Habib University held an international conference on 1st and 2nd February, titled ‘Questioning South Asia’. The conference invited contributions from scholars willing to think beyond the construct of South Asia as a territorially bound space with discrete nations. Both days of the conference saw attendance by large numbers of people including academics, students, and civil society representatives.
The conference brought together top global academics from South Asia, the USA and UK and Pakistan, including the eminent scholar Dr. Markus Daechsel from Royal Holloway, University of London, whose keynote speech addressed the nature and value of history in South Asia. According to Dr. Daechsel, “instead of arguing with and about history, South Asian politics has increasingly been guided by a desire to by-pass or even undo history.” The evidence of such a neglect of history is visible “in the field of heritage destruction and architecture, but can also be observed elsewhere, in debates about school curricula or simply in the relatively low prestige enjoyed by history as compared to the social or natural sciences.” The keynote address offered reflections on a number of themes related to this larger question: What does this new status and politics of history mean for our ability to write a decolonised history South Asia? Dr. Daechsel concluded his keynote speech by suggesting that “such explorations have barely begun, but will acquire increasing importance when many of the old certainties of the 19th and 20th century modernity will be superseded.”
The two-day conference was organized around five panels, the first panel, ‘Revisiting Urdu Literary Traditions in South Asia’, offered insights into the diverse genre and forms of cultural representation of the region. Ms. Sarah Abdullah and Ms. Amina Wasif of Lahore College for Women University presented thought-provoking papers on the way the traditions of storytelling or dastangoi produced unique fictional characters, especially in Tilism-e-Hoshruba, the subcontinent’s first wholly indigenous Indo-Islamic fantasy epic.
The second panel, ‘The Politics of Othering in South Asia: Secularization, Identity and Environment’, illuminated the pressing contemporary challenges effecting the world. Dr. Nauman Naqvi of Habib University presented an apocalyptic worldview arising from the geological changes occurring from the disastrous effects of the ‘Anthropocene’. According to Dr. Naqvi, “this generation is what is called the generation of the great acceleration […] as we are living in an era of massive catastrophe and there are massive holes in our ecology”. Ms. Saba Pirzadeh of LUMS highlighted a “contemporary South Asian literature as a viable discourse for exploring the repercussions of war”, especially as enacted on bodies and their urban movements. She encouraged a view that “literature, if encouraged as a dialogue process can be used for political potential […] One should not disassociate, as that is where the problem starts. The ideas is see how things connect across the board.”
The third panel, ‘Performance, Language, and Politics’, highlighted the cultural logic of South Asian societies. Dr. Sean Pue of Michigan State University in the USA asked “how literary studies of poetic performance can extend beyond single literary and language communities” in order to break away from a monolingual cultural milieu. Dr. Shirin Zubair of Kinnaird College discussed the images and representations of women in South Asian popular culture. She argued, “in the wake of post-feminism, globalization, and international development discussions, the imagery and representation of women in South Asian popular culture has significant issues regarding women’s changing social roles and identities. How do women themselves relate to these images?”
The fourth panel, ‘Retheorizing South Asia’, brought together two well-known academics, Dr. Edward Simpson of SOAS, University of London, and Dr. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar of Quaid-e-Azam University. Both speakers reflected upon the changing contours of the region due to mega infrastructure projects. Dr. Simpson asked the important question “How are infrastructural politics changing the shape of the region” in terms of how they shape our subjectivity or how we think of boundaries. Dr. Sajjad argued that recent investments in border regions take the form of a new imperialism that are still purely for strategic reasons.
The fifth panel, ‘Religious Movements, State and National Identity’, offered an insightful commentary on the confluences of religion and politics. Dr. Karen Ruffle of University of Toronto presented a paper that called into question hegemonic historical narratives of Shiʿi origins in the Deccan. Shedding light on the “central place that material objects had in the formation of Shiʿism in Hyderabad, India”, she suggested a more complicated history of the Qutb Shahi dynasty and its relationship to Safavid Iran. Another panel member, Dr. Amina Jamal of Ryerson University, Canada, presented a paper on a “feminist subjectivity that is shaped by distinct experiences of gender, nation, secularism and Islam that are unaccounted for in the framework of modern secularizing state versus moral community that upholds postcolonial critiques of secular feminism.” Dr. Jamal argued for “a more nuanced understanding of what is at stake when secularism is supported or denounced.”
The conference also arranged a roundtable discussion, Future of South Asian Studies and Research, engaging eminent scholars in the field. The discussion was guided by the key questions, What is ‘South Asian Studies’ and what role it plays in shaping the intellectual discourse and the allocation of resources to the various inquiries taking place under its rubric. How can productive and equal collaborations take place between such emerging institutions in the postcolonial world and their counterparts in the ‘west’?
The conference ended with a commitment of raising awareness on global issues at the Habib University platform and of opening up spaces for critical discourses.