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Sikhs Are the Real Losers From Behzti

Gurharpal Singh is Nadir Dinshaw Professor of Inter-Religious Relations at Birmingham University. He is currently writing a book on Sikhs in Britain. He may be reached via email at or It is worth noting that of the scores of articles that were published in the media on this subject the High Commission of India in London chose to put up only this one on their Web site.

The Guardian, Dec. 24, 2004

Photo: Gurharpal Singh

The cancellation of the play Behzti (Dishonour) following protests by Sikhs in Birmingham was not, as a Sikh spokesperson claimed, without winners or losers. If anybody has lost it is British Sikhs. In a single act the community has overturned years of hard work and reverted to type as a militant tradition fixated with narrow communal interests. Doubtless the mobilisation will be seen as another nail in the coffin of freedom of speech, coming close on the heels of the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands and the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred. What these interpretations overlook, however, is the pioneering role of Sikhs in framing British multiculturalism, the contribution - unwittingly - of the British state in promoting the idiom of religion in public life, and the deep tensions within the Sikh community itself that have produced such a play.

For the 336,000 British Sikhs life in Britain has been a bittersweet experience. While hard work has gradually transformed a mainly peasant community into one with a strong representation in the business and professional classes, achieving recognition in mainstream British society has been a far more difficult exercise for the 'favoured' sons and daughters of the empire. Until the 1980s a mixture of racial victimisation and communal pride gave rise to the turban campaigns: the right to wear a turban at work, on motorcycles and on building sites. Their success was marked by a judicial decision that ensured Sikhs special protection against discrimination as an ethnic group.

But these campaigns were essentially defensive. In the 1990s two developments contributed to a more aggressive assertion of Sikh identity. First, the decline of the Khalistani movement for a separate Sikh state, which began after the storming of the Golden Temple in 1984, created a vacuum in which the politics of agitation has given rise to professional lobbying. In Britain this has taken the form of a separate Sikh political party, a parliamentary Punjabi group and a sustained campaign for a separate (non-Indian) Sikh identification in the census. Beyond Britain Sikh leaders see themselves as spearheading the global Sikh diaspora in refashioning the fortunes of the world Sikh community, of which the major component in Punjab remains in a high degree of distress. Whether it is the turban campaign in France or hate crime elsewhere, British Sikhs are at the forefront.

Second, the promotion of religion in public life, especially under New Labour, has not only legitimised 'rotten' multiculturalism - where culture has long given way to religion, particularly if it is capable of delivering ethnic minority votes. It has also created space in institutional forums that has been exploited by communities such as the Sikhs. While the sentiments of inter-religious dialogues are noble, the result is often to stifle dissent within religions and essentialise particular traditions as representing the Sikh, Muslim, Christian or Hindu way. In a highly plural and secular society, nothing could be further from the truth.

Behzti is not an aberration. While the gaze of the establishment has been fixed on using religions to deliver peaceful outcomes, it has overlooked the serious contestations within these traditions and the implications for multiculturalism. Marginal groups, like the Southall Black Sisters, have long complained of physical abuse within minority ethnic communities; only last week a Sikh father was sentenced for plotting to kill his daughter who, according to him, had brought disgrace on the family by marrying a Jew. Behzti is thus symptomatic not only of a fatal attraction between third-rate talent and British libertarianism with a penchant for titillating tales of minority voyeurism; it is, above all, the playing out of community traumas in public. The tragedy is that multiculturalism has shied away from providing creative spaces for the peaceful resolution of these dilemmas.

There is an increasing number of third and fourth generation British Sikhs who are seriously disaffected from a tradition that remains obstinately rooted to the politics of homeland while being ambivalent or unresponsive to the challenges of British society. Community leadership appears incapable of addressing their concerns. The choice before it is stark: relapse into a narrow agitational Sikhism or recognise the need to accommodate young British Sikhs' voices. Only the latter offers hope of turning the defeat into a lasting victory in which the real dishonour will not be that of a self-confident community sure of its ideals, but of an unsophisticated playwright and her grasping backers.