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Sathnam Sanghera’s pursuit of a balanced, sane view of empire

Sathnam Sanghera’s pursuit of a balanced, sane view of empire

Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Sathnam Sanghera as part of her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.

Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi immigrant parents in Wolverhampton in 1976. He entered the education system unable to speak English but, after attending Wolverhampton Grammar School, graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge University, with a first-class degree in English Language and Literature in 1998. He has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards twice, for his memoir ‘The Boy With the Topknot’ and his novel ‘Marriage Material’, and has been shortlisted for, or won, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the PEN Ackerley Prize and Mind Book of the Year. He has also won numerous prizes for his journalism at ‘The Financial Times’ and ‘The Times’. ‘Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain’, released recently, is a ‘Sunday Times’ bestseller.

Q: When it comes to discussions around empire, it seems they cannot be had without getting into a culture war. Why do you think it has become to so binary and divisive?

A: The way we talk about empire in this country is really dysfunctional. We tend to see ourselves as the country that won World War II, rather than the country that had the greatest empire in human history. Whereas the rest of the world sees us as the country with the greatest empire, which we then lost.

Then there's the other view: the balance sheet idea, that you can balance the good against the positive, and somehow come to a conclusion that empire was good or bad, which is just illiterate because it's 400 years of history. It's very complicated.

Then you've got this idea that is increasingly common that empire was always good, which is absurd and not true, and a silly way of looking at history. History doesn't care about your feelings - it's not there to fill you with pride or shame. History is just facts and arguments and I think we need to get the emotion out of it.

The way I've tried to write the book is through the legacies of people. It's a less emotional, more sane way of looking at empire.

Q: If you were to rewrite the national curriculum, how would you incorporate empire into the syllabus?

A: I don’t think there will be resolution between the two leading parties about how empire is taught, but I don’t see politics to be the place where the change is happening.

Young people know a lot these days – they get their information from social media, and there are films like Black Panther, which are very angry about colonialism. That's where the change is happening.

The national curriculum isn't actually taught everywhere now because academies and private schools don't. I've had dozens of teachers approach me about incorporating the books in their lessons.

I wanted my book to be a balanced introduction to empire, which wasn't available, frankly. There are lots of books about India and lots of books about slavery, but they are just parts of the story of empire. There was nothing that was comprehensive and balanced.

Q: You talk a lot in the book about integration; about Britain absorbing migrants and all the waves of immigration. If we had some of this education behind us, do you think our conversations would be enriched?

A: One of the more positive legacies of imperialism that we have is the way we travel the world. We emigrate like no other nation on earth. Wherever you go, you'll find British people. The reason we're a multicultural society is because we had a multicultural empire. The debate is always that immigrants must adapt and learn the local language, which is true, but I think the host community also needs to understand that we came here for a reason.

In the case of the Sikhs, we came here because we'd fought in both World Wars in huge numbers, we took the side of the British in the mutiny of 1857, and the British empire is also our story. Our conversations would be enriched if it was acknowledged by Britain that we are here for reasons that go back centuries.

Some of us arrived here as citizens, like the people on the Windrush. They came here because the 1948 Nationality Act gave them citizenship, which is a really important point because they're being deported which is so unjust. How can you deport citizens? This is the greatest evidence of our level of poor understanding about empire.

Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of Women Empowered. In this exclusive multi-media “In Conversation” series for ‘iGlobal’, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist catches up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons.

*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.

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