India Pakistan

Image source: The Quint

The relationship between India and Pakistan is one of the great rivalries in international relations. On one level, it’s a fun, competitive rivalry: Indian and Pakistani soldiers strive to outdo each other in high steps and dramatic flourishes at the border-closing ceremony between Lahore and Amritsr, the 2 cricket teams attract especially wild enthusiasm whenever they face off, and Indians and Pakistanis overseas tend to get along well, just with lots of teasing and bickering. Yet on another level, it’s a deadly serious hatred: Indian and Pakistani soldiers shoot each other, the 2 countries go to war and interfere in each others’ affairs, and Hindus and Muslims are viewed with suspicion and contempt in Pakistan and India, respectively.

How did this relationship begin, and where is the rivalry headed?

It is important to recognize that India and Pakistan were once one country. (I frequently hear or read things that don’t seem to understand this.) That country was simply known as India, and it was ruled by Britain with the help of dozens of mostly tiny “princely states.” Before this, India hadn’t really been a united country (although some empires came very close). It was carved up by numerous small or medium-sized princes, emperors, rajas, sultans, etc. who warred with each other and came and went over many centuries of convoluted history.

Significantly, though, there was a major religious divide. Beginning in the 1000s, India had been the victim of several Muslim invasions. The Muslims won the upper hand and dominated India for centuries, especially through the Dilli Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Yet they were always a minority — by the time of independence in 1947 they made up only about a quarter of India’s total population. They developed a rich, prosperous and artistically inspiring culture that blended their own Persian background with local Hindu influences (the hybrid religion of Sikhism is an example of this). They also tended to persecute their mostly Hindu subjects.

By the time of the colonial era, communal relations had become combustible. India’s major Muslim rulers were dispossessed and Muslims became just another religious community within India’s tapestry of them. They longed for the days when they lorded over most of the subcontinent. Hindus also longed for the days when they had neither Briton nor Muslim to hold them back. The British exacerbated this antagonism as part of the time-honored “divide and rule” strategy of colonialism, although which community they favored basically depends on whom you ask.

By the 1930s, the tension was affecting India’s independence movement. Muslims grew concerned that an independent, democratic India would take revenge against its Muslim population and discriminate against them. A political party called the All-India Muslim League sprang up to push for India to be split into 2 countries. The new one would be called Pakistan as an acronym for Punjab, Afghania (referring to the parts bordering Afghanistan), Kashmir and Balochistan, Muslim-majority regions in northwest India. The name also means “land of the pure.”

The new party wasn’t treated seriously at first, but it gained popularity among Muslims. Pro-Pakistan rallies were attacked by Hindu mobs furious at their betrayal of Indian nationalism, sparking communal riots and adding evidence to the Muslim League’s dire predictions of a future Hindu-ruled India. India’s founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, begged with Pakistan’s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even offering him the post of prime minister. But Jinnah was unmoved, and the British were getting worried about India’s political stability, so the plan for partition was approved.


Image source: AP

The new India and Pakistan were born one day apart in August 1947. The colonial provinces of Sindh and East Bengal (confusingly located in east India far away from the rest of Pakistan) were transferred to Pakistan basically intact, but the big province of Punjab was split along religious lines. This did not go smoothly. Trainloads of migrants heading for the country matching their religion attacked each other. Columns of migrants heading on foot did the same. Minorities in Indian and Pakistani cities were sought out, harassed, raped and murdered. Looting, arson and kidnapping were rampant. Gandhi fasted in a bid to put an end to the violence, but only ended up shot by a Hindu extremist. (The movie Gandhi, by the way, is an epic and moving depiction of these events.)

The bloodshed of ethnic cleansing eventually led to the bloodshed of war. India and Pakistan started off on bad terms, with India spitefully withholding the financial assets that had been earmarked for Pakistan. Indian leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel talked about strangling Pakistan in its infancy, convinced that the experiment was crazy and destined to fail. While the princely states were allowed to choose which country they could join, most of them ended up in India. While some of these would have been impractical any other way (for example, there was a Muslim-ruled state in southern India, Hyderabad, that would’ve been surrounded by India if it hadn’t joined it), the big sticking point was Kashmir. This was a big state at the northernmost part of India famous for its cool weather, spectacular mountain scenery, and multireligious population. It also sat on the border between the 2 countries, and both of them really wanted it. Kashmir’s maharaja preferred independence, but India pressured him to join instead in 1948. Outraged at yet another territory slipping away, Pakistan invaded Kashmir, using guerrilla warriors as a front. A short war raged, with the result that Kashmir was also partitioned between India and Pakistan — although the Vale of Kashmir, the state’s most important part, remained within India.

