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Vaheguru Jee Ka Khalsa, Vaheguru Jee Kee Fateh !


The Sikh Community would like to take this opportunity to outline the series of events that led up to the demonstration on Saturday 18th December outside the Birmingham REP Theatre. We wish to explain why the Sikh community objected to the use of a Gurudwara (temple) and Sikh symbols in the play, measures taken by the Sikh community to negotiate an agreement with The REP Theatre/Miss Gurpreet Bhatti and details of the actual demonstrations that took place up to Saturday 18th December.

Sikh Objections

There has been a certain level of confusion and inaccuracy by the media as to the objections that Sikhs have for ‘Behzti’. A key point that needs to be outlined is that at no time during the discussions before the play was shown, or during the demonstrations was a request made for the play to be stopped. Also, the issue of rape, abuse, homosexuality and murder were not objected to.

They were two key objections that the Sikh community raised with the REP Theatre: The use and location of a Gurudwara as the setting for the play and the use of Sikh symbols within the play.

The use of a Gurudwara has caused great offence due to the role that it plays within the daily life of Sikhs. There have been numerous occasions where the Gurudwara has been equated to a church or another religious building. It is far more than a building within which worship takes place. Each Gurudwara is the home of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib, 11th Guru of the Sikhs. Therefore it is a place where Sikhs meet there Guru (teacher), and becomes the centrepiece of their daily life as a whole.

Regarding the use of Sikh symbols within the play, there were a number of occasions in the production where great disrespect was shown. On one occasion, the Sikh turban is placed on a shoe rack. This is a deeply disrespectful act which may seem negligible to a western critic but nevertheless offensive in the eyes of a Sikh. The turban is the ‘crown’ of each Sikh and is regarded with the utmost respect. During the World Wars Sikhs fought side by side with Allied troops, their turbans replacing the generic helmet. This is the extent to which Sikhs respect the turban.

The use of other Sikh symbols was to create the Gurdwara context for the play. However the symbols were in actual fact abused in the name of comedy. The pretence of the Guru Granth Sahib Jee (Holy Scriptures) present on stage may have been an imitation but still makes a mockery of the living embodiment of the 11th Guru in the Sikh religion. Pictures of the Sikh Gurus and other important figures featuring in Sikh history, religious swords and the 'Ek-Onkar' symbol (the Name of God) are amongst some of the Sikh symbols used as a backdrop to the production. The disrespect of sacred symbols in this manner is highly offensive and in our eyes completely unnecessary to the storyline of Behzti.

Quite naively the press have led us to believe 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 in particular have been openly and constantly harassed after 9/11 for their turbans and beards and thus feel a strong need for education of their faith.

Thus representation of the Sikhs to the masses in the UK has been almost non-existent. That is until the play was commissioned in one of the largest multi-cultural cities of the UK. Behzti, a self-titled black comedy will by its nature exaggerate ordinary characters and situations far beyond the limits of normal satire or irony using morbid and grotesque humour. Obviously, this disturbs many of the Sikh faith who realise that the audience with little prior knowledge on Sikhism, may indeed mistake the events in the play as a true representation of the Sikh community. For this reason the play is highly damaging in educating the audience on a faith who’s values are already confused with that of other religions.

Negotiations with the REP Theatre

Negotiations between the REP theatre and Sikh representatives took place in October 2004, over two months before the opening night of the production. The REP approached the Sikh community, which itself suggests that it acknowledged the fact the production would cause offence. The Sikh representatives put forward their concerns regarding the use of a Gurudwara and Sikh symbols. They requested that Sikh symbols be removed from the play and the location of the Gurudwara be changed to an alternative venue. No request was made for the content of the play to be changed.

The REP was not willing to make any concessions, other than the reading and distribution of a statement made by the Sikh community regarding the production and Sikh faith. This left the Sikh representatives dissatisfied. Mr Arun Arora (Director of Communications, Diocese of Birmingham 2000-04) in his letter to The Times states:

“It was clear that the play had the capacity to cause serious offence. I made the playwright and the Rep aware of this and both sought to consult widely with the Sikh Community prior to staging the play. It is clear to me that no changes were made to the play after the consultation and I believe that the theatre underestimated the depth of reaction that the play clearly had the capacity to provoke. The issue is not free speech or censorship. Rather it is a matter of religious sensitivity and respect.â€

The Times, 22nd December 2004, p14

Demonstrations leading up to the 18th December 2004

Peaceful demonstrations began on the 9th December at the REP theatre in Birmingham. Demonstrators gave out literature and were able to enter the REP theatre itself and talk to both representatives of the REP and members of the public. These peaceful demonstrations continued up each day until the 15th December 2004. It is a shame these demonstrations were not acknowledged by any of the national or even local media.

On the 15th December 2004 the demonstration had grown to approximately 130 participants. There were a number of discussion between protesters and members of the Police and REP theatre. It was highlighted that the number of protesters was increasing and frustration was growing. It was suggested that a compromise needed to be reached to resolve the matter sensibly. The Police agreed to explore any action points on their part which could be taken against the production.

