to confuse South Asians and West Asians, but rarely with East Asians.

Given the range of similarities between South and West Asia, why is South Asia even lumped in with East Asia at all? There are similarities in this respect too. As mentioned above, Buddhism was an Indian import, and Hinduism was once widely followed in Southeast Asia too. In ancient times, East Asians would journey west to study religion in South Asian universities — this is the basis of one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West. There is a theory that Indian theater influenced China’s. The Chola Empire in south India once conquered Sumatra. The historical experience of colonialism unites South and Southeast Asia more than West Asia (although Northeast Asia had a substantially different experience). Although they vary dramatically from country to country, pagodas, that classic feature of East Asian architecture, evolved from South Asian stupas. Curry, the hallmark of South Asian cuisine, is also eaten in Southeast Asia and Japan. Rice is popular pretty much everywhere (although again, South Asian varieties are quite different from East Asia’s). Myanmar, thanks mostly to Britain uniting it with India in colonial times, has a lot of South Asian influences (food, clothing, Muslim minority communities).

It’s fair to say that South and East Asia have a lot in common, but notice how many qualifications I included, and it’s hard to deny that West Asia had at least as much influence. Another important factor to consider is that basically all of the influences flowed from South Asia east, and not the other way around. Chinese culture has had little impact on India, as I noted in an earlier post.

While I am unsure why South Asia is often lumped in with East Asia instead of West Asia, I have a theory. The term “East Asia” (or often just “Asia”) is really just a replacement for an earlier Western term: “the Far East.” From a West European perspective, South Asia was already pretty far east, so everything from that point onward was labeled the Far East. Combine that with the imperial linkages Britain established between South Asia (then just “India”) and its colonies in Southeast Asia, like the annexation of Burma and the settlement of big Indian communities in Malaya, and you can see why in the British mind, South Asia’s connection with East Asia was emphasized over its connection with West Asia.

In addition, I get the feeling that South Asians and those that study South Asia aren’t too eager to see the region merged with West Asia. Like it or not, West Asia has a bad reputation now, thanks to its unending violence, religious fanaticism, and rigid dictatorships. Politically, it’s hard to draw a connection between West and South Asia (except maybe Pakistan, thanks to the heavy military and Saudi influence on its government and society). India has been one of Asia’s most stable and successful democracies, and political scientists are puzzled trying to draw comparisons between it and anywhere else sometimes.

Most likely, South Asians would say that their region isn’t part of any other and that they are unique. There is some truth to this, and I would argue that anyone who tries to lump it in with another area is being a little lazy or reductionist. South Asia — India especially — is strongly defined by Hinduism, a native philosophical tradition. Linkages with West Asia are less strong in South India and Sri Lanka, which have tended to move to their own rhythms. South Asian economies resemble neither the development models of East Asia nor those of West Asia. South Asians are much more likely to look towards neighbors in the region or the West than to either West or East Asia. But consideration of the evidence suggests that South Asian connections with West Asia should be given some more thought at least.



Sita Sings the Blues

Sita rejects Ravana’s advances — not that it does her much good in the end. Image source: Nina Paley

The Ramayana, one of India’s 2 great national epics, tells the story of Rama, a virtuous king and incarnation of the god Vishnu, and his equally virtuous wife Sita. Rama is banished for 14 years to a forest, but Sita joins him out of loyalty and love. Her beauty and grace are known throughout the land, and eventually attract the attention of the demon lord Ravana. He kidnaps her and whisks her away to his island kingdom, where she rejects his advances and pines for Rama. After an epic journey, he finally comes to rescue her and slay Ravana — only to question her purity and force her to walk through fire to prove it. Even then, his subjects disrespect their queen, and Rama hears of a washerman who beats his wife for cheating on him, raging, “You think I’m like Lord Rama?” Rama addresses the issue by banishing Sita into the wilderness again, to live out her days and bear his children with a pious sage.

