Recently, a friend in Delhi asked me a seemingly simple question: why are you in India? I found it a surprisingly hard question to answer - for once because it goes both deep and shallow, strangely enough. Today, I will try to answer it. Why do I want to devote my professional (and by extension a large bit of my private) life to India? This story has to start, I think, in Pakistan.
It has to start in Pakistan for two quite simple reasons. First of all, anthropologically, South Asia is one. This is beautifully displayed in a famous map by Himal South Asia, which turns the globe upside down (pictured to the right) and gives a compelling visual impression of this unity - rather than singling India out, as usual projections tend to do. This map therefore features in most of my teaching on South Asia to say that the subcontinent rests on solid shared foundations. Obviously the statement that "anthropologically, South Asia is one" can only also mean that "anthropologically, South Asia are many" - but what separates the many from each other is not necessarily a national boundary (though different political systems make a difference, I am not denying this). The diversity within India, within Pakistan, within Bangladesh, and even within the tiny Nepal is arguably wider than the differences between them. Thus reflecting on India from Pakistan is perfectly appropriate...
And there is a second reason why I need to start in the neighbouring country: I in fact came to India only through my engagement with Pakistan. And I came to Pakistan in turn by chance: during my compulsory civil service in Germany (the alternative to being drafted in the military for those refusing military service on grounds of conscience), I was assigned caretaker of a student hostel in Bonn, where many international PhD students from Center for Development Studies reside. There, I met Humaira Daniel, who invited me to her motherland in 2005 - and an enduring love for this country, and for South Asia at large ensued. To India itself, I came for the first time almost three years later: to study Hindi, development studies and cultural anthropology at SIT Jaipur. It was a pragmatic choice - my wife and family vetoed further trips to Pakistan, so where else could I go closeby? I never regretted the choice, though - and latest since I worked in Bangladesh later that year, I realized that, indeed, South Asia is one.
A first attempt to answer my friend's question is thus: such choices of regional interest develop pragmatically; would I have met a friend from Ghana rather than Humaira, I might have become an Africanist. But having said that, there are several aspects of South Asia which I feel are interesting to me as a political anthropologist, and which might be interesting to me as a citizen of Europe, too. Let me pick just two aspects: theoretical confusion, and diversity.
Firstly, South Asia surprises and contradicts many theories of political science. Why is India still a democracy, against all odds, and despite some flaws? Most post-colonial countries are not... Or: why does Pakistan still exist at all? Not only these days, but in fact in every decade since 1947, scholars predicted the contrary: that the country will fall apart. Well, Bangladesh got independent in 1971, but nonetheless: Pakistan is still there! Which might tell us a lesson about legitimacy in autocratic systems, for instance.
Secondly, my particular interest in Islam in South Asia contains two more reasons why we should care (or at least why I care). Firstly, South Asia has long been the cultural contact zone of East and West (and here I deliberately subsume Islam as a Western tradition - with a significant presence in Europe since long, with an Abrahamitic monotheism, etc). Contact zones and the resulting fluidity are always fascinating. More so, in South Asia we have several examples of how nations can live with immense diversity within, how they accomodate religious minorities (or not). This is not to say that everything is shining in India and Pakistan - to the contrary. But South Asia can still give us some hope and confidence (and caution at times) for contemporary European anxieties about diversity (in particular as far as Islam is concerned).
And that is, in short, why I am in India. Or in Pakistan, or Bangladesh - as the case may be. But for now: in India...