Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

Detail of illustration: 15 positions in 15 months of lockdown ’20-21 by Apoorva Singh

Q: Why are Britons with ethnic origins in the Indian subcontinent called ‘Asian‘?
A: It’s short for ‘South Asian‘. Apparently. And it’s considered inoffensive.

Contents: Introduction | Where are you from? | When did it start? | Asia’s a big continent | From the Indian subcontinent | It’s Indian, innit | Asian English, anyone? | Nationalism and English racism | It’s different in the USA | Guardian wrong shock – it’s ‘South Asian’ with a capital ‘S’ | Partition – don’t blame Jinnah

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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A linguistic legacy of partition

Since the partition of India in 1947 there’s been a problem with how people from that part of the world are described here in the UK, where many citizens are of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi origin.

Before partition, they could all have been described as ‘Indian‘. But now, Pakistanis can be offended if they’re called Indian, Indians if called Pakistani, and Bangladeshis if called Indian or Pakistani.

The solution has been to use the word ‘Asian‘. But it’s the wrong word, isn’t it? What’s going on?

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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Where are you from?

A controversial question


In social interaction, it’s possible to ask someone about their country of ethnic origin. However, a white Briton asking a brown Briton who’s a stranger or casual acquaintance, ‘Where are you from?’ isn’t a good idea. ‘Where are you really from?’ is much worse.

Such questions are inconsiderately intrusive and, at best, microracist.

Unpicked, the question means, ‘Your skin colour and facial appearance suggests your ethnic origin is in what used to be called India. In which country in that region are your family origins?’

It gets complicated. If a brown British person is known to be a Muslim, they might not be of Pakistani origin. Many UK Muslims have origins in the Indian state of Gujerat. (Almost one in five Indian people are Muslim.)

Also, many people came to the UK from Indian communities established before partition in East Africa, mainly in Kenya and Uganda. Those people and their descendants, whilst identifying by religion, usually differentiate themselves on that basis.

The question ‘Where are you from?’ might seem to be casual curiosity framed as a friendly enquiry, but it’s microracism. The questioner might not consciously realise it, but – to unpick it further – behind that innocent-seeming question lies a worse one: ‘Why are you here?

The person being asked could choose to attempt a straightforward reply such as: ‘My family origins are in what’s now Pakistan, but my parents lived in Kenya before they came to the UK.’

However, the question is more likely to provoke a passive-aggressive and deliberately obtuse reply, such as, ‘I’m from Leicester – where are you from?’.

Alternatively, the questioner might reasonably be told to fuck off, or be given the pithy retort, ‘If you’re asking why we’re here, we’re here because you were there‘.

(Brown British people also ask the question, ‘Where are you from?‘ – of each other. The purpose is to find out the other’s origins: their country, religion, region, town, and caste or class. That’s a whole different can of worms.)

The hidden question, ‘Why are you here?‘ at least offers the possibility of debate and reason; but behind that lurks the racist rhetorical question: ‘Why don’t you go back there?‘ For postwar immigrants to the UK and their descendants, such racism is never far below the surface.

(It’s reasonable to think of such racism as a redundant instinct revived and twisted by colonialism. Anti-racists, aware of that, can choose not to indulge it. See my post, Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct.)

Considerate indigenous Brits, whether politically correct and antiracist or just aware of those minefields and pitfalls, don’t ask that intrusive question.

Rather than interrogating their fellow citizens like the Gestapo-light (‘Where are your papers, if you wouldn’t mind?’), they follow the convention of referring to people apparently originating from that part of the world as ‘Asian‘.

British ‘Asian’ people also follow that convention when identifying their ethnic origin. They voluntarily identify themselves as Asian British or British Asian in ethnicity surveys used for the census and to monitor discrimination.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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When did it start?

A brief history

When did the convention of calling people from India. Pakistan or Bangladesh ‘Asian‘ begin?

In 1989, BBC Radio launched its Asian Network station to provide ‘speech and music output appealing to British Asians‘. The music was specified as being from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In 1995, the Guardian newspaper was using both ‘Asian‘ and ‘South Asian in this context, for instance in this article. (However, they bizarrely insist on spelling the South in South Asian wrongly – with a small ‘s’. See below.)

