May 24 2016
A distinguished group of authors challenged each other over the description, ‘British Asian’ with one saying it is utterly meaningless, as they discussed identity and what problems, the term ‘Asian’ can create too…
By Agnish Ray
WITH more South Asians excelling in Britain’s mainstream than ever before, social anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee, Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera and author Yasmin Khan were brought together to discuss the thorny question of British Asian identity in ‘British Asians, The Changing Face’.
Appearing as part of a panel at London’s version of the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre on Saturday and part of the wider Alchemy Festival (May 20-30) there was an impassioned exchange of opinions between the writers, all of whom represent the term ‘British Asian’ in different ways. The debate was moderated by writer Patrick French, who has written books about Indian society and culture.
Banerjee – who is head of the South Asia Centre at London School of Economics – recalled being at Wembley Stadium last November, when over 60,000 people welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UK. It was a surreal moment of mass collective fervour and adoration from a significant portion of the Indian community which lives in Britain.
But the most bizarre thing for Bannerjee was that only a very small proportion of that crowd could actually sing along to the Indian national anthem. One wonders, then, how important the “Indian” part of these people’s “British Indian” identity really is, she speculated.
The “British Asian” term is “utterly meaningless”, declared Sanghera, author of the novel, “Marriage Material” (2013).
But Banerjee (pictured below) argued that it in fact potentially allows for a dialogue in the UK between the identities and cultures of the five “South Asian” countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal) in a way that is not normally possible in the subcontinent itself.
The danger is when the nuances between, and within, those five countries are homogenised, and therefore obliterated, by one umbrella term.
Critics point to Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith’s failed London mayoral campaign, for example as a crude and outdated way of viewing communities’ ideology and beliefs, believing ethnicity or religion tended to make people think one way and not any other.
His targeted profiling of the British Indian community, appeared to put the whole mass into an uncomfortably small box.
Ironically, it is often British Asians themselves, said Banerjee, who are ignorant of the pluralism and diversity of the Indian subcontinent.
Indians in India don’t struggle to negotiate their way around different identities like Punjabi, Bengali, Hindu and Muslim in the same way that British Indians seem to, she suggested.
But perhaps this is because British Asians aren’t taught enough about their history.
“I learned nothing about the British Empire,” recalled Sanghera about his days as a schoolboy in the UK.
Banerjee, born and raised in India, also said she is consistently astounded by the low levels of knowledge about the British Empire, even among students of the UK’s best universities, in which she has been teaching for around 20 years.
So, is this changing at all, are Asians in Britain learning more about their history and their countries of origin?
Pakistani-British author Yasmin Khan said that although the subject of India’s Partition was, recently introduced as an option into the national history syllabus, it is now being withdrawn under the Conservative government’s education policy.
This is an education gap not only in South Asian history, but in British history – the history of the British Raj is fundamentally a history of Britain, as much as of India, argued Khan. (It is her, right?)
And rather than being lost in annals of history, an understanding of colonialism is more important than ever in a time like now, when the subject of immigration is a daily discussion.
The panel was united in agreement that it is now more important than ever to understand that Britain’s history and identity is intrinsically entwined with other parts of the world.
- More literature events as part of Alchemy at the Southbank Centre (until May 30), see http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/festivals-series/alchemy