Sita is now worshiped across India as the ideal woman, with her chastity, devotion and beauty admired by millions of Hindus. The virtues she embodies, and the nature of her relationship with her husband, remain the model for Indian women millennia after the Ramayana.*

That’s not to say that nothing has changed. In colonial and precolonial times, women were sometimes reduced to slave-like status. They were married as little girls to men they didn’t know, thanks to marriages arranged by their parents. Their main role was to serve their husbands (and before that, their fathers) and stay secluded in the home. They were not expected to walk next to their husbands, call them by name, or look them in the eye. Should their husbands die first, they were denied his inheritance and doomed to live in terrible shame. The honorable solution was to jump into their husband’s funeral pyre. The British were especially offended by this last one, and outlawed it; most of the other traditions decayed over time or were banned by the Hindu Codes passed in the 1950s.

Yet the status of women remains low in today’s India. If not slaves, they are still often treated as household servants. A Muslim-influenced tradition keeps many of them inside the house most of their lives. When in the presence of men other than their husband, they cover their faces. Gender segregation is standard for most activities. Women have few opportunities to socialize, other than outdoor tasks like fetching water or group activities like foot-dying. They are systematically excluded from “important business” even if they manage household finances and welfare in reality.

India Women

Image source: Ashok Sinha/Getty Images

Although polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) is a thing of the past, other marriage traditions endure. Girls are still sometimes married off when they are very young (like 8). Divorce is legal, but shameful and heavily discouraged, trapping many women and girls in unhappy arranged marriages. To offset the financial burden of a wife, her parents are expected to pay a dowry to the husband’s family; these can be crushingly expensive, including fancy items like cars and TVs for the upper classes or cows for the lower classes.

Girls are discriminated against from a young age; although education is a major problem for both genders in India, since many parents prefer to have their kids working rather than “waste” their time in school, girls are kept out of school more often. Even in school, teachers focus more on boys. As a result, the literacy rate for girls is only 65.5% — 16.5 points below boys. Boys are often favored by their parents and get more food, with the result that girls are more likely to be malnourished. Girls also get medical attention less often than boys. Infant mortality is 1.47 times higher for girls than boys.

Gender discrimination even starts before birth. Partially because of that dowry looming in the future and partially because of the financial burden associated with girls in general, Indians often try to abort girls before they are born. The practice is most common in the north, which is poorer and more traditional than the rest of India in general — but it’s also most common in the northwest, which is better-off than the Ganga Valley to the east. This is most likely because richer families have easier access to ultrasound, which lets them determine the fetus’s gender. In areas without abortion clinics or ultrasound, families can always resort to infanticide.

These are all long-standing problems that have vexed Indian policymakers, feminists and human rights activists for decades. But the current issue that has most galvanized these groups and attracted the most international attention is sexual violence. It’s a big problem in India, ranging from petty issues like sexual harassment on trains and on the street to massive ones like gang rape and murder. The incident that brought the issue to the fore was a gang rape in Dilli, the national capital, on a nighttime bus ride in 2012. A medical student had gone to the movies with a male friend; the assailants knocked out the friend, then raped the student with an iron rod. She did not survive. The attack touched a raw nerve and brought thousands of aggrieved women (and a few men) out into the streets to protest the lack of safety in India and a culture of impunity around rapists.

Rape Protest

Image source: Youth Connect

Many of these problems stem from a common root: a general lack of law enforcement in India. As I pointed out before, plenty of sexist practices have been outlawed, and many of the ones I listed are illegal too: sex-selective abortion, dowry, rape, domestic violence. But they survive just the same, thanks to a combination of quiescence on the part of women and apathy and chauvinism on the part of mostly male police and courts. Indian cops rarely care if women come to them with rape stories; sometimes they laugh them off. Rapists go unpunished, which only emboldens them to strike again and again. As a result, women give up and resort to taking measures for their safety… and ultimately, spending more time in the house. Sometimes they take matters into their own hands, as when an enraged mob of women lynched a serial rapist after the court failed to punish him, but generally men get away with it. Sometimes cops even join in the rape.

