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February 07, 2006

L'affaire Behzti: Christie Davies revisits the riot that ended the production of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep at the end of 2004 and the text of the play - and finds a very poor play and a public relations disaster for British Sikhs

Posted by Christie Davies

Behzti (dishonour)
by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti
Pp. 141. London: Oberon Modern Plays, 2004
Paperback, £10

The opinions expressed by those quoted in this essay are their own - they are not those of Prof. Christie Davies and are not endorsed by Prof. Davies.

The views expressed in this essay as a whole are those of Prof. Davies, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti is not a good play. One has to sympathise with our British Sikhs for their having been insulted with such a lack of skill. I have not seen the play but it has been published and I have read it. I can easily imagine how it would have been produced and the kinds of ill thought-out adjustments that must have gone on when it was being staged. The text I have read is the one that was performed in the world premier in Birmingham Repertory Theatre in December 2004 - before the riot closed it down.

Behzti is a clumsy patch-work quilt with weak and hurried stitching. The language is banal and full of clichés. There are ethnic chants and songs to cheer up the Punjabis in the audience. They no doubt also served to give the other Brummies that false thrill of seeing something "authentic", as do the crude bits of anthropology that come up from time to time. In the written version there is a glossary of Punjabi words but the obscenities are, needless to say, all in English. The play begins with a naked Sikh woman in her late fifties having a bath on stage. Later two other Sikh women have a coarse conversation in the gurdwara, the Sikh temple, that ends up in a punch-up. You do need to be told in the programme notes that the author Miss Bhatti has written nine episodes of Eastenders. It shows.

The plot is just as bad. It runs like this: the widow Balbir Kaur (Kaur is a generic Sikh female name, much as Singh is for men), crippled by illness, is looked after by her daughter Min, who lives with her. She is worried that her daughter, now in her thirties and as fat as a "buffalo", will not marry. Mrs Kaur has asked Mr Sandhu - Chairman of the Gurdwara Renovation Committee and the local fixer - to find a nice Sikh boy for her. Min and her mother's carer - Elvis, from social services - take Mrs Kaur in a wheelchair to the gurdwara for a festival. Mrs Kaur has secretly arranged that Mr Sandhu will talk to Min and tell her whom he has found for her. Instead Mr Sandhu reveals to Min that he had had a passionate homosexual relationship with her father who then killed himself but that he is now attracted to her.

Mr Sandhu proceeds to rape her on the floor of his office in the gurdwara, while the faithful sing holy songs in the next room, leaving Min with blood stains on her clothing. When the ladies of the gurdwara next see Min, they assume she has defiled the holy place by menstruating and beat her up.

Min eventually tells them that she was raped but Sandhu says he wants to marry Min. One of the other women now reveals that Sandhu has not got a list of eligible spouses but pretends he has in order to molest sexually young Sikhs of both sexes. He had even raped this woman in front of her own mother.

Mrs Balbir Kaur, despite being unable to move without a zimmer frame, now murders Mr Sandhu using a kirpan, the sacred sword of the Sikhs . She exchanges pious ejaculations with her daughter to sanctify the killing. Min now takes up with Elvis from social services - a skinny black man - and she starts a new liberated and exciting life. "How will it all work out?", one wonders but we are not supposed to think that.

Gosh! Cripes! Homosexual passion, serial rape and a miraculous murder in the holy gurdwara. What excitement! How the advanced provincial bourgeoisie must have gripped their seats! What animated chats about it they must have had in the bus going home! How the hearts of the all white management and production team of the Brummie Rep must have glowed at their own emancipated boldness! Let me give you a flavour of the text, not from the truly batty last sections about rape and murder, but some earlier asides about Mr Sandhu's daughter's shoes:

Teetee Parmar: …..These are the foot holders of a queen, a goddess with a decent pair of trotters at the end of her tree trunks.

Polly Dhodhar: [The shoes are] Sandhu's daughter's.

Teetee: That runt who vomits her dinner down the carsey [sic]? Least daddy can buy her new ones. Is she married yet?

Polly: I heard she's a muff diver.

No doubt this is supposed to link in to Mr Sandhu's later statement that he and others hand their problems down to their children but the reference to his lesbian "stick insect" daughter's bulimia and taste for that old Irish tongue twister cunnilingus is in fact gratuitous. Another piece of witty obscene repartee to titillate the Midlanders.

