(This interview by Asif Bin Ali was initially published in the Dhaka, Bangladesh-based, The Daily Observer on Wednesday, 27 March, 2019. It took as its point of departure the publication of the book, Against the Nation: Thinking Like South Asians by Sasanka Perera, Dev Nath Pathak and Ravi Kumar (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), and discusses intellectual possibilities in South Asia. It is presented in TAP Interviews courtesy of Asif Bin Ali)
Asif Bin Ali: Do you think South Asia might be understood beyond the more predictable cartographic understandings of the region?
Sasanka Perera: It can certainly be understood beyond this cartographic logic, and indeed it must be. The problem with the more dominant cartographic understanding of South Asia – or for that matter any region – is that it flattens the complexities of the region, and erases the political, social and cultural cleavages. It disregards history and memory as well as the region’s collective consciousness in understanding the region. But of course, this simplistic and liner cartographic understanding is often preferred by discourses of diplomacy, thinking in formal political science and international relations while sociology is not even interested in this limited approach. Sociology in South Asia is strictly shackled to the nation and hardly ventures beyond its borders.
I think this state of affairs shows the limitations in the region’s scholarship, diplomacy and inter-governmental relationships. At the most, this cartographic sense will conflate with equally simplistic notions such as geo-political perceptions of the region. And most scholars and state functionaries seem to be happy with this state of affairs.
Asif Bin Ali: So are you completely dismissing these cartographic and geo-political issues?
Sasanka Perera: No. I am not dismissing these approaches at all. Rather, my contention is that these are not the only ways to see the region. These are merely one or two out of many possible ways of seeing and perceiving the region. My suggestion is that these approaches should be significantly augmented by bringing in a sense of history, art, and culture, collective memory and so on into the process. This will allow us to be more nuanced in the way we might decipher the region. For instance, since the 1980s, important manifestations of contemporary art in South Asia have become important narratives of history and politics. This is very clear in the art of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Would it not make sense to see how these artists dealt with the issues they faced and in the process drew a specific understating of South Asia in the work they did, in the conversations they took part in and in their travels in the region?
Similarly, South Asia is replete with the travel of people across the region long before European colonialism disrupted the flow of our history. How did these people perceive the world they saw in their travels? Does it make sense today? How does music and popular culture travel across the region nowadays without the intervention of formal state structures?
It seems to me if we ask these kinds of questions, which are not black and white, we may find ways to see the region more fully and in a more complicated fashion. It will also help theorize the ways in which we can understand space. Unfortunately, the region’s sociology and anthropology have not even raised these possibilities in any serious way. The same goes for other social sciences including International Relations. IR’s mainstream by and large seem to fear culture! This is what Christian Reus-Smit meant when he recently argued that ‘International Relations theory doesn’t understand culture.’
Asif Bin Ali: How is your version of exploring South Asia exorcised of the ramifications of colonialism, neo-colonialism, along with the expansionist and self-centred logic of nation states?
Sasanka Perera: Well, for one thing, we are very conscious of the power politics and exclusions that were brought into knowledge production as a result of colonial politics of knowledge. This is why colonial anthropology was rightly called the ‘hand maiden of colonialism.’ I don’t think much changed in neo-colonial circumstances, when older versions of area studies for instance transited into newer forms of area studies, but with the same limitations still intact. Approaches like post-colonial studies emerged to address these issues, at least in part. On the other hand, just because we are citizens of different countries, it does not mean we are intrinsic inheritors of their own forms of hegemonies, competing forms of nationalisms and so on. We find all these burdens detrimental towards a more inclusive understating of South Asia both as an idea and place.
I think it is this consciousness and our interest in transforming this consciousness into a scheme of research, into methods of teaching and into an overall approach in thinking that makes our approach free of these older limitations.
Asif Bin Ali: Would you like to consider your approach as something like area studies?
Sasanka Perera: We have not called our way of seeing South Asia ‘area studies.’ We have not given it any name or label at all. This is simply because we are not very keen on labels at the moment without clearly working out our method. Right now, we are simply interested in formulating a framework for thinking, research, analyzing, teaching and perceiving South Asia across borders. By borders, we mean both disciplinary and national borders.
