Rethinking National Imaginaries in South Asia: The Case of the Borderlands of Kashmir, Pashtunistan, and Assam

AHA Session 150
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
David Ludden, New York University

Session Abstract

This panel traces the borderland histories of three areas – Kashmir, Assam, and Pashtunistan - to argue for a revisioning of borderland studies as a mode of linking the history of the present with narratives of the past. It simultaneously pays attention to the tensions and contradictions within the borderlands that collectively represent complex processes of negotiation and exchange with multiple political centers within and beyond South Asia.  Kashmir, Assam and Pashtunistan share a common history being part of colonial India, but each of them has also been connected to other states and sub-state polities.  The networks and nexuses of connections at the borderlands produced multiple identities that made the societies of these areas distinct, but they have not been readily accepted in the postcolonial nation-states of India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The papers call attention to the anxieties of national identity that seek to erase and delete the messy and multiple pasts at the borderlands and transform them into border areas to be controlled by the postcolonial states of India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Chitralekha Zutshi’s paper examines the ways in which the interactions among a variety of related literary and historical traditions-Sanskrit, Persian, and Kashmiri-produced the idea of Kashmir as a sacred space that, in turn, fashioned imperial imaginations and created a unique prism for negotiating Kashmir’s place as a literary borderland.  Shah Mahmoud Hanifi’s paper focuses on spatial politics along the “Durand Line” and transformations in human and material traffic patterns between two sets of cities, namely Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan, and Kabul and Qandahar in Afghanistan.  His analysis of urban nodes of state contact and economic exchange suggests the history of Pashtun societies along the Durand line as heterogeneous and dynamic rather than the typical view of them as a homogenous, historically static, and xenophobic rural population, as commonly portrayed by outsiders.  Yasmin Saikia reads the borderland of Assam as a contagious area where people and cultures of South and Southeast Asia mixed and transformed each other and produced within Assam its own unique local/regional history.  The pre-modern “impure” past lingers in modern Assam and baffles national understanding.  The prism of national history is inadequate to engage the people and identities in Assam, she argues. 

The three papers encourage us to rethink South Asia as a polyversal narrative produced on multiple sites of exchanges that were reshaped by local/regional circumstances and needs.  The interlinked and multilayered stories of Kashmir, Assam and Pashtunistan offer a space to rethink the history of multiple dialogues crisscrossing the lives of borderland people and their negotiations to reform the social, cultural and economic realities on the ground.  While the borderlands are today controlled by permits, visas, and the military presence of the nation-states of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, each of them has its own "identity," ethnically, socially and culturally.  Their histories continue to challenge the totalizing discourse of the postcolonial states and serve as a site to engage with processual transnational imaginaries in South Asia. 

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