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Freedom, Restraint and the Right to Offend

I.J. (Inder Jit) Singh is professor & co-ordinator of anatomy at New York University. Among other publications, he is the author of two books of essays: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias and The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress. He is on the editorial advisory board of The Sikh Review, Calcutta and is an advisor-at-large to The Sikh Times. I.J. Singh can be reached via email at Ravinder Singh Taneja lives in Westerville, Ohio and can be reached via email at

The Sikh Times, Jan. 1, 2005

Photo: Behzti (Dishonor)

For several weeks now the Internet and the press in the U.K. have been abuzz with criticism and comment on Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti (Dishonor). The play portrays sex, murder and abuse by a Sikh religious minister within the premises of a Sikh place of worship - a gurdwara.

Most Sikhs are upset and angry, but a few hotheads stormed the Birmingham Repertory Theater, clashing with police and pelting the audience with eggs. The theater cancelled the play triggering off a controversy.

The Sikh protestors were furious because they see the play as making a mockery of their faith and demeaning their place of worship. Artistic groups, on the other hand, view the protests as unwelcome attempts to curtail freedom of expression by mob intimidation. The playwright, herself a Sikh, insists that the play is not meant to insult the Sikh religion but deals instead with universal themes of corruption and abuse of power by authority figures, issues from which the Sikhs are not immune. Some Sikhs are obviously not impressed by her claim because threats to her life have forced her into hiding.

Does the theme of the play really demean a gurdwara? True, we wish violence and abuse should never happen, whether inside gurdwaras or anywhere else. But it does happen, does it not? Gurdwara personnel are only too human (like the rest of us) and subject to the same failings. We recall the times when, as little children, particularly young girls were warned not to stray to lonely sites, even if led there by gurdwara functionaries. Witness the regular scuffles and fights (of varying degrees and involving a range of weapons) for control of gurdwaras that occur with predictable regularity; or the very public charges of child molestation occasionally brought against Sikh ministers. Are these events not demeaning?

As a matter of fact, some contemporary events involving Sikh leaders also provide some revealing lessons. Bibi Jagir Kaur, head of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.) stands accused of murder, and a Sikh minister in London of rape, though neither seems to have occurred in a gurdwara. The late lamented Harbhajan Singh Yogi was accused of rape by some of his followers, and is reputed to have reached a financial settlement with at least one.

The notion that a Sikh gurdwara could be the venue for sexual exploitation and violence, while heinous and offensive, cannot be swept under the rug.

Certainly Sikhs are not alone in this: consider the painful process of long denial and reluctant acknowledgment of sexual molestation of children within the Roman Catholic Church that occurred over the past many decades. Also bear in mind that many monasteries and convents were connected by underground passages dotted with cemeteries that hold the remains of infants born contrary to Church teaching.

When such events occur, they deserve to be publicly criticized and our anger channeled into corrective steps. If not squarely faced, such problems remain buried and unchallenged; this happens and problems fester because there is embarrassment associated with them.

The Sikhs come largely from India, with its attendant cultural baggage of shame and an exaggerated but misplaced sense of honor. In matters of any perceived indignity, insult or embarrassment, we prefer to kill or be killed rather than air out the dirty linen. That is why vendettas are still the way of life in parts of the Punjab. That is why young girls are still killed by their fathers if they step out of the proscribed circle of morality and behavior. That is why in parts of the world 'honor' killing is not considered 'dishonorable.'

It would be absurd to suggest that the inappropriate behavior of some who call themselves Sikh in any way demeans the Sikh religion. It does not and cannot. Sikh teaching and philosophy is timeless. The fault lies not in the doctrine but in how many of us choose to follow it.

Countless books have been written and even some movies made on sexual sins within the Catholic Church. Yes, believers have been mortified but not often moved to the point of threatening the authors or artists with bodily harm. Not so long ago, Salman Rushdie wrote a largely unreadable book that Islamists found unbearably insulting. So the author was threatened with death. Which of the two examples cited here should we follow? Which is likely to lead to a better appreciation of Sikhism? Which one is more in tune with Sikh values? The angry reaction by some Sikhs tells us that the playwright has touched a raw nerve. Doesn't it also indicate that we are in denial and full of sanctimonious humbug? Our dismay is understandable but must we be so thin skinned?

Not having seen the play, we do not venture any opinion on its artistic merits, but certainly the hullabaloo that attracted considerable press, did no harm to its receipts. A commercial venture depends upon advertising for success. And protestors provided first-rate publicity, such that even a mediocre product would be assured of instant fame and success.

The cancellation of the play has rekindled an old debate, namely, what, if any, limits should govern free speech. Does free speech include the right to offend? It also raises the issue of what the right response should be to provocative expression by those who take offense? Is the taking of offense sufficient reason to incite violence?

Whatever occurs in life has the right to be fictionalized. Sometimes it hurts us so; of that there is no doubt. We recognize that the right to free expression, like the right to offend, is not absolute. For example, no one may yell 'Fire' in a crowded theater; your right to wave a fist ends where my nose begins. Freedom is circumscribed and limited by an obligation to responsibility - the two remain inseparable.

As the Director of the National Theatre in the U.K. remarked, 'the giving of offense, the causing of offense is part of our business.' The artists' right to free expression, however, is not just the freedom to offend. Is it free expression to depict a crucifix floating in urine as was done recently? Such offensive expressions cause outrage and damage authentic expression.

Coercion and censorship, though, is never the answer, especially through physical intimidation, which is what the Sikh protestors have effectively done with their tactics. In the process, they have only succeeded in giving the playwright lots of free publicity and themselves the behzti (dishonor) that they did not seek.

The theater has historically served as an outlet to stage feelings that are otherwise too painful or dangerous and might provoke responses too powerful to handle. Artists hold a mirror to us and in so doing, they often enlarge, magnify, even fictionalize and commercialize sensitive issues. But without their efforts, history tells us, sensitive questions stay buried. Dirty linen, experience tells us, needs airing or the smell lingers forever.

Bhatti shouldn't have to run for her life. Her courage should be respected even if we decry her judgment.