In 2001, the UK census first used ‘Asian‘ in that context, with the heading ‘Asian or Asian British‘. The options were Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi (and, confusingly, ‘Any other Asian background’).

Since the late 1970s, UK police identity codes known as IC codes have been used to identify the apparent ethnicity of suspects and victims. Currently, IC4 is ‘Asian‘, meaning people apparently of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage.

So, the convention of calling people of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage ‘Asian‘ has existed since at least the late 1980s.

There’s been some resistance. A 2002 Asian Network poll found most UK Asian people disliked being called ‘Asian‘. According to a Guardian report on the station and its poll, Asian people prefered to be described by their country of origin.

Description by country of origin would work on self-identification forms, but there’d be difficulties with how Asian people are referred to by others.

The three main Asian communitiesIndian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi – aren’t the same, and they campaign for the differences to be understood, but how should they be referred to collectively when that’s necessary?

Regarding an Asian individual’s country of origin, how would people know? Presumably, they’d have to ask that controversial question: ‘Where are you from?

Apparently, some people of Pakistani origin even say they’d prefer to be called ‘Indian‘ rather than ‘Asian‘ – because that would at least convey a regional cultural identity.

Mainly though, in spite of such understandable reservations, UK Asian people, presumably aware of the difficulties for all concerned (and perhaps subconsciously yearning for subcontinental unity), seem willing to accept the collective ‘Asian’ identification.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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Asia’s a big continent

Some geography

Asia – a big continent

One problem with identifying someone of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi origin as ‘Asian’ is the absurd geographical and linguistic inaccuracy.

Asia’s a huge continent, stretching from Turkey to the eastern edge of Russia. Three countries occupying about one twentieth of Asia’s land mass have hijacked the name of the whole continent.

To be fair, ‘Asian‘ probably originated as a careless contraction of the more accurate and occasionally used alternative, ‘South Asian‘.

The geographic region of South Asia includes Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Maldives. (There are quibbles: some say Iran is included; some say Afghanistan isn’t, it’s in West or Central Asia.)

The six geographic Asian regions are North Asia (sometimes, bizarrely, included in Europe), Central Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia (confusingly, part of the Middle East) and South Asia.

The six regions of Asia, including South (or Southern) Asia | Mapsofworld

South Asian‘ has a tiresome extra word – but it’s meaningful. Unlike ‘Asian‘, it makes sense.

South Asian‘ is used in the UK mainly in the media* to mean Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi. It’s not much used in everyday speech, except by a few politically correct pedants like me. It’s easier to say ‘Asian‘.

* UK newspaper the Guardian insists – wrongly – in spelling it ‘south Asian‘ with a small ‘s’. See below..

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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From the Indian subcontinent

Some more geography

The main polite alternative to ‘Asian’ or ‘South Asian’ is ‘from the Indian subcontinent‘. This occasionally used phrase is geographically accurate but somewhat politically incorrect.

the Indian subcontinent is the terrestrial part the Indian Plate, which separated from supercontinent Gondwana about 100 million years ago, drifted North and collided with Asia 55 million years ago. (The collision created the Himalayas).

Subcontinent‘ is a geographical term meaning subdivision of a continent – in this case Asia. It’s Asian now, innit.

Drifted together – before and after | iStock

The Indian subcontinent includes Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives – it’s South Asia minus Afghanistan.

From the Indian subcontinent‘ is more accurate than ‘Asian’ or even ‘South Asian’, and it’s useful when it might be unclear to say ‘South Asia‘ (for instance in the Q&A, above), but it sounds clumsy, and smacks of Orientalism and empire.

A politically correct version of the name, the South Asian subcontinent, sounds equally clumsy. The simplified – and enigmatic – ‘from the subcontinent‘ is cooler. Man.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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It’s Indian, innit

The yoof of today

Not long ago, Pakistan was India; and some people lazily or nostalgically still think of ‘India’ as the name of the region. Consequently, the most likely way to cause offence is to inadvertently call someone who happens to be of Pakistani origin ‘Indian‘.

However, ironically, young UK people of Pakistani origin often use ‘Indian‘ themselves when referring to anyone or anything from either India or Pakistan – as in the catchily assonant (and internally alliterative) meme, ‘It’s Indian, innit‘ (optionally said with a culturally appropriated Jamaican rudeboy accent).