Kashmir map

Note: Kashmir also has large Hindu and Buddhist communities outside of the Valley proper. Image source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Despite these odious beginnings, Indo-Pakistani relations weren’t so terrible in the early years. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, opposed Partition and tried to maintain cordial relations with his neighbor. Travel across the border was common; many wealthy Muslims maintained houses in both countries for a while. A 1960 treaty arranged for the use of the waters of the Indus River, all-important for Pakistan even though its headwaters were in India and China.

But the Kashmir dispute festered. Kashmir’s population is mostly Muslim (hence the “K” in Pakistan), so Pakistanis were convinced that India had strongarmed them. For its part, India was eager to keep it, partly to taunt its neighbor but mostly to show that Pakistan was wrong and a Muslim-majority state could thrive in Hindu-majority India. In 1965, encouraged by India’s crushing defeat by China, Pakistan infiltrated Kashmir again. This provoked another war, leading to impressive tank battles in the Punjab but a tie with no territorial changes as the final result. Then another war broke out in 1971, when India intervened in a ferocious revolt in East Pakistan to beat the Pakistanis in 2 weeks and force them to surrender their eastern segment, which became independent as Bangladesh.

These disputes and wars obviously weren’t good for relations, and they have remained terrible ever since. Pakistan came to see India as a greedy state bent on subcontinental domination and itself as a heroic, virtuous bastion defending the faithful. Given India’s massive superiority in size and wealth, Pakistan had to compensate with a bigger, stronger military, and that meant fat budgets and military control of the government. Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq also pushed for a deeper Islamization of Pakistan in the ’80s, supporting madrassas (religious schools), aspects of sharia (Islamic law), and a narrow version of Pakistani identity. Pakistan’s few infidels felt themselves less and less welcome; the struggle against India took on the character of a jihad.

The Kashmir dispute continued to fester. Since it was obvious that Pakistan couldn’t defeat India in a conventional fight, it found ways of gaining leverage. Sponsoring an insurgency in Kashmir, which erupted again in 1990, was one way. Another was nuclear weapons, which were developed beginning in the ’70s (after India detonated a nuke of its own) and first tested in 1998. This locked the 2 brothers into a stalemate: outright war was out of the question, but Pakistan could still bleed India with its insurgency and needle it with terrorism (particularly in the ’00s), and its nuclear arsenal would keep India from doing much about it. It was a cheap, apparently effective way of keeping the conflict alive and India agitated, and later used to similar fashion in Afghanistan against the Western coalition there.

And so it has continued, more or less, to the present. Pakistanis have become stock villains in Indian films (and likewise Indians in Pakistan’s much less well-known films). Pakistani agitation reached the boiling point around the turn of the millennium, when an infiltration into the high mountains of Kashmir sparked a 4th war in 1999 (with no real lasting results) and a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacked India’s parliament in 2001. Another nerve-wracking episode occurred in 2008, when a group of members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist organization, attacked the Taj, Mumbai’s swankiest hotel, along with other parts of Mumbai. Lashkar-e-Taiba is also sponsored by Pakistan, leading to a brief war scare, although nothing happened in the end.

It can be hard to predict which government is more interested in reconciliation. Despite their military ties, Zia and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan both made moves toward normalization, and despite his Hindu nationalist background, India’s Atal Vajpeyi held talks with Musharraf before the Parliament attack scuttled them. Similarly, India’s current PM, Narendra Modi, surprised many observers by reaching out a hand to Pakistan despite his fiery Hindutva ideology — he invited Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and visited him in Lahore in 2015.

Modi Sharif

Modi (left) and Sharif (right). Image source: PIB

Nevertheless, the relationship seems fated to swivel automatically back to a state of contempt and bile. Usually Pakistan is the culprit; it has not abandoned its policy of supporting and encouraging infiltrators to attack Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. One such attack in September 2016 on an army camp froze whatever progress had been made in recent talks. Although Pakistan has been under civilian rule since 2008, the army maintains a tight grip on society and is widely suspected of pulling the strings behind the scenes. Its intelligence service, the ISI, maintains links with a medley of terrorist and extreme Islamic groups, prompting unending unease in India.

