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

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


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.

It’s widely considered that there are two predominant ethno-linguistic groups in the Indian subcontinent. The two groups are said to have different physical characteristics. For instance, people in southern India are said to have darker skin and larger eyes than the main group in northern India. Over the millenia, there’s been much interaction between the two groups, but there are still said to be physical (and cultural) differences between people from the north and the south.

If someone’s ethnic origin is in the north of the Indian subcontinent, it’d be difficult to tell by physical appearance whether their family origin is in Pakistan, northern India or Bangladesh, especially if they wear western clothes, or the now-universal shalwar kameez. Clothing or headwear associated with a particular religion might be a clue, and it might be possible to guess that someone is from southern India, but generally, to the wary and untutored western eye, people from the Indian subcontinent, north or south, all look ‘Indian’. 71 years ago, before the partition of India, they were all ‘Indian’.

The problem is that since the creation of post-partition nations (along with national pride, nationalism and inter-nation conflict), Pakistanis can be offended if they’re called Indian, Indians if called Pakistani, and Bangladeshis if called Indian or Pakistani.

In social interaction, it is, of course, possible to ask someone about their country of ethnic origin. However, a white Briton asking a brown Briton who’s a stranger or casual aquaintance, ‘Where are you from?’, meaning, ‘In which country in the Indian subcontinent did your family originate?’ isn’t a good idea.

It might be meant as a friendly enquiry, but it could come across as arrogant micro-racist intrusiveness. It’s likely to provoke a passively agressive and deliberately obtuse reply, such as, ‘I’m from Leicester. Where are you from?’. Alternatively, the the questioner might be told to fuck off.

(For postwar Commonwealth immigrants to the UK and their descendants, racism is never far below the surface. I think that racism is a redundant instinct, and that if we’re aware of that, we can choose not to indulge it. See my post, Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct.)

More considerate indigenous Brits (especially those anxious to be politically correct) follow the custom of referring to people apparently originating from that region as ‘Asian‘ – and UK ‘Asians’, presumably aware of the difficulties for all concerned (and perhaps subconsciously yearning for subcontinental unity), seem happy to use that word about themselves.

In ethnicity surveys used for the census and to monitor discrimination, people voluntarily identify themselves as Asian British or British Asian.

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Asia – a big continent

The problem with identifying someone of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi origin as ‘Asian’ is the absurd geographical and linguistic innaccuracy. 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 ‘South Asian‘, which refers to a geographic area comprising eight countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

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. ‘South Asian’ is also UK police identification category IC4.

The more accurate phrase, ‘from the Indian subcontinent‘, is still used occasionally. It’s geographically valid – the ‘subcontinent’ was once a continent, until it collided with Asia. Politically, it usually includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. (In other words, it’s South Asia minus Afghanistan).

‘From the Indian subcontinent’, despite being more accurate than ‘Asian’ or even ‘South Asian’, is said to sound clumsy and to smack of empire. However, it’s a useful phrase when it might be unclear to say ‘South Asia’ (for instance in the Q&A, above).

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

But, ironically, young UK Pakistanis often use ‘Indian‘ themselves when referring to anyone or anything from either India or Pakistan – as in: ‘It’s Indian, innit’ (said with optional adopted West Indian (!) rudeboy accent). It’s probably best not to try this if you’re not South Asian (or West Indian).

(It’s complicated, innit, post-imperial cross-culture.)

Footnote 1

It’s different in the USA, where ‘Asian‘ mainly refers to Americans of Chinese or Japanese ethnic origin. More broadly, ‘Asian American’ means having ethnic origins in the geographic regions of East Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia.

This includes Americans who identify their ethnicity as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian or Pakistani.

Footnote 2

It’s often assumed that Britain’s clumsy, careless and devastating partition of India happened mainly because Muslim leader Mohammed Jinnah insisted on a Muslim nation – but that’s not the whole story.

Jinnah’s Muslim League did vote for separation in 1940, but apparently Jinnah (a secular man whose concern was to protect Muslims from political isolation) personally preferred a federated India.

However, this idea was blocked by Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal ‘Pandit’ Nehru, leaving Jinnah no choice but separation. (Shame – it could have been the USI.)

So those who think that partition was a bad idea which inevitably caused the brutal deaths or forced relocation of millions of people should blame not only the the perfidious British but also nationalist Nehru – not pragmatist Jinnah.

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