Course Titles: "South Asia" vs. "India"

Ian Petrie's picture

Dear colleagues,

A friend mentioned in passing this evening that changing his course title from "Early South Asia" to "Ancient India" had resulted in a 50% increase in enrollment.  I'm curious as to your experiences or thoughts on this.

When I was in a job trying to pioneer such classes it seemed to me that while "South Asia" was an important signifier in our field, it meant nothing to students and indeed to some of my own colleagues, who routinely referred to my field as "Southeast Asia".

Wishing you robust enrollments and a happy semester,


I have had similar experiences - though, I might have gone a couple of steps beyond you. I call my Modern South Asia course From Saris to Software: The Story of India.

In India of course, there was no question of using "South Asia" in textbook or classroom settings and I beleive it is still very rare.

These terminological questions often have considerable weight. A few years ago the Islamic Unity Games in Iran had to be cancelled because the hosts had labeled the sea between Iran and the Arab peninsula "Persian Sea"  in the map accompanying publicity materials for the Games. I would wonder if they also renamed the Arabian Sea at the same time.

Coming to 'South Asia' - this of course originated in the U.S. State Department's effort to develop neutral descriptors for world regions. Students (and even academics) often convert this into "Southeast Asia" which somehow comes more readily to the American (citizen of the United State's) pen.

For some years after the emergence of India and Pakistan in 1947, some academics sought to popularize "Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent" to describe the region - for example, we have I.H. Qureshi

 The Muslim community of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, 610-1947; a brief historical analysis. 's Gravenhage: Mouton 1962

This appeared in a series titled however, "Publications in Near and Middle East Studies".

I am not aware if the Indian Ocean was similarly renamed by anyone.

the questions is well summed up by Thomas Trautmann in his excellent textbook _India: Brief History of a Civilization_ Oxford University Press 2011.

He points out that South Asia"has the advantage of being politically neutral, but the disadvantage that no one uses it except scholars specializing in the study of that rgion. The advantage of 'India' is that it is the name used for thousands of years by the Greeks, the Persians, the Arabs and the Chinese to denominate Indian civilization..." (pp.5-6)

In addition, using South Asia results in ugly locutions like "north-western South Asia" or "South-eastern South Asia". I have recently introduced "India" into course descriptions except for those relating to the post-World War II period.

I think in the North American context  any academic distinction between South Asia and India is absolutely lost on most students, many of whom may be taking such classes to fulfill a breadth requirement.  This situation changes, or should change, at higher division classes in which students have decided to specialize in the region and should be better prepared to parse the distinctions between Imperial India, postcolonial South Asia, etc., but I've even known journal editors to incorrectly classify articles on South Asia as "Southeast Asia."

At my university we have a course titled "Pakistan and Modern South Asia," but this is in Pakistan where any India is a problematic signifier in any instance.  The published goal of the course is to uproot the state determined, nationalistic narrative that dominates "Pakistan Studies" at the Intermediate and A-level schools that precede university, but it remains to be seen what long-term impact this nomenclature might have on our students' discourse.

All of this reminds me of an experience a colleague related to me not very many years ago.  She was taking a class on South Asian (read "Indian) cinema at a large, land-grant university in the US.  The course was taught by a older man whose parents and older siblings had experienced Partition.  During the first week the students were introducing themselves and their background.  One student introduced herself as Bangladeshi, and the faculty member interrupted her and said "but you realize that you're Indian, don't you?"

I'm not entirely sure what we can take away from any of this, except that any categorization of the region is necessarily fraught and highly political.  But from a purely strategic perspective, at least in the US, "India" seems to be a much more legible category than "South Asia."

Interestingly, it's not lost on Pakistani students in the US. While teaching a course on climate change, I mentioned the "Indian subcontinent", and was asked by a student whether I meant Pakistan and Bangladesh as well; and if so please could I use another signifier. 

Minakshi Menon