The Murky History of “South Asia”
The Murky History of “South Asia”

How brown people around the world reclaimed a term created by CIA-funded orientalists.

“The Snake Charmer” is an orientalist 19th century painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Wikimedia)

“The Snake Charmer” is an orientalist 19th century painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Wikimedia)

If anywhere in the world you overhear a man speaking Punjabi, there’s little you can assume. He could be Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Sikh; he could be from Uganda or Birmingham, Australia or Bangladesh.

“South Asian” — a term with a not-so-neutral history — exists for exactly this reason, to encompass a people and a subcontinent that cannot be defined by skin color, religion, or race. “Desi” and “brown” have also been used in contemporary contexts to politically group the South Asian community, but these terms also come with baggage.

South Asia officially consists of eight countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Afghanistan. It is not, as some claim, the former territories of the British Raj — which included contemporary Myanmar — nor does the term refer to a shared cultural inheritance. 

“‘South Asia’ was a bureaucratic construct,” said Anupama Rao, a South Asian Studies historian at Barnard College. “It was an artificial construct and certainly a geopolitical construct.” 

“Before World War II, it was never mentioned in literature anywhere,” said Sanjay Bhardwaj, associate professor of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “The area was known earlier as the ‘Indian subcontinent’ or ‘Jambudvipa’ or ‘Bharatvarsh.’”  

South Asia has always been defined by other people’s empires. “This region was given a consolidated identity by the Brit

Get access to this article and many more at The Juggernaut. No ads, no clickbait — just smart writing.


The Juggernaut tells untold, smart South Asian stories and news you won't find anywhere else.

The Weekly

It’s like your other email briefings. But browner. Join thousands and get the best newsletter that curates the global news on South Asia(ns) every Sunday. We also send updates on events, giveaways, our original reporting, and more. Unsubscribe anytime.


Business & TechCultureEditor's PicksOpinionPoliticsSports
Privacy PolicyTerms of Use