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? | History | Geography | It’s Indian, innit | Asian English, anyone? | It’s different in the USA | Partition – don’t blame Jinnah


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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?

Where are you from?

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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. (“Where are you really from?” is, of course, much worse.)

It might be framed as a friendly enquiry, but it’s microracism. The questioner might not realise it, but behind that innocent-seeming enquiry lies the racist question: ‘Why are you here?

It’s likely to provoke a passive-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 or given the pithy retort, ‘If you’re asking why we’re here, we’re here because you were there‘.

The hidden question, ‘Why are you here?‘ at least offers the possibility of debate and reason; but behind that lurks the rhetorical racist question that seeks no debate: ‘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 racism as a redundant instinct. 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, aware of all that, don’t ask such intrusive questions. They follow the convention of referring to people apparently originating from that part of the world as ‘Asian‘.

(British ‘Asian’ people also ask that 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.)


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Asian‘ people also follow the convention of using the word ‘Asian‘ – about themselves. In ethnicity surveys used for the census and to monitor discrimination, people voluntarily identify themselves as Asian British or British Asian.

It’s not clear when the ‘Asian‘ convention began. BBC Radio launched its Asian Network station in 1989 to provide ‘speech and music output appealing to British Asians‘. The music was specified as being generally from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

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

In the late 1970s the UK police began using identity codes known as IC codes to identify the apparent ethnicity of suspects and (more controversially) victims.

Currently, police identity code IC4 means ‘Asian‘. This category refers to people apparently of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage. (People apparently of Chinese or Japanese heritage are classed as IC5.)

Naturally, there’s apparently some objection amongst ‘Asian‘ people to being generically defined in this way. Some people of Pakistani origin would apparently prefer to be called Indian rather than Asian. That would at least convey a regional cultural identity.

On the whole, however, UK ‘Asian‘ people, presumably aware of the difficulties for all concerned (and perhaps subconsciously yearning for subcontinental unity), seem willing to identify as ‘Asian‘ or ‘Asian British‘.


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Asia – a big continent

One problem with identifying someone of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi origin as ‘Asian’ – the reason I started writng this post – 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 and occasionally used alternative, ‘South Asian‘.

According to geographic convention, the region of South Asia includes Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Maldives.

There are quibbles about South Asia: some say Iran is part of it; some say Afghanistan isn’t, it’s in Western or Central Asia. The Asian regions are South, Southeast, East, Central, North and Western Asia, AKA the Middle East.

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

South Asian‘ has a tiresome extra word but it’s more 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 pedants like me and the politically correct (also like me).

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

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 a useful phrase when it might be unclear to say ‘South Asia‘ (for instance in the Q&A, above). However, critics say it’s clumsy, orientalist and – because of ‘Indian‘ – colonialist.

A more politically correct – if somewhat tautological – phrase is ‘from the South Asian subcontintent‘. Perhaps the simpler – if slightly enigmatic and knowing -‘from the subcontinent‘ is better.

It’s Indian, innit

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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.)

Postscript 1

Asian English, anyone?

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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. However, I’ve never known anyone to identify as, for instance, Asian English.

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?

Englishness has in any case been tainted by far-right, racist, nationalist groups claiming to defend England against foreign cultures. The previously little-used English flag, the red cross of St George, 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 English flags / PA

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

Personally, as a white English World citizen, I couldn’t care less about waving flags. I love England but I hate nationalism. Bring on (voluntary) World government.

Postscript 2

It’s different in the USA

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Asian‘ is used In the UK to refer to anyone of South Asian appearance with brown skin. In the USA, it’s used to refer to anyone of East Asian appearance with epicanthic eyefolds.

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

In the USA, calling someone ‘Asian‘ can avoid offending Japanese people by calling them Chinese – or vice versa. As with Pakistan and India, there’s historical emnity between the two countries.

The US ‘Asian‘ identification, as blatantly innaccurate as the UK version, likewise seems to be an abbreviated reference to a geographic Asian region, presumably in this case ‘East Asia‘ – which includes China and Japan, as well as South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

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

Postscript 3

Partition – don’t blame Jinnah

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It’s often assumed that Britain’s clumsy, careless and devastating 1947 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 – if not for Hindu nationalism it could have been the USI, with the multicultural Punjab as a federal state instead of being savagely ripped apart by partition’s line on a map.

Partition, which inevitably caused the brutal deaths and forced relocation of millions of people, should be blamed on – in addition, of course, to the perfidious British rulers – Hindu nationalist Nehru, not Muslim pragmatist Jinnah.

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