There’s another tension in Indian society at work here: the massive gulf between its educated, Westernized, urban elite and its religious, minimally educated, rural masses. India may have been founded by the former and had its legal code written by them, but the latter makes up the bulk of the country. Most Indians only have a hazy idea of “Western” values and modern lifestyles, and they certainly haven’t been internalized. When these people migrate to the cities, clashes and tension result, including sexual violence. One reason the 2012 gang rape incident sparked so much outrage was because the victims were middle-class and the assailants were petty thugs, appropriate symbols for the fear and distrust separating the classes in India (as in China and elsewhere).

That being said, it’s not as if sexism is unheard of among the Indian elite as well. Remember that comparatively well-off northwest India has the most sex-selective abortion. Members of India’s far-flung diaspora, which is mostly well-educated and well-off, also look for doctors willing to tell them the sex of their fetuses and willing to abort them. Boys are more pampered and valued by their parents. It’s also not like men are the only bad guys here; Indian women can be fierce defenders of sexist attitudes as well. They have a dreadful reputation as being bitchy mothers-in-law: treating their daughters-in-law as personal servants, doting on their sons at the expense of the daughters-in-law, setting unreasonable expectations for them. There’s an entire genre of TV dramas about nasty mothers-in-law.

Finally, it must be emphasized that I am focusing on the negative aspects of gender in India. The statements I have made here are strictly generalizations. India has made huge strides in treating women fairly since independence. In most parts of the country it is now unusual not to send girls to school, and they usually do well. Plenty of families all over the country value and treasure their girls and don’t seem them as a financial burden. In cities especially, women are entering the workforce in great numbers. Call centers were a crucial factor here: they favor hiring women because they consider them better team players and less trouble in the workplace. The software industry is now 30% female. Women are breaking down more and more barriers and entering different professions; there are female CEOs and bankers. Women are prominent in Indian politics, both at the national level (Indira Gandhi ruled the country for a total of 15 years; her daughter-in-law Sonia governed from behind the scenes for a decade) and the state level (Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu all have or had female chief ministers). Local government bodies reserve a third of their seats for women. There are prominent examples of powerful women in Hindu mythology (the goddesses Durga and Kali) and Indian history (the queen of Jhansi, who rebelled against the British East India Company).

India is a vibrant and noisy (if sometimes chaotic) democracy with a very active media and public discourse. Indians have a right to protest and often exercise it. Women are becoming more outspoken about their problems and put more and more pressure on politicians and men in general to get their act together. The reaction to the Dilli gang rape was proof of that. Female celebrities, like their male counterparts, are using their fame as a platform to speak out about issues that matter to them — sexual harassment, education for girls, child marriage. In the villages, women stand up for themselves more and more, pressing for more say in how families and villages are run, more safety when going to the bathroom (“bathroom” here often meaning a field), more affordable sanitary napkins. NGOs, foreign and domestic, encourage more feminine agency under the assumption that women will be more responsible stewards of their communities. (Of course, women have always exerted leverage behind the scenes.)

But the hurdles for women in India remain daunting. Politics is still male-dominated; the prominent women in the political arena mostly relied on dynastic ties or celebrity to get where they are. Indian politicians can be bluntly sexist, blaming the victims in rape cases or dismissing the issue. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has spoken with outrage about rape and sexual assault, but he also abandoned his wife at a young age and gave Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, the backhanded compliment “despite being a woman… she has zero tolerance for terrorism.” Sexuality is a taboo topic in India (although it’s gradually loosening up); it’s debatable whether this has anything to do with sexism, but there are theories that sexual repression is linked with rape and sexism in general. Informal and technically illegal village councils enforce patriarchal codes and use rape as a punishment for women who break them.

The fundamental task for India is probably to address the underlying sexism and double standards in its culture. Its founding father, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, recognized this, but changing a culture with millennia of tradition behind it is tough. Modern attitudes toward sexuality and feminine behavior are often considered Western and therefore alien to Hindu values. India might have many female role models, but for girls in isolated villages deep in the interior, those role models might as well live in a different country. Old-fashioned virtues of purity, honor, devotion, submission, and servility predominate.