On the 16th December 2004 the protests continued. They were approximately 15 protesters who were expecting a response from the Police based on the discussions that took place the previous day. At 1.15pm protesters were issued notices under Section 3 of the Public Order Act preventing them from demonstrating outside the REP theatre as they had been doing in the past, greatly frustrating the protesters in the process. They were given a space away from the theatre within which to protest. This greatly frustrated the demonstrators. When protesters requested the right to be allowed to protest outside the REP theatre, the Police arrested three demonstrators in a unnecessarily aggressive manner (they were thrown to the floor and handcuffed by eight policemen). These protestors were respected members of the Sikh community, some of whom were protesting with their young children. It was noted that the attitude of the Police was much more aggressive than it was co-operative. This was evident in the evening with a further arrest and more Police provocation.

On the 17th December 2004 protesters continued to protest peacefully with no major incidents taking place.

Demonstration on 18th December 2004

This was by far the largest protest so far with approximately 800 protesters, including men, women and children. This was partly due to the unjust arrests that had taken place previously and wider awareness of the production. The protests began peacefully with prayer at 6.00pm.

It was at approximately 7.30pm that certain protesters became confrontational. We wish to make it clear that we do not in any way condone the damage that was caused to the REP theatre or the conduct of certain protesters. However, they way in which the incident was portrayed by the media needs to bee addressed.

To begin, the confrontation was committed by a small element of the protesters, not at all by the entire gathering as has been implied by the media. It lasted for a relatively short period of time, approximately 20 minutes. Three police men were injured, some windows were broken, there was damage to the foyer door and equipment and 800 people were evacuated. The media only focused on the negative elements of the protest which was evidently in the minority. They did not try to examine why the protesters were frustrated, they did not mention the many days of peaceful protests, they did not mention the arrests that had taken place previously. They portrayed the Sikhs as a whole as violent thugs who had no appreciation for free speech or peaceful protesting. This is striking compared to the media coverage of the protests conducted by the Country side Alliance in London, when they were violent scenes between protesters and Police as five protesters stormed the Commons.

Claire Gorst was a protester outside The REP on the 18th December and has provided the following account:

“Most of the media have sensationalised the mood of the protest. I was there in the company of mothers, grandmothers and children. There was no atmosphere of malevolence and no anticipation of violence. What occurred was neither condoned nor incited by the Sikh community leaders. Most of us left without any knowledge that damage had been caused…the media must not be complicit in promoting the very misunderstanding that caused this controversy.â€

The Times, 22nd December 2004, p14

Cancellation of Behzti at the REP Theatre

Following the events of the 18th December 2004, a meeting was held on the 20th December 2004 between Sikh leaders, the Police and The REP Theatre representatives. The REP were still unwilling to make the changes requested by the Sikh community thus the Sikh Leaders explained how they had no other option but to continue with the protests. The protesters had increased in number and more Sikhs were expected to participate from around the country if the performance continued. Due to security fears that the REP believed they faced a decision was made to stop the showing of Behzti over the Christmas period. The Sikh leaders accepted the decision, not as what they had wanted, but as the best and most ‘common sense’ decision based on current circumstances.

The events that have taken place over the last week have not benefited any party. As Sikhs we have been heavily and unfairly criticised by the media and public, who we feel do not have a full understanding of the Sikh objections to Behzti, do not understand the events that led up to the demonstration on the 18th December 2004 and lack even a basic understanding of our faith and history. For a visible community that has prospered and excelled in every quarter of society for many decades, we feel it grossly unfair that current events have led Sikhs to be represented in the media in such a damaging way.

We value and respect the right to freedom of expression and speech no less than any other community. In fact over 90,000 Sikhs died and over 110, 000 were wounded during World War 1 & 2 fighting for Britain to preserve these very rights. We do however feel it is an illusion, to argue that you can say whatever you like to whoever you want in today’s multi-cultural society and current political climate. There are certain laws and regulations which protect against religious, racial and sexual offences. The United Nations declaration on Human Rights is a universal statement which provides us with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. This does not equate to freedom to offend and we do not feel that writers or artists should be exempt from this.

We would also question the motives of both the writer and the REP Theatre in terms of the production of Behzti. Why is that institutions such as the REP theatre continue to support and fund mediocre, sensationalist and provocative productions which simply demonise and portray Asian communities within a negative fashion. This is a very important issue which we feel needs to be addressed.

It does appear that Sikhs have been used as a scapegoat under the banner of free speech and censorship. Recently the BBC withdrew its fictional cartoon Popetown, due to concerns raised by the Catholic Community. Stuart Murphy, the channels controller stated that the comic impact of Popetown would:

"not outweigh the potential offence it will cause…There is a fine judgment line in comedy between the scurrilously funny and the offensive…I understand the world has changed since the series was originally commissioned and sympathize with the difficult decision the BBC has had to make."

Extract taken from www.bbc.co.uk

It is clear that this whole issue is one that needs to be debated with a sensible and well balanced outcome. It is evident that in many instances even basic awareness on the Sikh faith is lacking and is something which needs to be examined in greater depth. The Sikh community would also like to take this opportunity to state that it will continue to protect its faith, and when required, take appropriate lawful action.

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