Meanwhile, developments in India also make the outlook for peace look grim. While it may still be too soon to say how lasting these changes are, Indian society is moving rightward since Modi’s election in 2014. Hindutva ideology sees India as a fundamentally Hindu state, casting suspicion on Muslims and other minorities and associating Pakistan with those old Muslim overlords. The details are obviously murky, but Pakistan claims that India is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s restive western desert as well; an Indian named Kulbhushan Jadhav was sentenced to death last year in Pakistan for this, although his sentence has been stayed. Kashmir remains a source of unrest and headaches for India; although it’s not quite clear that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Indian government there, leading to ongoing protests which are usually suppressed violently. This only feeds Pakistan’s narrative of India as diabolical, unscrupulous and bigoted.

The international situation unfortunately adds to the pessimism. While America was previously a major power broker between the 2 sides (especially after the Kargil War), it’s now soured on Pakistan and its unending duplicity and cut off military aid last month. Simultaneously, it’s tilted more toward India, which it recognizes as an enemy of its enemies (militant Islam and China). As for China, it wants to keep India weak and distracted, and fosters a very close relationship with Pakistan to enable it. Saudi Arabia also has a warm relationship with Pakistan and helps fund all those madrassas. And as Western power recedes in Afghanistan, Pakistani paranoia of a growth in Indian influence there only increases.

The sad thing is, in many respects, India and Pakistan are brothers (or sisters). The border cuts across ethnolinguistic lines; people on both sides of the border speak Punjabi, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is very similar to Hindi, India’s main language. There are Hindu and Sikh sites in Pakistan and Muslim monuments in India. Indians for the most part recognize and enjoy Pakistani food. Indian movies have an avid audience in Pakistan (although they are often banned there). It would be hard to tell an average Indian and Pakistani apart. Domestic issues, like power and water shortages and a difficulty in building up an industrial base, are also shared. More trade would help economic growth in both countries. Despite the strong atmosphere of animosity, there are also big constituencies in both countries (especially India) that would support reconciliation. The Google India ad below, which shows an old Pakistani man reuniting with his childhood friend in India after 66 years, touched a nerve as Desis on both sides of the border remembered their old ties.

But hatred remains deep. As long as 64% of Indians have “very unfavorable” opinions of Pakistan, Indian politicians have more to gain by being tough on Pakistan than conciliatory. And as long as Pakistan remains wedded to its strategic conceptions of India as a threat to be undermined and pestered, conflict will continue and negotiations will stagnate. It may not be fair to lump the Indo-Pakistani conflict in the same category as bitter disputes like the Arabs vs. Israel, but a real breakthrough in bilateral relations remains almost as unlikely.



Bollywood dance

Image source: iDiva

India suffers from a bit of an image problem. Foreigners are likely to associate it with bleak poverty, squalor, caste discrimination, religious riots, and obnoxious scams, in common with other poor countries. But what India has to offer that other developing countries (for the most part) do not is Bollywood, its domestic film industry. It is the biggest in the world, one of the most influential, and a national obsession with a storied past.

“Bollywood” is so-called because it is based in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), India’s biggest and most hectic city. A melting-pot and magnet for the ambitious from all over India, its main language is Hindi, even though the part of India it’s in mostly speaks Marathi. This has sparked some resentment from native Mumbaikars, who complain that their local culture is overshadowed by a giant industry that caters to all of India, and there is a small Marathi film industry in Mumbai as well. In fact, Bollywood is just 1 of many film industries in India, and the south especially has significant industries of its own in each major state. Bengal and other regions of north India also tend to do their own thing. Although the international profile of other Indian film industries is growing, this post will only focus on Bollywood; that is, the Hindi industry.

Bollywood has quite the long history. Indian cinematographers took up filmmaking almost as soon as the technique was invented, and they found an audience for it. India has an ancient theatrical tradition and a love for storytelling, melodrama and choreographed dance numbers. These elements quickly became staples of Indian film. Hindu epics have influenced Indian movies both directly (in adaptations of the stories) and indirectly (in similar characters, motifs and themes). Bollywood movies’ long, long running time probably also owes something to this.