It’s probably best not to try this if you’re not South Asian – or West Indian(!). Complicated, innit, post-colonial cross-culture.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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Asian English, anyone?

Apparently not

Indigenous white UK citizens rarely describe themselves as British except on monitoring forms. They’re more likely to say they’re English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Do UK Asian people ever identify in that way, or do they prefer ‘Asian British‘?

In 2014 researchers found most Asian people in Scotland preferred to be known as ‘Scottish Asian‘ rather than ‘Asian British‘. They also found minority groups are more likely to claim a Scottish identity in Scotland than an English identity in England.

I’ve never come across anyone identifying as Asian English – and Googling it gives no relevant results. Does a person living in England and identifying as Asian British, who’s family roots are in, say, Pakistan, understandably think of themselves as Pakistani rather than English?

There’s one good reason for British Asian people to avoid Englishness: it’s been tainted by association with anti-immigrant groups.

Far-right, racist, nationalist groups have claimed to defend England against Islam and other immigrant cultures.

The previously little-used English flag, the red cross of St George (a not-very-English Roman soldier of Greek origin serving in Palestine), has been hijacked by the racist Right.

The current widespread use of the English flag in support of the England football team – you don’t see it in photos of England’s 1966 world cup victory – might well cause concern in immigrant communities.

1966 – plenty of racism then, but no St George flags / PA

Perhaps British Asian people do well to steer clear of the complicated issue of Englishness. It’s probably best left to the indigenous English.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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Nationalism and English racism

Engerland the fatherland

Research shows British Asian people are unlikely to claim English identity. One possible reason is that Englishness has been hijacked by flag-waving nationalist neo-Nazi groups.

Those groups have freely used the provocative Crusader red cross of the ‘St GeorgeEnglish flag in their campaigning, and have claimed to ‘defend’ England against Islam and other immigrant cultures.

Nationalist racists began organising in the 1930s, and were later keen to exploit the tension which followed postwar mass immigration to the UK.

That immigration, ordained for economic reasons with no consultation and no concern for the social wellbeing of immigrant or host communities, inevitably disturbed the locals. There was widespread racism.

The far right tried to exploit that, with some limited success – the National Front was quite big in the 1970s – but it’s never had much support in the phlegmatic UK. Enoch Powell was wrong.

Powell‘s notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech warning of mass civil disturbance was false prophecy. Powell quoted a Roman poet foreseeing the River Tiber ‘foaming with blood’, but – despite occasional ‘race’ riots – there’s been no foaming of blood in the UK.

Thanks to common sense and goodwill, and to anti-racist campaigning and legislation, most citizens of all ethnicities have accepted a pragmatic mixture of multiculturalism and integration.

There was a disturbing spike in racism following the UK’s EU referendum in 2016, but younger people generally seem far less racist than previous generations.

Despite that lessening of inter-ethnic tension, black and South Asian Britons continue to face prejudice and discrimination, both personal and institutional.

The Black Lives Matter movement raised awareness of that conscious and unconscious racism, and has encouraged antiracists to speed up the UK’s slow progress towards ending racism.

Apart from the Salafi self-segregation practised by some UK Muslims (which damages women and children and provokes racism), multicultural England doesn’t need defending against immigrant cultures – it’s made of them.

Racist nationalists who claim to defend England can shove their flags, and crawl back under their stone.

It’s natural to love your country, but nationalism, with its flag-waving banality and its dangerous, narrow-minded ideology is an unnatural abomination.

The danger of nationalism is shown by the murderous religious conflict in India associated with the rise of populist prime minister Narendra Modi, his Hindu nationalist BJP party and the Hindu nationalist RSS paramilitary group he belongs to.

Globally, the nation state‘s had its day. The big states are powerful but they can’t stop global warming. The so-called United Nations is toothless – it helps the victims but pussyfoots with the autocratic perpetrators.

To right nationalism’s wrongs – environmental destruction, poverty, corruption, disease and war – what the world needs now (as well as love, sweet love, of course) is transnational federated World government – with teeth.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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It’s different in the USA

Asian the American way

In the UK, ‘Asian‘ is used to refer to anyone apparently of South Asian heritage. However, in the USA, ‘Asian‘ refers to people of East Asian heritage.

Left: Asian woman, UK. Right: Asian man, USA | Getty Images

This avoids offending Japanese people by calling them Chinese, and vice versa. As with Pakistan and India, there’s historical enmity between the two countries.