You can see why the Sikhs of the West Midlands were not pleased. What particularly annoyed them was that the sexual goings-on took place in the gurdwara and that a sacred symbol was used to commit the murder. The local Sikh elders asked that the setting (and by implication the sword) of the play be changed to a Sikh community centre. Miss Bhatti refused on the grounds of artistic integrity, i.e. there would be less shock-horror. She had a point. Imagine how a male Roman Catholic Liverpool playwright would feel if his play - that culminated in a priest sodomizing an altar boy on the cathedral altar - were relocated to the staff cloakroom of a school run by the Christian Brothers because of an objection by an Archbishop. I give this as a purely hypothetical example. I would not want it to be thought that I give credence to the increasingly common, scurrilous rumours about those holy, pious, wholly pious, universally respected, sworn to celibacy, Fathers and Brothers seducing children. I am not saying such things do not happen, merely that they can not happen.

The negotiations broke down and the play was performed as Miss Bhatti had commanded. There was a peaceful demonstration outside the theatre. Four hundred well-filled turbans and untrimmed beards waggled and wagged in Cemetery Square, next to the theatre. This was entirely right and proper, a thoroughly British, well-disciplined demonstration. Then it turned nasty. A group of young Sikhs stoned and stormed the theatre, attacked the security guards, smashed windows and equipment, set off the fire alarms and forced everybody to leave the building. In the eyes of the British government, they had exercised the inalienable right of an ethnic minority to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. Five police officers were hurt and three arrests made.

The Sikh elders could give no guarantee that there would not be further incidents if the production continued. The West Midlands police would probably have been willing to provide stronger protection but theatre-goers are not the bravest of people. Besides the other production in the building was a children's play by Roald Dahl. What decent parent is going to risk his or her children's safety to prop up a bad play? Also, the theatre is subsidised by the EU's European Regional Development Fund. If the theatre had become a centre of a conflict with an ethnic minority, who could be confident that this grant would not have been withdrawn - without giving any reason? The theatre management had no choice but to stop the production. The play has never been revived nor will anyone dare to try and put it on in any venue within travelling distance of a large Sikh community.

Censorship by the mob had arrived in Britain with the entire approval of the British government. It was a useful prelude to their proposal - now watered down through the government's defeats in two crucial votes in the House of Commons - for legislation prohibiting religious hatred and indeed any serious criticism of minority religions. Does anyone seriously doubt that in future the only plays to offend religious sensitivities that will be staged will be those that offend Christians - and Protestant Christians at that? Don't think you can look forward to Salman Rushdie: The Musical. Not merely did the government not support Miss Bhatti's freedom of speech, but it lied about what had happened, suggesting that there had never been any violence in the first place. Meanwhile Miss Bhatti was forced to leave her home and go into hiding and her family were abused and harassed. In fairness to the Sikh leaders, they did their best to put a stop to this, which is more than can be said of the government.

The French journalist , Agnes Poirier, noted in Libération that Fiona Mactaggart, Under Secretary of State for Race Equality, was pleased that the cancellation of the play had calmed matters, but also that Mactaggart had not had a word to say about the continuing death threats to Miss Bhatti and that the Minister of Culture had said nothing throughout. The French clearly regarded official Britain's behaviour as showing the British political elite's utter disregard for artistic freedom. It has come to something when one is forced to agree with expressions of contempt about Britain uttered by the French. How low can you sink?

Predictably the theatre luvvies were outraged when Behzti was closed down. More than four hundred of them signed a letter to The Guardian in favour of the right of artists to be controversial and offend. For most of them it was an act of total hypocrisy, since neither they nor The Guardian believe in freedom of speech if it offends against political correctness.

The Sikhs saw through all the Grauniad-style humbug straight away. Here is an internet comment from a British Sikh:

To those who claim artists' rights of freedom of speech, I have some questions:

Would the rep have commissioned such a work from a white writer?

Would they have been allowed to stage a play set in a gurdwara depicting rape there, if it had been penned by a white person?

Why would a white writer not be allowed this freedom of speech?

This is merely insults by the back door, using free speech and positive discrimination as a shield.

