Reviewed by Asha’ar Rehman
Finding a new common identity as an alternative to the Indian one that vanished in 1947 is an intricate, patient job. Nations and regions have moved on since then, even if mostly and overwhelmingly in response to the Indian centre. Conflicts have simmered, wars have been fought and intra-region refugees have been a source of disputes. Economies have developed and conservatism has stalked the region in its ever-ominous new, old and revivalist manifestations. The point is whether these developments should be a cause for greater insularity between units or should they inspire a surge for understanding and a will to work towards a stable South Asia whose inhabitants are at peace with each other?
Himal, a publication committed to bringing a regional as opposed to a national perspective on issues, was launched two and half decades ago, taking a stand much before peace became a fashionable word in the subcontinent. In 1996, the magazine widened its territorial and ideological scope to include the whole of South Asia. The Southasian Sensibility: A Himal Reader, a selection of works published in the magazine over the past 25 years, shows how it has gone about its assignment.
One of its main targets, so to speak, has been a media that is vulnerable to nationalism and the superficial. Quite early into the 330-page volume, in an article on the Chipko movement (“Axing Chipko”) by Manisha Aryal the reader is brought up-to-date with Himal’s dislike for the brand of journalism that glosses over facts, quite often to the detriment of the cause it ostensibly and proudly pursues. The argument against the simplistic use of mass media reaches its peak in a scathing critique of how a popular game such as cricket can combine with the mass appeal of the Mumbai film industry to hold a people in a trance in the interest of the status quo. Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan is dismissed, not on account of any cinematic or thematic deficiencies or for its naïve parallels with reality but for the caste and consumerist culture that cricket and Bollywood are accused of promoting.
Taking on dominant symbols in this manner — the nationalist news media, Brahminic superiority, Bollywood and cricket — which in popular thinking bring people together and have been credited with averting a war in the subcontinent — helps put forward alternative, more humane, less consumerist and more profound approaches.
The complexities of land are reflected right at the outset in the introduction by Kanak Mani Dixit, the editor of Himal. The South Asia that beckons is a whole whose various parts stand out with their little nuances, strong biases and peculiar needs sometimes protruding on others. It is not what a classical good newspaper was supposed to be: a monolith that flows smoothly as if edited by a single hand. In its variety, the mass of land is more akin to a newsmagazine that, with its varied offerings, tries to provoke and inspire the real change makers — the people — into thinking and action. This is delicate work and cooperation between various units in the region has to be encouraged, yet some order and restraint has to be maintained for it not to appear linked to the onset of globalisation. Meera Nanda thus concludes her “God and the Gospel of Globalisation”: “The only real response to religious nationalism is to actively cultivate a secular culture that can displace the majority faith as the national culture and would require a purposeful demolition of the truth claims of all faith-based ways of thinking — including the faith in the gospel of globalisation and ‘free’ markets.”
Old concepts have to be challenged and eventually, says Dixit. “One definition that appeals to the editors of Himal is to consider South Asia as a region made up of much smaller units of governance, particularly when it comes to the larger countries — the states and provinces of India and Pakistan. The smaller countries of South Asia should contemplate developing links with these provinces and states. Likewise, states and provinces should be interacting reasonably independent of the national government. The knee-jerk capital-based nationalisms in smaller countries would tend to reject such a notion, so we have to add an important caveat: there is no questioning the sovereignty of a country.”
Dixit wonders if Himal Southasia had been born before its time. This impression can be put down to the editor’s preference for humble understatements. The formula of a relationship between smaller units of governance that he talks about is taking root in his region. A Bihar chief minister has only recently been hosted not just by Islamabad, but by Lahore and Karachi as well in their capacities as capitals of provinces that can and wish to establish province-to-province ties across national boundaries. The deputy chief minister of Indian Punjab visited Lahore for a few days, resuming with fanfare and hope a process halted momentarily by events. A few years since Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, then chief minister of Pakistani Punjab crossed over to India, an increasing number are willing to undertake the journey. The trend may be limited to a few states or provinces right now, it may be more pronounced in the border areas, but the momentum appears to be shifting and smaller routes are being explored in earnest across South Asia. These exchanges for now may be too dependent on or too beholden to the market, yet they inherently create more space for pro-people ideas to take shape.