Ram Rajya

Still from Ram Rajya (“Rule of Rama”), a 1943 adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana

Bollywood came of age alongside the Indian nationalist movement, and its movies helped feed the growth of Indian national consciousness and the notion of Indian uniqueness and purity. Old Bollywood movies would have titles like Mother India and The Land Where the Ganga [a holy river] Flows and song lyrics like “My shoes are Japanese, my pants are British, the red hat on my head is Russian, but my heart is Indian.” They also tended to speak to the nationalist movements’ social concerns. While Mohandas Gandhi, a stubborn traditionalist, hated movies and saw them as corrupting and degenerate, India’s other founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, loved them and saw them as building up audiences for his socialist dogma. A popular actor in the ’50s, Raj Kapur, won fans by portraying a lovable, roguish tramp with a heart of gold, and films often showed the plight of India’s impoverished farmers at the hands of greedy landowners, moneylenders, the weather, and bad luck. Villains were usually cutthroat dacoits (rural bandits) but sometimes corrupt officials or cops. The representative films in this vein are the aforementioned Mother India (which opens with a hammer-and-sickle logo) and the tragic, neorealistic Do Bigha Zamin (“Two Acres of Land,” basically).

Of course, these old movies were pretty modest. With cheap special effects, minimal production values and creaky sound, it’s not hard to tell that they came from a Third-World country with a sluggish economy. But Indians appreciated the catchy songs, the relatable actors and the dramatic stories, and eventually the industry began producing impressive epics for a newly independent country, like the lavish historical drama Mughal-e-Azam (“The Great Mughal”) and Sholay (“Embers”), an action movie inspired mostly by Westerns (and Once Upon a Time in the West in particular). By the ’70s, Bollywood’s production values had noticeably improved and it had become a fixture in Indian society. Although the old emphasis on rural and lower-class themes remained, movies took on a harsher tone as the idealism of the post-independence era faded. As India’s economy stagnated, Indira Gandhi resorted to dictatorship and corruption seemed intractable, the hero of the age was Amitabh Bachchan, whose characters were usually angry young men who rebelled against authority and resorted to their fists to solve problems. Movies helped give despairing audiences an outlet for their frustrations.

The big turning point in Bollywood history came in the ’90s, when 2 movies, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (“Who Am I to You?”) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“The Big-Hearted One Takes the Bride”) prompted a shift in emphasis. Both were focused on families and weddings, which are standard themes in Indian culture but have since become Bollywood cliches. Both focused on young couples — cute, mischievous, sometimes sassy, always extremely good-looking teenagers or young adults who start off bickering and end up madly in love, but must conquer misunderstandings or their parents’ opposition first. And both depict lifestyles of the rich. From then on, depictions of slum-dwellers or farmers receded more and more, as producers realized the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful spoke more to India’s growing middle classes and were loved by the poor anyway, who saw the lifestyles as something to aspire to. This decade was also when India’s economy really took off after Manmohan Singh’s liberalizing reforms, making conspicuous consumption something lots of Indians could identify with. The new superstar of Bollywood was Shahrukh Khan, who absolutely nails the “troublesome jerk your parents don’t want you seeing but is actually a good person and quite the hunk to boot” role, and has demonstrated his versatility in comedic and dramatic parts too.

Hrithik Roshan, another hunky, glamorous actor who tends to play romantic leads

Overseas, Bollywood is probably most known for its music. There is good reason for that: the Indian pop music industry is closely tied to movies, and the titans of Indian music (Lata Mangeshkar, A.R. Rahman, Mohammad Rafi, etc.) spend their careers working for movies. From the advent of sound, it’s been obligatory for Indian movies to include at least 3 or 4 songs, and since they tend to run for more than 3 hours, they usually have more than that. As movies grew more and more ambitious and well-funded, the dance sequences that accompany these songs also got more impressive, well-choreographed, and lavishly costumed. For the most part, they are not very well integrated into the overall plot, serving mostly as vehicles for the singers (who are dubbed over the actors, usually quite obviously). This has tried the patience of foreign viewers, who have mostly lost interest in musicals, but in recent years Bollywood is moving past the obsession with singing and dancing, and some movies have omitted it entirely (or just insert the song in the background).

This dance number combines Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and a catchy bhangra song (bhangra being a Punjabi folk music especially popular in Bollywood movies).