That is exactly the point. There is no freedom of speech for any white playwright whose work can be arbitrarily branded "racist", even if no element of incitement is involved. His or her work would be banned on the grounds that it was "offensive" or that "it reinforced stereotypes". The luvvies would never let it be staged. Anyone who produced it would never get work again. The government or the local council or the EU or whoever was subsidising the theatre would withdraw the theatre's grant. If such a play were a commercial success, the theatre and those going to it would be attacked by a combined mob of liberal luvvies, violent Trotskyites and members of ethnic criminal gangs.

When it suits them, liberals are quite happy for the mob to deny freedom of speech. It is called "no platform for fascists", a term so wide as to include anyone who is not a left-wing nutter. There would be a massive police absence. Government ministers would claim that the theatre had provoked the violence or that the violence had never occurred anyway, even if the entire building had been demolished by a left-wing mob and the author badly beaten-up. There is no freedom of speech in Britain and everyone knows it. If a group is classed as "a scheduled minority" by those who hold power in British society, then they can not be depicted in a seriously negative way in a play written by an outsider because that would be defined as "racism".

Yet Miss Bhatti's play was seriously offensive to the Sikhs and all the more so because she came from a Sikh family and described herself as a Sikh. The same thing had happened eighty years before with Caradoc Evans' equally badly-written play Taffy, when it was first performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London on 26th February, 1923, starring Edith Evans. In Taffy, Welsh Christians are shown as only motivated by sex and money, even when they are discussing who is to become the next minister of the chapel. The London Welsh - members of an insecure, downtrodden, immigrant minority - demonstrated and those of them who had bought tickets disrupted the performance by shouting catcalls. Caradoc Evans's attacks on religion and the "integrity and intelligence of the common people" were described as "savagely hurtful" by the Welsh.

The English gave this bizarre portrayal of a small, pious ethnic and religious minority in Taffy the same kind of praise they were to give to Behzti eighty years later:

The Welsh are said to be a thin-skinned and hot-tempered race and some sort of protest was not surprising against so fierce and acrid a satire as this on certain aspects of the Welsh character [The Times].

Novel, interesting and humorous – in rather a grim way [Daily Mail].

All that Mr Evans has to say – and pretty sordid some of it is – bears the stamp of first hand observation and knowledge [The Observer].

His vilification of the South Welsh is the outcome of his love for Wales [The Spectator].

Caradoc Evans and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are cousins under the skin. You don't have to be brown to be a minority grievously insulted by one of its own playwrights or patronised by the English.

Even in the 1950s Welsh ministers of religion would still comb second-hand bookshops for copies of Caradoc Evans' works, buy them up and burn them. His portrait was slashed in a gallery and no safe place could be found for it. You have been warned, Miss Bhatti. You may get into Madame Tussaud's but you won't stay there long. Your wax will wane. If Caradoc Evans had been English, no one would have been bothered to protest; who in Wales cares about the caretaker in The Caretaker? Mockery from the outside is fine, indeed expected, appropriate and appreciated but from the inside it is treachery. Everyone loves Evelyn Waugh and his creation Dr Fagan but Caradoc Evans became "the most hated man in Wales". Take note, Miss Bhatti.

The other piece of liberal snivelling used to prevent and censor "racist" plays is to argue that they promote or reinforce harmful stereotypes. Liberals use this argument as surely and obdurately to make sure plays they dislike can never be staged, as the Lord Chamberlain used indecency in the case of obscene and blasphemous ones. No appeal is possible.

The Sikhs are wise to that one too. Here is what they said about Behzti on the internet:

I suggest that we use the tactic that this is racism based on the fact that this is promoting stereotypical images of Sikh men and women.

Racism/casteism is based on reinforcing stereotypes of people. By giving an image of the submissive Sikh/Asian woman and the overbearing Sikh/Asian man these women [Miss Bhatti & co.] are reinforcing racist beliefs that some of the more ignorant sections of the British community have of us. I find the fact that these women show Sikh/Asian women to be meek and helpless in their plays/films very offensive. It is Miss Bhatti and ……that alone suffer from inferiority complexes and problems of low esteem and massive egos that they wish their names to be up there in bright lights. A Sikh does not seek fame and notoriety as these pair of idiots have sought.

