Faculty Discuss South Asia’s Might and Fractures

12/14/09: Brown faculty examined South Asia’s might and fractures–from thriving Bollywood to ethnic strife in Sri Lanka–during a panel on Nov. 18, as part of South Asian Identity Week.

During the discussion, titled “South Asia Rising,” Professor of Political Science Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of Sociology Patrick Heller, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Shayoni Mitra and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Meera Viswanathan debated the extent to which the sub-continent was actually rising. “Politically and economically speaking, I think it would be wrong to say that South Asia is rising,” Varshney said to the dozens of students and faculty assembled in the Joukowsky Forum. “It would be more accurate to say that India is rising, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have an opportunity to rise, while Pakistan remains mired in internal troubles,” he continued.

India’s economic boom — that will continue to be stimulated by high investments and savings–has fueled the country’s rise, which has been further facilitated by India’s remarkable status as a democracy, he said. The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and the tentative economic and democratic progress in Bangladesh has strengthened the potential for development in those two countries, he added.

Heller described himself as “agnostic” in terms of whether South Asia is rising, and zoomed in on the strengths and troubles in the Indian narrative, in which he specializes. While he commended the Indian political system, he said that its democratic principles are resulting in a fragmentation of parties, as members of marginalized groups are increasingly defecting from larger parties to form their own. “There is a lot of churning, a lot of effervescence in contemporary Indian civil society,” Heller added. But this effervescence in the Indian economy has failed to materialize for many of India’s economically underprivileged citizens. Income and educational inequality are growing, according to Heller, who noted that 47 percent of Indian children suffered from malnutrition and stunted growth between 2001 and 2004. And yet, Heller added, the dynamism of the Indian democracy and civil society have the potential to seal these growing gaps.

Mitra examined the vitality of the Indian art and film arena, and highlighted their role in forging an Indian identity. “The new Indian state started institutionalizing culture,” she said, as a means for the nation to share a heritage. But much of this culture used to be shared within the sub-continent, and the Partition of 1947 therefore resulted in a harsh cultural divide, Mitra added. National identities have now “ossified,” she said, in part also due to the emergence of mass media, often at the expense of traditional live performance.

When introducing the panel, Viswanathan (pictured above) focused on the evolution–and creation–of South Asian identity. Growing up as the lone South Asian in California classrooms, she said she regularly ticked the “other” box in race censuses and fielded questions from friends about chicken curry. But gradually, South Asian identity began to be recognized in the U.S., though Viswanathan said it remained an “amorphous” concept. “It’s always shifting ground… it’s a patchwork,” she added.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11.

Watch a video clip of the panel here.