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Sikhs Struggling With Free Speech


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Sikhs struggling with free speech

Gurpreet Bhatti's latest play isn't being attacked as Behzti was, but that does not mean the Sikh community approves

Sikhs struggling with free speech | Sunny Hundal | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Just over five years ago, in December 2004, a row kicked off in Birmingham over the play Behzti (Dishonour) by the playwright Gurpreet Bhatti. Sikh fundamentalists took to the Birmingham Rep to protest because it featured rape in a Sikh gurdwara and eventually managed to get the play shut down. They declared victory.

The writer is now back in the limelight as her next production, Behud (Beyond Belief) comes to theatre. It is also written as an attempt to recreate what happened over those fateful days. But any coverage of the new production, alongside with a review (which this isn't), raises the question: did the controversy change anything?

Let me start with my position. I was one of Bhatti's most unequivocal supporters, and told anyone who asked that the play had to go on and that the reaction to it was hypocritical and despicable. Sikh community leaders helped stoke up the controversy and were mostly to blame.

The absurd reaction to the play was ironic on two levels. First, because Sikh history is littered with examples of the gurus (teachers) standing up for the right to free expression and living in a society based on moral justice, not mob rule.

It is also ironic because Behzti was about a woman who finds herself silenced by the community because she's accused of bringing shame upon it. The poster showed a woman holding up dirty laundry. Bhatti became a victim of the problems she was trying to highlight.

My feeling is that the reaction to Behzti, even five years later, remains remarkably polarised. Every time I've raised the topic it has attracted vociferous opinions.

Partly, it is because she is a woman. During the furore I was struck by how many so-called "community leaders" were adamant she deliberately made the play inflammatory because she had a vendetta against Sikhs. Some went as far as saying she was in a relationship with a non-Sikh and it showed she "wanted revenge" (how dare a woman not listen to her elders?). Monica Ali, in the controversy around Brick Lane, faced a similar mentality and wrote about it here.

But it also feels like Sikhs in Britain remain remarkably unsophisticated in their approach to free speech. Muslims, in contrast, have had to learn the hard way. Trace a line from Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses all the way to the generally subdued reaction to the Jewel of Medina and it's obvious that with each controversy a bigger percentage of British Muslims realise that trying to ban things is more trouble than it's worth. Even Inayat Bunglawala eventually admitted, "the freedom to offend is a necessary freedom".

It seems for many Sikhs in the UK that lightbulb hasn't gone off yet. Bhatti herself has also largely avoided offering herself as a martyr for the cause. She kept quiet even when Behzti toured around Europe a few years ago. Perhaps she didn't want to set herself up as the instrument used by some in the press to bash Sikhs.

The bunker mentality among Sikhs still goes deep, and attempts by anyone to air dirty laundry is usually met with accusations of being a traitor or being in the pay of the Indian government.

But the Sikhs I've read about in history books weren't dishonest ideologues hiding behind threats of mob violence, suggesting that a woman's play represented some fundamental insult to their great heritage. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth guru, gave up his life to protect the freedom of religion of Hindus. Frankly, I think he would have been disgusted that five years ago Sikhs were making death threats against Bhatti and pretending everything was hunky dory.

It's unlikely Behud will raise the same level of controversy this time around. But don't take that as a guide to the future. More controversies are likely.

As a side-note that offers a glimpse into this mentality, here is an excerpt from a national newspaper column at the time:
The main lesson I draw from events in Birmingham is that Sikhs comprise a group in our society which retains a laudably strong religious conviction, as well as a firm belief in the family. They are not prepared to see their beliefs mocked and degraded, as many Christians have been. If these values could be expressed peacefully and in a way that did not threaten free speech, would they not be an inspiration, rather than a threat, to Christian Britain? Ours might be a stronger and happier society if Christians were readier to defend their values, and if third-rate playwrights thought twice before attacking them.
That was Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail, now trying to set himself up as a defender of free speech alongside his mate Rod Liddle. The religious right is still hanging on.

Sunny Hundal will be taking part in "From Behzti to Behud", a panel discussion chaired by Kenan Malik, at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, on 10 April


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