There is one other stereotype that the play, albeit quite unwittingly, reinforces through the person of the gormless black man Elvis. Miss Bhatti obviously likes and approves of Elvis but he fits a stereotype of blacks widely held by Asians and those from the Maghreb, one most memorably discussed by the great Arab founder of sociology Abd-al-Rahman Muhammad Ibn Khaldun in The Muqaddimah:
Negroes … are found eager to dance whenever they hear a melody. They are everywhere described as stupid.
That I'm afraid is how many Asians are going to perceive Elvis, because they already have this image in their heads. Miss Bhatti may not have intended it but she has in addition caricatured the black man as a "noble savage", as one who stands outside the wickedness of the scheming, grasping, civilised Sikhs.

The response in the play of the Sikhs in the gurdwara to the presence of Elvis is odd, particularly in their use of language. The women in the temple are a foul-mouthed lot whose use of language is free of all restraint. There are no white people in the play but there are dismissive, contemptuous, throw-away references to those who are gora (white). Mr B. D. Thompson (his initials signify a small, cheap Indian cigarette), a building contractor, is referred to as "that gora cowboy". Teetee Parmar speaks of:

Being spat at by little goreh (sic) children.
Now folks from the Punjab who use gora in this way also habitually refer to blacks as kala, kalay (black, blackie) and as hubshee (woolly head Negro). They are not complimentary terms but they are exactly the words the Sikhs in the play would normally use, even in front of Elvis, whom they would presume did not know them. You will not find them in the text. So much for Miss Bhatti's famous grasp of and devotion to coarse realism.

There are hints that Elvis's presence in the gurdwara is an uneasy one but he is sufficiently welcome for one of the middle-aged Sikh ladies to make an aggressive, sexual pass at him. He is nowhere to be seen when Min is raped or when she is beaten up by the ladies of the gurdwara. The ending where Min embraces and we assume runs off with Elvis probably horrified Britain's Sikhs as much as the desecration of the temple. They can not say that publicly but privately they do.

The fact of the matter is that many British Asians despise blacks and many British blacks resent Asians. These resentments stem both from cultural assumptions long pre-dating either groups arrival in the UK and also from differences in levels of economic achievement. I have seen and studied at first hand the anti-Semitic-type hatred of Asians by Africans in East Africa and the way darkness of skin is a source of low status in India. If an Asian family in England were to learn that their daughter had run off with a Jamaican there would be an explosion and quite possibly violent reprisals.

In private the Sikhs did talk about this aspect of the play, resented it, saw it as a provocation and related it to the fact that the thirty-six year old, unmarried Miss Bhatti lived with a West African theatre chap. Indeed they got quite insulting:

I am glad that all this publicity on her private life has come out. I imagine the local Sikhs in Watford used to ask her family what she did and they probably said something about a city media job – at least the locals know now it's a third rate playwright by day and entertaining a big butch Kala by night.

I was right – Gurpreet Bhatti gets her inspiration from her Black Lover.

I said that Gurpreet Bhatti was probably another Gurinder Chaddaa – I was right. Now I see why the two plays she wrote speak of Behsharam and Behzti – as they describe her character, she is 35 years old, unmarried and living with her English art director boyfriend. She is no more Sikh than Adolf Hitler was Christian. Being born to Sikh parents was probably her only Sikh link. She is no longer at the house she shares with lover and boyfriend in North London who is an art director. She is in hiding. Are these her ideas - or is it pillow talk from a man from another faith?

Shameless ***** !!!- I am sorry - I try not to get that wound up and tried to curb my insulting language – but what sort of **** parents would be proud of this ***** of a daughter. Why don't they tell her to don high heels, stockings and basque and parade on Balsall Heath common at £20 a time if she is that desperate for cash.

The entire Behzti incident was for Britain both a disaster and welcome exposure of hypocrisy. It was a public relations disaster for British Sikhs. At a time when Muslims had been labelled the "bad Asians" - the violent ones, the extremists, the fundamentalists - Sikhs were in a position to become in the public eye the "good Asians" - law abiding, hard-working, British patriots. Now this image has been put in jeopardy - by those Sikhs protesting against a foolish play that would soon have been forgotten anyway. Temporary silence would have been a better strategy, together with a total and explicitly hostile boycott of the state sponsored multi-cultural yartz industry and of those Sikhs sucked into it.