Asian‘ in the USA – as blatantly inaccurate as the UK version – is apparently a careless abbreviation of ‘East Asian‘. The geographic region of East Asia includes China and Japan as well as South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

More broadly, ‘Asian American‘ means having ethnic origins in East Asia, South Asia or Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore).

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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Guardian wrong shock – it’s ‘South Asian’ with a capital ‘S’

Welcome to Pedants Corner
What they do | Why they do it | Why it’s wrong | Hi ho, silver lining

What they do

Never do what they do

    Guardian headline:

    Gene common in south Asian people doubles risk of Covid death, study finds

In the headline above from the Guardian (the UK’s most-read quality newspaper), ‘south Asian‘ has a small ‘s’. However – shock, horror – the Guardian’s got it wrong. It should, of course, be ‘South Asian‘ with a capital ‘S’.

This isn’t one of the ‘typo’ errors the Guardian used to be famous for (giving it the nickname ‘the Grauniad‘). The paper’s deliberately printed ‘south Asian‘ with a small ‘s’ since it first started using the epithet a few decades ago. (See, for instance, this 1993 article.)

It’s not just an issue of grammar. The Guardian’s idiosyncratic lower-case ‘s’ effectively demeans South Asian people. That’s clearly not the liberal Guardian’s intention – but it’s the inevitable effect of the paper’s grammatical anomoly.

I’m a long-time Guardian reader, but I only recently noticed the ‘south Asian’ spelling. Aggrieved, I turned to the A-Z Guardian style guide, normally a shining beacon of omniscient clarity – but it was disappointingly flawed.

The Guardian style guide had no entries for ‘Asian‘ or ‘South Asian‘. This was a surprising omission by a liberal paper rightly championing multiculturalism.

South Asian‘, meaning Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, is a sensitive, circuitous, polite, and politically correct element of multiculturalism. Its use in the Guardian deserves a clear explanation.

The main problem, however, is the Guardian’s bizarre insistence on spelling ‘south Asian’ with a small ‘s’.

Guardian wrong shock

Why they do it  🔺
Why, why, why? (Bad reasoning)

I complained to the Guardian about their ‘south Asian spelling. In reply, they quoted this, from the style guide G section:

    distinct areas are capped up: Black Country, East Anglia, Lake District, Midlands, Peak District, Potteries, West Country, etc; but areas defined by compass points are lc: the north, the south-east, the south-west, etc.

This is nonsense as an explanation for their ‘south Asian’ spelling. Defined geopolitical areas such as South Asia aredistinct areas‘. They’re not ‘areas defined by compass points‘ – the compass point is part of their proper name.

The Guardian style guide S section has several entries beginning ‘south‘. For ‘South America‘, the compass-point element is capitalised, but for ‘south-west England, the south-east, south Wales, etc’, it isn’t.

According to geographic definition, there are six geopolitical Asian regions (see above):

  • South Asia
  • East Asia
  • Southeast Asia
  • North Asia (sometimes included in Europe)
  • West Asia (part of the Middle East)
  • Central Asia

Only two Asian regions are mentioned in the Guardian style guide. The guide’s E section gives ‘east Asia‘ and ‘south-east Asia‘.

The Guardian rule seems to be that capitals for compass-point elements are allowed in the names of Guardian-defined ‘distinct areas‘ (eg East Anglia) or continents (eg South America) but are denied in the names of ‘areas defined by compass points‘, (eg, the north).

That denial is apparently extended to major geopolitical regions with a compass-point element in their name (eg ‘south Asia’).

According to its own fuzzy logic, the Guardian should consistently spell the names of all Asian regions the same way. However, in the section heading shown below, ‘Central Asia’ is spelt correctly – with a capital ‘C’!

Guardian wrong shock

Why it’s wrong  🔺
Wrong, wrong, wrong

It’s probably pointless (geddit?) to explain why the Guardian’s wrong to write ‘south Asian’ with a lower-case ‘s’, so here goes nothing.

All major broadcasters and publishers, including the BBC, Wikipedia and National Geographic, write ‘South Asia‘ with a capital ‘S’. They give proper-name status to such geopolitical regions.