In many ways Indian attitudes towards women and gender have parallels in the Muslim world (and India has a large Muslim minority). But Hinduism, all in all, has proved more flexible toward foreign influences and changing attitudes. India’s democratic society and culture of free speech encourages its people to speak their minds and question conventions. Teeming cities like Dilli, Mumbai and Bengaluru are more open to the outside world than their counterparts in the Muslim world. South India has a decent record on female education, health, and workforce participation. All these things point to a more optimistic outlook on gender for India than, for example, its neighbor and rival Pakistan. In the meantime, the steady stream of outrageous rape headlines in India’s press continues to tarnish the country’s overseas image.


For a modern (and very innovative) take on the sexist messages of the Ramayana, I recommend the weird animated movie Sita Sings the Blues. Also, I should mention that Rama’s friend Lakshmana is also revered for his loyalty, and that submission and loyalty are traditionally celebrated in India regardless of gender.


India Land 2

A dispute over land acquisition gets ugly near Agra in 2010. Image source: PTI

Read the first post in the series here.

If you’re a major international corporation interested in investing in India, you’ll first have to contend with its onerous and confusing labor regulations. But if you get past that, you might still find yourself stymied by a very basic impediment: not getting the land you need to build your factory.

India has a dire reputation for being hard to find spare land in. To a certain extent, that’s a consequence of its geography and demographics: it’s extremely densely populated. India has almost 1.3 billion people, and even though that’s fewer than China, India has less land. It’s also unusual in that people are fairly evenly distributed; most countries have big population centers and big wilderness, but in India people live almost everywhere. Sure, the Ganga valley in the north and the far south are especially crowded, but in between there’s very little available land. Finally, a lot of it is farmland, and most Indians are farmers. The only part of the country without many people is the Thar Desert in the far west by Pakistan, and who wants to build there?

But India is also politically biased in favor of farmers. Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, its founding fathers, loved villages and farmland and saw the “true India” as a patchwork of small farms supported by tight-knit villages. A socialist and Communist tradition in a few states makes governments hostile to big business. More generally, since most Indians are farmers, they hold big power at the ballot box; politicians that don’t care about them, or seem like they don’t, usually have to pay dearly.

The tale of Tata Motors is often used as an example. In 2006, India’s flagship car company chose the state of West Bengal as the site for its latest factory after being wooed by the local government (lots of land, discounted electricity, a ₹2 billion loan). But the farmers at the proposed site protested, claiming they hadn’t been compensated enough. A local politician and later chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, went on hunger strike. Negotiations grew acrimonious; neither side trusted the other, and compromise solutions were rejected. (It didn’t help that Tata wanted to make the Nano, a super-super-cheap car, so it couldn’t pay the farmers too much.) Finally, in 2008, Tata gave up and relocated to Gujarat, its CEO complaining about a “state consumed by a destructive political environment of confrontation, agitation, violence, and lawlessness.”

A similar story concerns POSCO, the Korean steel giant. In 2005, it signed a ₹500 billion deal with the state of Orissa for a steel plant — the largest foreign investment in India yet. But there would have been environmental side-effects (air and water pollution and coastal erosion). Locals again complained that POSCO wasn’t compensating them enough. Many farmers refused to give up their livelihoods. They protested and police and hired thugs attacked them. Even though 90% of affected villagers supported the project, opposition lawmakers joined the protests for political gain. In 2015, a law was passed forcing POSCO to buy a mining license in an auction, contradicting its initial agreement. This year POSCO gave up on the project entirely.

Obviously, getting farmers to give up their land isn’t easy. Some politicians claim that farmers are deeply attached to their land and love farming for its own sake. More likely, farmers want a good deal. In both the Tata and POSCO fiascoes, they were convinced that the corporations were ripping them off, since land value (usually) goes way up when it’s used for industry instead of agriculture. They haggle hard, knowing that if they don’t get enough, they’re now homeless, landless and jobless. Even if the farmers are more compliant, corporations have to deal with competing ownership claims and patchy or non-existent records.