Sikhs are caught in a bind by positive discrimination. An individual Sikh can use it to achieve money, status, employment and the love of the luvvies at the expense of someone else who is more talented but happens to be gora but you, the Sikh, will have to conform to the ideas and prejudices of a tiny progressive white elite. You will have to become a freethinker who abjures the traditional and the particular and become a sort of Sikh equivalent of the Anglican clergyperson who denies the Resurrection, the divinity of Christ and the reality of an after-life but "believes passionately in equality". Also you must not be a British patriot, however fiercely loyal you are to Britain. Being British, like being Sikh, has to be reduced to bloodless progressive abstractions such as "tolerance" or the "rule of law". On the contrary, you, as a Sikh, must reject the primordial aspects of each of your two identities and yet also create an artificial tension between being British and being Sikh.

Let us see what Sikhs had to say about Behzti in this regard:

Now a lot of you may be aware that I work in the West Country, mainly Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, so as you can imagine I've had a heck of a lot of people come up to me the last couple of days and ask me about the "play" situation. As you can imagine, because the English are by nature so "humanist" and anti-religion, most started off in favour of the rights of the play…… [English people] need to be told how they and their children are as much a victim of this woman's lack of talent as the Sikhs.

Positive discrimination is not only something that the white man detests and cannot stomach, it is also something that is against the main hardworking principles of Sikhism where we get somewhere through our own blood, sweat and tears. Trust me, if someone gets "picked" simply because the head writer is looking for an ethnically diverse writing group rather than "a talented writer", then we have all been tricked and are now paying the price because that person was "picked" solely because of her "ethnicity" rather than her talent and put in a position of social responsibility, found no "talent" to fall back upon and thus resorted to "shock tactics" that have set back community relations and race relations a few years.

So, got a niece or nephew that's just graduated and is looking for a job in the arts? Well then tell them the "score". Tell them of the "luvvie" Mafia they'll have to by-pass before they get their foot in the door. And to upset them even more, tell them how all those in the "luvvie" mafia are being paid by the government, through our tax money, in the name of race relations.

When you analyse those 5 names [the 5 Sikhs out of several hundred thousand British Sikhs who came out in favour of the play] you get an even "more interesting" insight into how our younger brothers/sisters/ nieces/nephews that will graduate from university and look for a job within the arts will face an uphill struggle in maintaining their faith and family traditions because the very people they will have to impress in order to get "that job" are the very people who are in favour of this play and against their faith.

I am not endorsing what any of these groups of Sikhs have said. In particular they are too cynical about Miss Bhatti and the luvvies. Luvvies are not dishonest. They merely lack any capacity for analytical thought. When I read Miss Bhatti's inane forward to her play and her pompous and self-important article in The Guardian (13th January 2005) I realised that she was utterly sincere - and a complete fool. What she wrote in these was grossly inferior to the comments of the Sikhs carelessly chatting on the internet whom I have quoted, both in subtlety of thought and in choice of English.

The Sikhs are quite rightly still angry, a year on after l'affaire Behzti, but the rest of us can now look back on it as one of those times of lucky exposure, when the real motives, the hypocrisy, self-deception and duplicity of the powerful have been revealed to us. The liberal veil has been torn away and the ugly face of positive discrimination and the elite's contempt for freedom of speech have been revealed.

Professor Christie Davies has done research on the position of Sikhs and other Asians in East Africa and been a visiting scholar at Punjab University in Chandigarh. His latest book Dewi the Dragon (Y Lolfa, 2006) is a "charming, heart-warming, romantic" story of Chinese immigrants in Wales.

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Am I right in connecting the socio-political milieu (or miasma) depicted here as also lying at the root of Sir Ian Blair's recent comments on the reporting of crime among ethnic minorities? Simply, have not our "mediocrities" decided that it won't do to report too often the nasty crimes that occur within ethnic "communities"?

Or am I just swinging too wildly through the jungle of ideas, like Eddington's Ape?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 8, 2006 06:41 PM

Brilliant! Thank you for that... I have just experienced a paradigm shift and will have to update my BLOG and my New Playwright Competition.

Posted by: Acid Drip at May 29, 2007 08:16 AM
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