  • BBC News style guide, S section:
  • ‘South Asia, ie both words are always capped’

    BBC programme title:

    The South Asia nuclear standoff

  • Wikipedia style manual, capitalising – compass points:
  • ‘Points of the compass…are capitalized…when they form part of a proper name…If [a region] is consistently capitalized in reliable sources…then the direction word in it is capitalized’

    The Wikipedia entry for South Asia capitalises both words throughout.

  • National Geographic style manual, Asia:
  • ‘South Asia: Capitalize’

    National Geographic article headline:

    A water crisis looms for 270 million people as South Asia’s glaciers shrink

Everyone else also apparently disagrees with the Guardian. I googled ‘south asian‘, and in the first five pages of results, all instances except two – a total of 44 (disregarding those where ‘South Asian’ began a sentence) – were spelt with a capital ‘S’. The two exceptions were from the Guardian.

The Guardian prides itself on its independence, but this looks like a bad case of They Were All Out of Step But Jim (as in the humorous American World War I song).

The Guardian style guide is instructively unhelpful.

The Guardian style guide C section, under ‘capitals‘, lists sixteen ‘main principles‘ for its policy of minimalising the use of capitals – but there’s no principle listed for capitalising regions such as South Asia.

The Guardian style guide G section, under ‘geography‘ (see above), does at least address the issue. It allows capitals for ‘distinct areas‘ (such as, apparently, East Anglia) but denies them for ‘areas defined by compass points‘.

The Guardian apparently puts South Asia in the latter category. That’s nonsense. If East Anglia qualifies as a ‘distinct area‘, then surely South Asia does – it’s a major geopolitical region.

Politically, South Asia comprises eight countries (see above). Also, ‘South Asian‘ is used in the UK media to mean Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi.

Geographically and politically (in either sense), South Asia clearly deserves proper-name status – as do all Asian regions. Proper names should, of course, be capitalised.

The Guardian’s current minimal-capitals versions, ‘south Asia‘ and ‘south Asian‘, lack definition. They’re not proper names – they’re effectively vague and vacuous. The reader might understandably wonder what part of Asia is being referred to.

If I were South Asian (in the UK sense of having Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi heritage), I might well feel – perhaps subliminally – somewhat downgraded and mildly insulted.

(Is that what you want, Guardian? ‘Cause that’s what’ll happen.)

The Guardian style guide section on the use of capitals says:

    We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity

Clarity requires ‘South Asian‘ to have a capital ‘S’ – and so does courtesy.

The Guardian, liberal flagship of the British media, should consider that the need to use a regional name as a collective proxy for British Asian people arises from the British-organised partition of India.

If the Guardian were to fall in lne with all other media and give proper-name status to South Asia, it’d be a small measure of historical restitution and a large portion of common courtesy.

I love the Guardian, but they’ve got this wrong.

Guardian wrong shock

Hi ho, silver lining  🔺
A glimmer of hope

When I approached the Guardian about this, their response, in quoting their style guide entry on geography (see above), was – perhaps predictably – dismissively and obtusively defensive.

However, in response to my point that the Guardian style guide should have an explanation of the use of ‘South Asian‘ to mean Indian, Pakistani or Bangladshi, they said they might consider adding ‘a specific entry for south Asia’.

That’s begrudging – and stubbornly ungrammatical – but it’s a start. Hi ho.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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Partition – don’t blame Jinnah

Another brief history

Britain’s clumsy, careless and devastating partition of India in 1947 inevitably led to the violent deaths and forced relocation of millions of people.

Apart from the perfidious British rulers, who was to blame?

It’s often assumed that partition happened because Muslim leader Muhammad Jinnah insisted on a Muslim nation. Jinnah’s Muslim League did vote for separation in 1940, but that’s not the whole story.

Jinnah, a secular man, was determined to protect Muslims from political isolation. His preference was for a federated India, but that idea was blocked by Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal ‘Pandit’ Nehru, leaving Jinnah no choice but separation.

Shame – it could have been the USI, with the Punjab as a multicultural federal state instead of being ripped apart by partition.

Saying ‘Asian‘ is a small reminder of that big tragedy. When remembering it, however, don’t blame Muslim pragmatist Jinnah, blame the real villain – Hindu nationalist Nehru.

    Blame poisons the blamer
    Secular justice is the only cure
     Hugo Bruccianni

The End

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