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.


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.

The problem is that people from Pakistan are (officially, anyway) offended if they’re called Indian, and Indians are (perhaps more genuinely) offended if called Pakistani. Apparently Bangladeshis (understandably) feel the same about being called Indian or Pakistani.

Indigenous Brits (especially those anxious to be seen as politically correct) call people apparently originating from that region ‘Asian‘ – and UK ‘Asians’ seem happy to use that word about themselves.

In ethnicity surveys used for the census and to monitor discrimination, the relevant category is Asian British. UK Asians also 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 and Pakistani.

Footnote 2

It’s assumed by many who question whether partition was necessary that it happened mainly because Muslim leader Mohammed Jinnah insisted on a Muslim nation. His 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 Nehru – not Jinnah

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