Behzti (in Punjabi, Dishonour) is a play written by the British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. The play sparked controversy in the United Kingdom in December 2004. A controversial scene set in a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) included scenes of rape, physical abuse and murder. Some members of the Sikh community found the play deeply offensive to their faith. On the opening night, 18 December 2004, at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (The Rep), in Birmingham, England, a protest organised by local Sikh leaders faced violence that erupted among the protesters. Performances of the play at the Rep were cancelled two days later.
The opening night performance on 18 December 2004 was cancelled after violence erupted among protesters gathered around the theatre. Three people were arrested for public order offences. Three police officers were injured. The Sikh protest organizers stated that they did not support the violence of a minority of protesters, and stated they would be happy to see minor changes in the script so that the play was not set in a Sikh temple.
Sewa Singh Mandla, organiser of the protest and chairman of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras in Birmingham, stated:
In a Sikh temple, sexual abuse does not take place, kissing and dancing don't take place, rape doesn't take place, homosexual activity doesn't take place, murders do not take place.
On 20 December 2004, after an emergency meeting of the theatre management, and discussions involving the local Sikh community, West Midlands Police and the Commission for Racial Equality, The Rep decided to cancel the play.
Response to protest and cancellation
Supporters of the play said the cancellation was an affront to freedom of speech. More than 700 arts figures, including Prunella Scales, Tariq Ali, Terry Jones, Andrew Motion, Jude Kelly, Richard Eyre, Ayub Khan-Din, Willy Russell, Jonathan Coe, Sheila Hancock, Timothy West, and Samuel West signed a letter in support of the playwright. The letter read, in part:
We all have the right to protest peacefully if a work of art offends us. We do not have the right to use violence and intimidation to prevent that work of art from being seen by others.
Professor Gurharpal Singh, writing in The Guardian, criticised the protests against the play for promoting an outdated view of Sikhs, and the establishment "promotion of religion in public life" as ignoring internal tensions in communities and stifling dissent.
The author responded
Religion and art have collided for centuries, and will carry on doing battle long after my play and I are forgotten. The tension between who I am, a British-born Sikh woman, and what I do, which is write drama, is at the heart of the matter. These questions of how differences in perspective and belief are negotiated in Britain today will, I hope, continue to bring about a lively and vital debate.
Stephen Glover, writing for The Daily Mail, as reported by sikhtimes.com, commented that while deploring censorship, he did feel a "degree of sympathy for the Sikhs", and found it hard "not to admire" the defence of their beliefs.
Dr. Sarita Malik, writing for ArtsProfessional magazine, noted that the reaction to Behzti showed a sharp divide between minorities and the art community.
One protester, Pritpal Singh, unsuccessfully appealed his conviction, arguing that the assembly was legal and that his rights were violated by the order to disperse. Lady Justice Hallett, speaking for the majority, said the defendant's claim failed to address the rights of those who were frightened or endangered by the protest.
Dr. Jasdev Singh Rai, writing for The Guardian, criticised the play as sensationalist and the negative portrayal of Sikh protest against the play as showing that colonial attitudes towards ethnic minorities remain.
Helen Cross, writing in The Birmingham Post, described Behzti as "a terrific new play". She went on to say that it was "offensive, and furious and bloodthirsty and angry in all the right places." She noted that much of the action took place in a Gurdwara, and described the play as a "searing comedy" that included rape, abuse, murder, but was "hugely funny, touching and tremendously important." She further credited the writer's ability to "expose hypocrisy and pretence where they find it."
Professor Christie Davies, in an essay published by the Social Affairs Unit, an NGO, noted that he had not seen the play, but that he had read it, and could "imagine" how it could be performed. Davies described it as a "clumsy patch-work quilt with weak and hurried stitching."
Asians in Media magazine said of the play: "If you're looking for some witty and thought provoking drama then Behzti is definitely for you. Gurpreet's new play is set in a Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) and explores a number of themes with a variety of interesting characters. "
The play has been translated into French by Rudi Bekaert and performed in Brussels on 16 November 2005. It was produced in Belgium and France in October–December 2006. It was published (in French) by the theatre publisher Les Solitaires Intempestifs.
Mohan Singh, a local Sikh community leader, said: "When they're doing a play about a Sikh priest raping somebody inside a gurdwara, would any religion take it?"
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, said the play was offensive to people of all faiths: "The right to freedom of expression has corresponding duties to the common good. Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion."
- Tale of rape at the temple sparks riot at theatre, Tania Branigan, The Guardian, 20 December 2004, retrieved 9 June 2009
- 'It's sad we live in a culture where the taking of offence is sufficient excuse for violence', The Independent, 21 December 2004, retrieved 9 June 2009
- Writer in hiding as violence closes Sikh play, Tania Branigan and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, 21 December 2004, retrieved 9 June 2009
- Stars sign letter in support of playwright in hiding, Tania Branigan, The Guardian, 23 December 2004, retrieved 9 June 2009
- Sikhs are the real losers from Behzti, Professor Gurharpal Singh
- "This warrior is fighting on". The Guardian. 13 January 2005.
- GLOVER, STEPHEN (21 December 2004). "Abhor Violence, Not Protest". Sikhtimes.com. Retrieved 9 June 2009.
- Malik, Sarita (4 July 2005). "Censorship – Life after Behzti". ArtsProfessional magazine. Retrieved 9 June 2009.
- "Sikh play protester loses appeal: The use of anti-social behaviour laws to break up a protest by Sikhs against a controversial play worked well, the Court of Appeal has ruled". BBC. 28 July 2006. Retrieved 9 June 2009.
- Behind Behtzi, Dr Jasdev Singh Rai, The Guardian
- Cross, Helen (21 December 2004). "Behzti, Birmingham Repertory Theatre Gripping and essential: an offensive yet searing comedy". The Independent. Retrieved 9 June 2009.
- "The Social Affairs Unit addresses social, economic and cultural issues with an emphasis on the value of personal responsibility. We research, challenge and debate issues from welfare to warfare, always seeking to draw out the role of the individual's obligations."
- Davies, Christie (7 February 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". The Social Affairs Unit. Retrieved 6 June 2009. "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!"
- "Behzti (dishonour) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti – reviewed", Asians in Media Magazine, 13 December 2004
- Bezhti author wins prize for women playwrights, Louise Jury, The Independent, 8 March 2005, retrieved 9 June 2009
- "XXVII. 2004–05". blackburnprize.org. 3/07/05 (award date). Retrieved 9 June 2009.
- "British Twist New Writing" (in English, French). the British Council. not dated. Retrieved 9 June 2009.
- Bhatti, Gurpreet Kaur; Bekaert, Rudi (French translation) (October 2006). Behzti (Déshonneur). Collection Bleue (in Francais). Les Solitaires Intempestifs. p. 176. ISBN 2-84681-175-X. Retrieved 9 June 2009.
- Sikhs storm theatre in protest over play, Nick Britten, The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2004, retrieved 19 April 2011
- Stephen Glover of The Daily Mail – Abhor Violence, Not Protest
- Times Online – Extremists hijacked play protest
- Birmingham Repertory Theatre
- BBC News – Theatre ends play in Sikh protest
- Daily Telegraph – Violent Sikh demo forces theatre to cancel play
- Dr Sarita Malik – Censorship – life six months after Behzti
- BBC News: Protest play could find new venue