For most of its history, the standard formula for Bollywood movies has stayed pretty much constant, fluctuations in taste notwithstanding. This is called masala (“mix”), much like the spice mixtures Indians love to eat. There is usually some sort of action, whether it be against murderous dacoits, super-cool Mumbai gangsters, scheming officials or stubborn patriarchs. In general it is bloodless, but some movies are more violent than others and in the 3rd millennium Hollywood-style action flicks with lots of guns and explosions have become more common. There is almost always romance; sometimes it’s a subplot, other times it’s developed carefully over the course of the movie. Thanks to India’s tradition of arranged marriage, opportunities for drama and heartbreak are never in short supply. There is usually some sort of tearjerking tragedy like a parent or love interest who suddenly dies, but also usually some sort of comedic relief (a goofy character, slapstick sequences, comic misunderstandings, wacky hijinks, wordplay foreigners don’t understand, etc.). The idea is to get as much bang for your rupee as the film allows, and to please the widest range of filmgoers possible. This has led to some extremely cheesy and formulaic drivel over the decades, and it’s probably wise for the uninitiated to choose their first Bollywood movies carefully.

Bollywood’s formula means there are some gaps in its coverage. Although foreign locations are increasingly used for exotic and romantic backdrops, foreign countries are rarely depicted in depth, and the linguistic limitation means that whatever action takes place there is strictly fixated on the Indian characters. Caste, an ongoing issue in India, is virtually never discussed; even in the old days where social issues were more prominent, it was implied or marginalized. India’s problem with sexism is reinforced by Bollywood; male characters get more screentime and there has been much more emphasis on feminine purity than holding men to the same standard. Despite India’s wide range of skin colors, dark-skinned characters are seldom seen in Bollywood movies, and actors tend to be very light-skinned. Bollywood’s infatuation with posh, ostentatious sets and dapper actors can present a skewed portrait of modern India, where these things are definitely valued but still far out of reach of most of the population.

But Bollywood movies have changed a lot in recent years. Their subject matter is getting more diverse and they are getting bolder about confronting and depicting once-taboo subjects. The 1995 movie Bombay shows the 1992 riots in Bombay which tore the city apart on religious lines. (To be fair, Bollywood has a history of being fair to Muslims; many of its songwriters have been Muslim, and the 3 biggest actors now, including the aforementioned Shahrukh Khan, are Muslim.) Rang De Basanti (“Color It Saffron”) daringly equates the modern Indian government with the imperial British and has a shocking, pessimistic ending. Dil Se.. (“From the Heart..”) depicts Shahrukh Khan as a journalist falling in love with a terrorist, with a similarly hair-raising ending. Storylines are getting more inventive and less predictable; a good example of this is the 2012 mystery-thriller Kahaani (“Story”), about a woman searching for her missing husband in Kolkata. Budgets and special effects are beginning to approach those of Hollywood; the 2015 historical epic Bajirao Mastani, about a macho general from the 1700s, cost ₹1.45 billion (about $23 million). Some movies focus more on women and develop them as well-rounded personalities; some include characters from remote regions of India or Adivasis (India’s native inhabitants). Chak De! India (“Go! India”) does both (although it’s mostly a by-the-numbers sports movie).

Bollywood’s blockbuster trilogy is the Dhoom (“Kaboom”) series, about a badass cop who partners with a doofus who knows a lot about motorcycles and Mumbai’s underworld to catch master thieves in high-octane chases. Image source: IMP Awards 

How much influence does Bollywood have overseas? This is hard to say. Historically it’s found an audience in Russia (where Raj Kapur was much admired in the ’50s), West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where Bollywood’s stricter sense of female propriety and avoidance of explicit sex scenes appeals to conservative tastes). But in the West, box offices are harder to crack. Outdated prejudices remain entrenched; some Western movies have been influenced by Bollywood (like the musical romance extravaganza Moulin Rouge!), but generally it’s window dressing over substance. Bollywood films are easier to find in Western theaters these days, but they’re usually targeted at the Indian diaspora. Americans in particular are reluctant to watch foreign films.

Still, it seems that Bollywood is brimming with potential, and could become an arm of Indian soft power elsewhere in Asia. India’s neighbors, who share the same basic culture, already lap up Indian movies and music. As India interacts more and more with the outside world and gets richer, its movies will doubtless change to reflect this. But they’ll always remain an obsession for its masses, who can always use a few hours at the theater to escape into a fantasy of bright colors, beautiful actresses, shocking plot twists, imported whisky, romantic ballads, and dashing actors. And it’ll always be an iconic element of Indian culture to dazzle and intrigue the outside world.


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.