IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South Asia

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NISAS: Studying South Asia

One question frequently put to associates of the Netherlands Institute of South Asian Studies (NISAS) is: 'South Asia, is that Iran, India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam?' This questions comes from many quarters. Journalists, managers of internationally operating companies, even fellow academics are thoroughly puzzled by the specific territorial content of that elusive term 'South Asia'.

By Olivier Immig & Jan van Heugten

During a visit to Peshawar University we quite unexpectedly found ourselves facing a huge mural map of Central Asia. Specifically included in it was Afghanistan. Others consider Afghanistan to form part of Southwest Asia, and sometimes even Pakistan is included as well. However, Pakistan is generally considered to form part of South Asia. One reason for a somewhat confused definitional status of both countries may well be that in colonial times, viewed from Delhi, the tribal areas across the River Indus and in Afghanistan, were always defined as a transitional area between British India alias South Asia, and the Middle East. This tribal area was a ceaseless source of anxiety to the British Raj.

Another reason for these diverging territorial definitions may have been the dominant position of India on the Subcontinent. India often equals 'South Asia' in the perception of many. This leaves little room for other entities on the South Asian map, thus forcing them to become part of another regional unit. To be sure, so far nobody has had a last say about the definite demarcation of South Asia, and where another region actually begins. Suggestions are welcome. However, it is important to state categorically that Afghanistan and Pakistan are indissolubly intertwined. So are Afghanistan and Tadzjikistan, and Pakistan and India. This constitutes the main area studied by associates of the NISAS.
The NISAS was founded as an independent research institute in 1992 to carry out its own research programmes and publish its results. It was created by a group of enthusiastic visitors to India and, at one time, Afghanistan. They were well aware of, if not actually disturbed by, the fact that thorough academic research on contemporary developments in South (West) Asia was indeed a rarity in the Netherlands. Although all tumultuous developments in the region, in particular those concerning Afghanistan since the late seventies, have attracted a huge press coverage, relatively little academic research has taken place. There was a lack of both specialists and funds.
The most important task of the institute is to carry out studies on contemporary political, economic, religious, and military developments in the region. The results of these studies should be made available to specialists and the general public alike, thereby broadening the scope of interest in the region. The NISAS carries out interdisciplinary research combining the fields of Political Sciences, History, Religion, (International and Islamic) Law, Social Sciences, Military Science, and Economics. This interdisciplinary approach seems to be particularly well suited to a region where religious strife, regional imbalances, ethnic separatism, uneven economic development, social inequality and injustice, illiteracy, and rampant corruption obstruct larger processes like nation-state building and national economic development.
Although the NISAS has remained a relatively small institute, nowadays its associates co-operate in radio broadcasts, hold lectures, give country-briefings to workers of companies, NGOs, and the Dutch government, and exchange thoughts and views on the Kashmir tangle, recent developments in Tadzjikistan and Islamic opinions with both Western and South Asian scholars. Academia and the commercial world are often, literally, worlds apart, in spite of the introduction of market-economy oriented principles in so many quarters of research. The NISAS aims at connecting academic analysis to practical applications like feasibility studies, country/location reports, and briefings.
Recent publications are a book entitled Pakistan: Een kennismaking met politieke ontwikkelingen, islam en cultuur in een jonge natie-staat (Introduction to the New State of Pakistan: Political developments, Islam and culture); De 'islamitische' economie van Pakistan (The 'Islamic' Economy of Pakistan); and an article entitled Mullahs aan de macht in Kaboel (Mollahs New Rulers in Kabul).
The following publications are in preparation: a book with the working title Existence against All Odds: Pakistan at fifty ('Vijftig jaar Pakistan. Bestaansrecht verzekerd, toekomst ongewis'); a brochure entitled Origins of the Sunnite dictatorship in Kabul ('Sunnitische dictatuur in Kaboel') a book on the history of Afghanistan, and a somewhat more analytical brochure on the Kashmir dispute.
We hope we have been able to whet your appetite about the particular activities of a small institute like ours. We consider it most important, however, that similar initiatives may take place.
Olivier Immig & Jan van Heugten, research associates, NISAS, Reinier Claeszenstraat 46 I, 1056 WN Amsterdam, e-mail: m.jong@tip.nl

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South Asia