Politically, Congress tends to support landowners while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) favors big business (although they will switch sides for opportunistic reasons, of course). Congress’s traditional support base is farmers and the poor in general, so to placate them, it updated India’s 122-year-old (!) land acquisition law in 2013 with more stringent requirements. The industrial or infrastructure project has to pass a strict social impact test, get approval from 80% of the landowners (70% for a government project), and pay compensation equal to 4x the market value of the land (or double in an urban area). It also required government intervention in any sale of farmland to industry. Business groaned, worried that it would cause a massive logjam in investment. It was right: 43% of India’s projects are now stalled over land acquisition hassles — that’s ₹530 billion in limbo.

Mindful of how much this red tape was strangling his ambition to Make in India, India’s reformist prime minister, Narendra Modi, introduced some amendments to the land acquisition law when he took office. For certain “critical projects” — anything involving defense or national security, affordable housing, industrial corridors, rural infrastructure — the social impact test would be done away with, as well as the consent clauses. But opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the unelected upper house of India’s parliament, howled with rage. Congress came out against it, but so did parties like Aam Aadmi (a Dilli-based party which speaks for the common man), Shiv Sena (a Hindu nationalist party like the BJP but based in Mumbai) and Anna Hazare (an independent political agitator mostly concerned with India’s notorious corruption). Even some of Modi’s own BJP were against it. Finally, in August 2015, the amendments were passed, but they were so watered-down that little has changed from the original law. Modi was worried enough about the upcoming election in Bihar, a very rural state, that he didn’t want to jeopardize the results. Of course, those who read that blog post know that he lost, which makes things look grim for his land reforms.

Instead, Modi has suggested that the states deal with land acquisition in a way they see fit. This is one of his pet projects in general, since he made his political career out of sponsoring business and infrastructure in Gujarat (he was the guy who invited Tata there). Gujarat in particular has a reputation for being business-friendly, and sure enough, it announced this year that it is adopting the reforms that failed at the national level. Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Assam are also forging ahead with exemptions for the social impact and consent clauses similar to what Modi had pushed for. Andhra Pradesh, which is building a capital out of scratch after half the state broke away in 2014, is placating the local landowners by giving them a stake in the new city’s development — they’ll get 30% of their land back when the city is built, and in the meantime, they get a stipend and job training.

India Land

Image source:

As you might have gathered by now, it’s not exactly a simple issue. Farmers and their advocates have real concerns. Not everyone wants to or can move to the big city and start a new career. Companies will try to squeeze landowners as much as they can. States like Gujarat and Maharashtra with business-friendly governments can be horribly biased, which leads them to ignore landowners’ concerns and crush protests. Mysterious thugs can be deployed by businessmen to rough up farmers and destroy their crops, intimidating them into relenting. Native Indians with tribal societies in states like Odisha depend on the forest for their livelihoods, and iron mining would probably ravage the ecosystem. China’s disgusting pollution is partly the result of unrestricted development, and factories and power plants aren’t what most people want in their backyards.

But as the previous post in this series says, manufacturing is the next step in economic development India is “supposed” to reach to move out of poverty. Farmers don’t always resist industrialization — in another (ultimately failed) POSCO project in Karnataka, farmers lobbied the government not to drive POSCO out since they wanted the money. Schemes like Andhra Pradesh’s can keep farmers interested and involved in their land’s development. Food security (which is sometimes whined about) isn’t really an issue — India still has plenty of farms and farmers.

Most of all, foreign companies won’t want to invest in India if their projects get strangled by red tape and political bickering. They definitely won’t want to deal with a decade of stalling and uncertainty. They can always take their business elsewhere. Chinese ambassador Le Yucheng called land acquisition a “major impediment” for investing in India. Although it’s unlikely that messy, democratic India will have the same unrestricted land-grabbing China can get away with, the process will have to get easier for foreigners to get interested in Making in India.