You can say, this is a work in progress to some extent. But how sociology might approach this has been outlined as a preliminary effort in the introduction of the book, Sociology and Anthropology in South Asia: Histories and Practices edited by Ravi Kumar, Dev Nath Pathak and myself. The rest of this book outlines the status of these disciplines in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Afghanistan within which this kind of approach will ultimately have to unfold.
This is our position. But if others want to call our effort ‘area studies’, so be it. But they should be clear what we are proposing has nothing to do with ‘area studies’ of the past with all of its failures. One can generally say our effort has privileged culture and history on one hand, and how ordinary people and folks who are not aligned formally to power structures of nation states might see South Asia on the other. The forthcoming book, Against the Nation: Thinking Like South Asians co-written by Ravi Kumar, Dev Nath Pathak and myself is a kind of invitation to enter into this dialogue that we hope will go beyond academia towards more thinking segments in our region. It is a broader description of how South Asia might make more sense culturally, historically and politically beyond formal statecraft and dry state-centric scholarship.
Asif Bin Ali: Once upon a time, area studies performed for their masters, rulers, colonizers and rivalling power blocks. How does your way of ‘exploring South Asia’ unravel that archaeology and show its pitfalls?
Sasanka Perera: I have already explained how our approach works. As I have said, we are not inheritors of our academic forefathers’ burdens. We are also not inheritors of the power politics of the past. In the same sense, we are also not performing anything for anyone, including the states of which we are citizens or even a multilateral collective like SAARC, which runs our university. SAARC of course is an interesting idea that has not seen its potential. And it will not see its potential. This is mostly because it has opted to work through the hegemonic, competitive and often-antagonistic ways in which nation states usually work with each other. Cooperation or any sense of collectivism hardly plays a role here.
Compared to these realities, since we are conscious of these failures and lapses, what we propose is a non-hegemonic approach to both politics and knowledge. To put it simply, we are open to ideas from anywhere, but we accept them on our own terms if they make sense to us, if they speak to our present circumstance and if they make sense to us in the context of our histories.
Asif Bin Ali: Indian scholars contribute a major portion in South Asian studies in terms of annual publication. However, they have been too comfortable with their borrowed schemes of social theory. What is your own take on this?
Sasanka Perera: Not only Indian scholars, all of us borrow things from various sources. This is how you build theory, fine-tune ideas and concepts and so on. But you must also try to be innovative with what you might borrow. For instance, borrowing theoretical formulations flippantly from one place, and trying to read our circumstances with them is hardly creative. We have to note, all these ideas we borrow from some place have emerged in specific historical, political and epistemological contexts. When we adopt ideas from such contexts, we have to ask ourselves whether they will work well in reading our social processes, and to what extent we need to tinker with these ideas to make them more relevant to our conditions. But by and large, we do not ask such questions. In that sense, I would agree with you that we are too comfortable with our borrowed schemes. We are more followers and receivers than creators or innovators. And this is not an ailment peculiar to Indian scholars. All scholars suffer from this state of affairs in this region to some extent.
It is precisely due to this reason that social theory classes in universities in South Asia still teach only western theory – be it classical theory such as Marxism or post structural theory at the other end. And of course we need to know this material and deal with it too.
But we should also ask ourselves, what kind of ideas have South Asia generated over time that might help evolve a specific body of thinking or ideas which may help us theorize taking into account the region’s own intersections with history, politics and knowledge. This includes how these ideas might have engaged with other ideas that have come from outside. I am not promoting a naive sense of nativism. But I am merely suggesting that our theoretical base in reading and dealing with society needs to be more radical, more inclusive and more sensitive to the history of knowledge in South Asia. It is in this context that South Asian University’s theory courses in Sociology for PhD candidates now try to deal with South Asian thinking in addition to the regular dose of material most students would read in such a course anywhere in the world. This is still an experiment that has to fine-tune with our students. It may or may not work. We will see how it proceeds in the next few years.
Finally let me say this to scholars in Bangladesh: if you think what we say make sense, lets have a long-term conversation on what is possible, and see in what areas we can collaborate. It is not important to get lost in what we do not agree with. Also, read what we write and lets us read what you write as well. This is how ideas flow. But this means what some of you write in your own language will have to come to us in English. The same applies to us. How scholarship is disseminated is an important area in intellectual politics to which we should pay very serious attention in South Asia.