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The violent reaction to Behzti is despicable and hypocritical
20th December, 2004

by Sunny Hundal
Editor

A mob of over 400 people demonstrate and most of them try to break into the theatre to stop the play. Threats are made against the writer who is forced into hiding after already being the subject of abuse for months. The theatre is boarded up and thinly veiled threats follow that it the play goes ahead then demonstrations, and possibly more violence, will follow.

In one night the image of a peaceful community more known for hard work and following the law diligently is shattered, replaced by images of angry mobs assaulting police officers and harassing theatre-goers who went to see Behzti, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play at the Birmingham Rep.

The picture of a woman holding up a piece of underwear is very apt. We all know Asians loathe the idea of airing dirty laundry in public. But this time did it go too far, or are people over-reacting?


The background issues
It would be na´ve to think that the issue is purely about freedom of speech. Many in the Asian community, not without reason, have cultivated and sustained a climate of defensiveness over their religion. Sikhs particularly, having been harassed after 9/11 for their turbans and beards, feel the UK needs to be educated more about their religion. British media is partly to blame for this since they purposely ignore them and the Hindus as they're not involved in this war on terror. Unless you are seen as a threat, they privately say, you're not really worth talking about. Heck, the BNP even used a Sikh for their political broadcast to curse Muslims. That alone speaks volumes.

Some Asian artists are also suspicious. Why do only certain kinds of theatre productions get picked up the big venues? Does the arts establishment only want controversial or sensationalist productions without caring for the impact it has on ethnic minority audiences?

These are valid issues that colour the debate because the demonstrations and high emotions are borne mostly out of this defensiveness. But there is more to this.

Why wasn't the violence demonised and condemned further? Why did it feel as they knew the violence was going to happen? And much more importantly, why don't they distance themselves from death threats made against the writer? Is her life not important, or are people too busy protecting their own skin / being outraged to care?


A question of dishonour
The name of the play is important here. The central premise is that there are people in the Asian community who are more afraid of dishonour (behzti) than actually confronting injustice.

Ironically that is exactly what is being played out here. People are objecting to the play not because of its content (that's merely a distraction, confirmed by the new demands that the play shut down entirely under all circumstances), but because it raises issues they'd rather not discuss. Especially in front of white people, in a major venue, and at such a "sensitive" time.

The play, which I haven't seen but have read, also questions the supposedly unquestionable authority of religious leaders. Not surprisingly the most vociferous opponents of the play are the very same people. How surprising also the Catholic church has waded into the debate when they've been racked by similar issues. By later this week most of the other religions will probably join in to make sure nothing similar ever comes out for their own community.


A freedom of speech issue?
Let's be honest, it wasn't really that surprising when events turned violent. We're used to people in the Asian community demonstrating and getting violent if their demands are not met. An entrenched culture of allowing freedom of speech or having a full-on debate is still a pipe dream.

Partly this is our own media's fault. Either most of the press and radio stations are allied with and cater for religious groups, or they're unwilling to ruffle any feathers. Most will happily report on the side of the religious leaders or not cover the issue at all. The few non-partisan outlets don't want a debate because of the potential fallout.

You only have to consider the silly furore over the Sonia Deol show to understand that a few wrong words can instantly be blown up into massive campaigns and petitions. The religious groups have too much control over the debate because they're more likely to protest when riled and have been known to twist an issue until it gets everyone angry over something or the other.

This is the bigger issue and no one is willing to raise. Why do the religious leaders get quoted all over the press but no one is found to defend the play? Their wild accusations: that those on the other side either have no knowledge of the religions, or are biased against them, or have some hidden agenda, are taken for granted. The spineless politicians need the religious leaders on their side so they're happy to do some condemning too.

The Birmingham Rep themselves aren't absolved of the blame entirely either - they've refused to say much on the controversy apart from re-issues their statements, giving the impression they don't care much for the criticism.


Why the play should go ahead
What it comes down to is a matter of principle. If British Asians in the media, as journalists, authors, playwrights, producers or directors, are to move forward in their field then they will want to use their own thoughts and experiences. The idea that every British Asian has to represent their own community (in a good or a bad light) needs to be made redundant.

Their job isn't, and cannot be, to 'represent' such a diverse community. They can only say what they feel, otherwise the work isn't authentic and comes across as fake. You only have to consider the debacle over the Ferreiras in Eastenders as an example.

In this creative space, race has moved far ahead of religion primarily because the religious leaders only want positive portrayals to appear. How far does the responsibility of the artist stretch? Is the play really inciting racial or religious hatred as some claim? Compare a fictional black comedy to a speech by Nick Griffin and its easy to see how foolhardy such a comparison is.

The author doesn't want to talk about abuse or corruption in a community hall, she wants to talk about such issues in a Sikh Temple. This context is important and I'm not surprised she stuck by it. Are most Sikhs 'disgusted' by the play? Well not the ones I've talked to who have seen it. Yes it might be provocative but so what? So was the Passion of Christ but I didn't see Jews burning effigies of Mel Gibson and destroying cinemas.

While the grievances of Sikhs feeling ignored and the arts establishment being suspiciously inconsistent are legitimate, they don't justify the events of the past week. They definitely don't justify the threats made towards her. This is the work of thugs on par with the BNP and yet not many want to condemn them with as much gusto. It's obviously more ok for people to be riled up about their beliefs than race.

What we needed was more debate. The issues need to be brought out and all parties should have been involved. What actually happened was that the demand for placing it out of a Gurdwara didn't happen, so people are using violence to make themselves heard. They don't want to debate because it might bring out skeletons from their closets.

The whole saga stinks of hypocrisy, a point Gupreet Kaur Bhatti is making in her own play. Pity it is playing out in real life so close to home.




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