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Sikh leaders are not without blame for Behzti controversy
4th January, 2005

by Sunny Hundal

For the people who run Britain's Gurdwaras (Sikh temples), the controversy over Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti production has been something of a wake-up call. Largely ignored in the media, they were suddenly caught like a hedgehog in a car's headlights and their woeful unpreparedness was duly exposed.

Though there has been much discussion around the play and the writer, not much has been said about the 'leaders' themselves who grew in numbers as the story unfolded and never shied away from providing choice quotes.

Not only are most of those who run Gurdwaras (and are by default labelled as 'Sikh leaders') from the first generation, they're also overwhelmingly men. At a meeting I was recently invited to, only one lady present in the company of around thirty, and she wasn't even part of any committee. Along with one other dissenting voice, we were the only 'youngsters' under the age of 40.

Having grown up through the fight for civil rights, legal recognition of the turban and riots against the BNP, they harbour a very defensive attitude over their portrayal in the media. Many also don't have an eloquent grasp of English.

The bigger problem is that they can't agree on who will represent them. Birmingham's Sikh community is smaller than London's, but more organised and much more orthodox. The Council of Gurdwaras there apparently didn't coordinate much with their London counterparts during the whole affair.

The Sikh Federation was launched with much fan-fare last year but events have shown how sidelined it has become. There are an array of organisations competing for influence and political power, sometimes sending out conflicting messages, sometimes not bothering to band together to resolve issues that might affect how the whole Sikh community looks.

Mistakes made
Given this state of affairs, what happened was predictable in hindsight. Even now they deny young British Sikhs any real political or representative power.

Many assumed their initial consultation over the play was binding. Though changes were made, and concerns about the Gurdwara setting were legitimate, things escalated too quickly without any real planning or thought.

Gurharpal Singh, professor of inter-religious studies at Birmingham University, said recently, "The anger is probably orchestrated. Sikh community leaders only get prominence through mobilisation of people."

While some admitted the play didn't slur Sikhism as such, others maintained it was an attack on the faith itself and wanted drastic action. Organisers said that on the day the Birmingham Rep was stormed, protestors were swearing at those trying to keep control and accusing them of doing nothing. But wasn't that to be expected when they purposely inflamed and mobilised the crowds?

The aftermath
When the media circus started, there seemed no cohesive strategy for damage limitation. Most condemned the violence but didn't seem too disappointed by it. Not until much later did the British Sikh Consultative Forum express regrets for the threats against Gurpreet Bhatti.

Meanwhile, all manner of rent-a-quote representatives vyed to get on TV and into the press, with conflicting messages and some without even a good grasp of English.

Facing a hostile media, they couldn't get across the idea why precisely the setting of the Gurdwara was found offensive by them (the living Guru concept), or that the Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Hounslow, West London, already took the lead in ensuring all members of the management committee had full police checks to provide a degree of safety.

What happened was that leaders representing a religion that positively encourages freedom of speech and expression were saying there had to be limitations. Whereas previously they protested silently against the British closing of their Gurdwara, even taking bullets for the cause, now they were ready to take up arms over a fictional play.

Everyone has been too quick to blame Ms Bhatti for the aftermath, without trying to understand her motives or the play itself.

Accusations have also been made that the British arts establishment only promotes controversial or sensationalist plays, yet it isn't backed up by any empirical evidence. I remember an American Indian film-maker telling me recently she had received minimal help from the Sikh leadership when she wanted to bring her pro-Sikh award winning documentary to the UK.

What is needed
At the minimum the Sikh community deserves a national body of intellectuals who can not only oversee how they are portrayed in the media and provide consistent guidelines, but also play a part in promoting positive images of the community.

Many of the current leaders spend far too much time and effort on issues to do with issues back in Punjab, trying to get themselves recognised as a specific ethnic group, or engaging in Gurdwara politics. Not all of them do of course, but the problem is plain for everyone to see.

This is not to say they weren't right to raise their concern or protest, but the way they handled the affair has undoubtedly darkened the image of the Sikh community in a wider British society that is overwhelmingly secular. For much of that the leaders have no one to blame but themselves.

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