Asian, Indian, Pakistani?

What’s in a name? Since the partition of India in 1947 (1) there’s been a problem with how people from that part of the world are described here in the UK, where many citizens are of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi origin.

The problem is that people from Pakistan are (officially, anyway) offended if they’re called Indian, and Indians are (perhaps more genuinely) offended if called Pakistani. Apparently Bangladeshis feel the same about being called Indian or Pakistani.

Indigenous Brits (especially those anxious to be seen as politically correct) call people originating from that region ‘Asian‘ – and UK Asians seem happy to use that word about themselves.

(It’s different in the USA, where ‘Asian’ means of east Asian origin. Most US ‘Asians’ are of Chinese or Japanese origin.)

Asia – a big continent

The problem with identifying someone of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi origin as ‘Asian’ is the absurd geographical and linguistic innaccuracy. Asia’s a huge continent, stretching from Turkey to the eastern edge of Russia. Three countries occupying about one twentieth of Asia’s land mass have hijacked the name of the whole continent.

To be fair, ‘Asian’ probably originated as a careless contraction of the more accurate ‘south Asian‘, which refers to a geographic area comprising eight countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. ‘South Asian’ is used in the UK mainly in the media to mean Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi. It’s not much used in everyday speech.

The more accurate phrase, ‘from the Indian subcontinent‘, is still used occasionally. It’s geographically valid – the ‘subcontinent’ was once a continent, until it collided with Asia). Politically, it usually includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. (In other words, it’s South Asia minus Afghanistan).

‘The Indian subcontinent’ is said to sound clumsy and to smack of empire. However, it’s a useful phrase when it might be unclear to say ‘South Asia’. Eg: ‘the shalwar kameez, which originated in the Punjab region, is now popular throughout the Indian subcontinent‘. (This sentence is from my post about racism.)

Not long ago, Pakistan was India; and some people still think of ‘India’ – lazily or nostalgically – as the name of the region. Consequently, the most likely scenario for causing offence is inadvertently calling someone who happens to be of Pakistani origin ‘Indian’.

But, ironically, UK Pakistanis often use ‘Indian‘ themselves when referring to anyone or anything from either India or Pakistan – as in: ‘It’s Indian, init’. (It’s probably best not to try this if you’re not south Asian.)

Footnote 1

It’s been assumed by many who question whether partition was necessary (including me) that it happened mainly because Muslim leader Mohammed Jinnah insisted on a Muslim nation. His Muslim League did vote for separation in 1940, but apparently Jinnah (a secular man whose concern was to protect Muslims from political isolation) personally preferred a federated India. However, this idea was blocked by Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal  ‘Pandit’ Nehru. (Shame – it could have been the USI.)

So, if (like me) you think partition was a bad idea that inevitably caused the brutal deaths or forced relocation of millions of people, blame Nehru – not Jinnah.

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