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Jasdev Rai: Rape Impossible in Gurdwara
By LOUISE JURY and TOM PETTIFOR
The Independent, Dec. 22, 2004
Photo: Jasdev Singh Rai
An offer to stage a play, which had been cancelled after violent protests by members of the Sikh community, was withdrawn last night following a request by the playwright who has gone into hiding after receiving death threats.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.
But he admitted to feeling 'defeated' after the playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, contacted him late last night asking him to shelve the idea saying threats against her had 'increased.' Mr. Foster said: 'She left a message on my mobile saying she is aware of what I am proposing and, because of the situation she's in, she has asked me to permanently suspend my plans.
'She's in hiding because of threats made to her and her actual words were that those threats have increased. I've tried to find some solution to this problem, one that would allow the play to be given life, but now I just feel defeated. Obviously I acquiesce to her wishes, as she's the writer. I wouldn't want to do anything that she wouldn't want to be done.'
Earlier Mr. Foster had said the decision to cancel the play had been made by 'cowards' adding: 'The story cannot end here. I think freedom of expression is more important than health and safety. I think it's one of the blackest days for the arts in this country that I've ever experienced.'
Mr. Foster made his proposal as an 'appropriate' response after discussions between artists and members of Sikh communities. He had invited theatres around the country to come together on a single day in order to avoid the problem of one production acting as the focus of discontent while widening the discussion. Reading the work might prove less offensive to some Sikhs than a performance. 'It would mean the writer's voice would be heard widely but each community can express its concerns about the work,' Mr. Foster said.
That might prove a more effective solution than his original pledge to stage the play in a venue such as a Birmingham community centre, he added.
Leaders of the Birmingham Rep. and Ms. Bhatti were not speaking yesterday after the decision to cancel the rest of the production of the sell-out play after protest by hundreds of angry Sikhs became violent at the weekend.
But the decision continued to provoke debate. Fiona Mactaggart, a Home Office minister, denied that proposed new legislation to outlaw incitement to hatred on grounds of religion would have made any difference in this case. 'There's nobody suggesting that this play would incite hatred of the Sikh community,' she said. 'It does distress the Sikh community and they exercised their free speech to protest. I am sorry some of these protests became violent, but, nevertheless, this play - and the right to put on art which is offensive - is not at all influenced by the law we are introducing.'
In a foreword to her play, which involves rape and murder at a temple, Ms. Bhatti, herself a Sikh, explained how she felt 'imprisoned by the mythology of the Sikh diaspora' in which Sikhs are regarded as successful through hard work and aspiration. 'There is certainly much to be proud of and our achievements and struggles have been extraordinary,' she said. But sometimes the Sikh principles of equality, compassion and modesty were discarded in favour of wealth and the quest for power - and that hypocrisy should be challenged, she added.
Jasdev Rai, director of the Sikh Human Rights Group, said it was not because Ms. Bhatti was challenging hypocrisy that other Sikhs were unhappy but because the play presented a misleading picture of a minority community.
Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, were informal places where it would be impossible for a rape to happen, he said. 'It's beyond fiction, it's not authentic,' he added. Anger was compounded by concerns that the Arts Council, and other bodies, had for years supported only artists who were 'deliberately offensive.' He added: 'We do feel you can be critical and expose hypocrisy but you don't have to be offensive.'