South Asia is more than Bollywood movies, spicy food, yoga and Bhangra and Raas dances. South Asia is full of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. The region comprises seven countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and it contains one-fourth of the world’s population. But it seems like GW officials and students don’t know that not all South Asian countries are the same.
Last month was GW’s South Asian Heritage month, which celebrates the cultures, histories and traditions of South Asia. But this celebration made GW’s lack of South Asian programming apparent. While the University has a yearly commitment to celebrating South Asian culture with student-led events, officials haven’t focused on academic programs on South Asia.
The GW South Asian Society and the Indian and Pakistani Students’ Associations promote the culture of South Asian countries through programming that focuses on fashion, food, festivals and dances. But as an international student from India, it’s disappointing that GW only sees South Asian food, festivals and dance worthy of celebrating. This doesn’t account for real experiences of people from this region, and it paints a superficial picture of how native South Asians value and understand their history. Student organizations’ cultural activities should support academic programs in the region.
GW should strive to cultivate a deeper interest and better understanding of South Asia by creating an interdisciplinary academic program on South Asia. It is an influential region of the world that should not be ignored, especially at a university with well-known politics and international affairs programs.
The University currently only has a handful of classes on South Asia – typically in the Elliott School of International Affairs and in the political science department of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. They include international relations of South Asia, comparative politics of South Asia and political economy of South Asia. GW doesn’t offer any South Asian-focused courses in anthropology, women’s studies or language. The University doesn’t offer South Asian languages like Hindi, which is mainly spoken in India and Nepal; Urdu, typically spoken in India and Pakistan; Bengali, from India and Bangladesh; or Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka. This lack of academic emphasis and overwhelming focus on festivals and foods demonstrates that officials don’t see much value in studying South Asia.
Right now, if a student wants to major in Asian studies in the Elliott School, there is one foundation course – East Asia Past and Present – which covers countries like China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines. It’s troubling that GW doesn’t consider a course on South Asia as a foundation course to major in Asian studies. For a University that boasts a strong international affairs program and promotes international learning, it’s concerning that South Asian studies aren’t included in the programs.
GW should first expand the range of courses on South Asia – both inside and outside of the Elliott School. GW should have South Asia-focused courses in the anthropology, history, women’s studies and art history departments. Current courses on South Asia in the Elliott School are all encompassing of the region and don’t go in-depth on specific issues, such as the India-Pakistan conflict, civil war in Sri Lanka, China’s involvement in South Asia or refugee issues. And GW should consider offering courses in South Asian languages like Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. Although these programs would cost the University money, the University already offers obscure languages like Ancient Greek and Latin. These South Asian languages are still spoken all over the region.
GW wouldn’t be the first university to offer an interdisciplinary South Asia program, and New York and Brown universities would be good models for GW to follow. NYU offers a minor in South Asian studies with different areas of concentration, like history, culture and politics, or language and literature. NYU’s minor includes courses in philosophy, art history and anthropology, and languages like Urdu, Hindi, Bengali and Tamil. At Brown, students have resources like the Center for Contemporary South Asia Fellowship to pursue research in that region.
GW’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies supports research through various programs. The center offers grants for research in Asian countries, hosts visiting scholars, does Asian policy analysis, publishes scholarly journals and holds events on topics in Asia, including South Asia. To encourage students to explore more about the region through study abroad or institutes like the Sigur Center, the University needs to have a strong foundation of academic courses to cultivate initial interest in topics that have to do with South Asia.
Now that South Asian Heritage Month is over, GW should reflect on its understanding of South Asia. South Asia is more than food and dancing. The University needs to realize that there needs to be an academic focus on South Asia, not just a cultural one.
Shwetha Srinivasan, a junior double-majoring in international affairs and economics, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.