Dishonoured?

I caught the Behzti thing in bits and pieces while absconding from Kitabkhana. Bhatti’s play has raised a huge furore in the UK:

“An offer to stage a play, which had been cancelled after violent protests by members of the Sikh community, was withdrawn last night following a request by the playwright who has gone into hiding after receiving death threats.

Neal Foster, who runs the Birmingham Stage Company, had called for the theatre world to unite to stage simultaneous readings of Behzti (Dishonour), which has been dropped by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre after the mass protest.” The play depicted rape, sexual abuse and murder inside a gurdwara. The BBC profiled Bhatti, and over 700 artists have signed a petition protesting the death threats against her, arguing that the Sikh community’s protests threaten freedom of speech. Sikh elders have appealed to the community and asked that the death threats be withdrawn.

Comparisons to Rushdie might seem inevitable, but I’d suggest they aren’t in order. I share Rahul Verma’s cynicism about the coverage of the Behzti furore.

“Without being overly cynical or conspiratorial, after David Blunkett’s resignation, the Blunkett story was over and analysed to death by the end of the weekend.

You can almost see the news editors’ eyes lighting up. What have we here? A play causing problems amongst a minority religious community? Sounds interesting? Yes. Get down and cover it. Which is what every single news outlet across TV, Radio, and print did.

With pens, cameras and microphones trained on the difference of opinion between Birmingham Rep and the Sikh community, it was always likely to snowball into a stand off. It’s just a shame that it was a violent stand off, that reflects badly on the Asian community as a whole, reinforcing stereotypes of an anachronistic, intolerant community (honour killings, Salman Rushdie).”

The Guardian buried this interesting point in the middle of this piece:

“Inderjit Singh of the Sikh Messenger newspaper and contributor to the Thought for the Day slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said: “The level of protest did not surprise me. This has been building up over a few weeks, they were protesting and not being heeded.” He said the depth of anger came from the feeling among Sikhs that the play was singling them out: “It took all the nasty aspects of life, and put them in the holiest place, a temple, and that is grossly insulting.”

What is clear is that some in the Sikh community, while unhappy about the play’s content, wanted it to continue and are dismayed by its closure.”

So there we go again. A community protests at what some members see as a gross distortion of their lives. Some, and the few do not speak for the whole, threaten the writer and force her into hiding. This is terrible; there is no excuse for what happened here. But there is no excuse, either, for the manner in which the Sikhs have been portrayed as just another bunch of ignorant bigots, with no attempt to capture the complexities of the community’s reaction. Many Sikhs would not have agreed with those who stormed the Birmingham Rep, just as many Hindus thoroughly deplored the few who ransacked the Bhandarkar Library out of misguided bigotry a year ago.

As for the play, I know that convention says one must not speak ill of any work under threat of censorship. But these two excerpts make it clear to me, at least, that I will be defending Bhatti’s right to continue writing plays like Behzti as a matter of principle–not as a matter of literary judgement. Having said that, I’m all for bringing Behzti back to the theatres. Just don’t expect me to stand in line for front-row seats.

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