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.

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.

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 aggressive and deliberately obtuse reply, such as, ‘I’m from Leicester. Where are you from?’. Alternatively, the the questioner might reasonably be told to fuck off.

(For postwar 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 only polite alternative to ‘Asian’ (or ‘South Asian) is ‘from the Indian subcontinent‘. This occasionally used phrase is 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).

Despite being more accurate than ‘Asian’ or even ‘South Asian’, ‘from the Indian subcontinent‘ is said to sound clumsy and to evoke 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 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 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 Muhammad 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 – in addition, of course, to we perfidious British – nationalist Nehru, not pragmatist Jinnah.

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