The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Curtains for Behzti in Britain

London, Dec. 20: The Birmingham Repertory Theatre tonight bowed to the demands of Sikh protesters and cancelled the remaining run of Behzti (Dishonour), the play about 'sexual abuse, manipulation and murder', which had been set by playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, herself a Sikh, in a gurdwara.

There were ugly clashes on Saturday night when up to 400 Sikhs demonstrated outside the theatre and protested that the play was an insult to Sikhism. Despite a heavy police presence, doors were damaged, windows smashed, fire alarms set off and backstage equipment was attacked.

Three men arrested on suspicion of public order offences were released on police bail until the New Year.

Tonight, following discussions between Sikhs, the theatre management and the police, further performances of the play, which began on December 9 and was due to run until December 30, were cancelled.

The story has become the main headline in Britain, with opinion divided between those who wanted the theatre to fight for freedom of artistic expression and others, including senior Christian leaders, who argued that freedom of expression did not mean unfettered licence to insult religious sensitivities. Among those who wanted the Rep not to give in was writer Hanif Kureishi.

Tonight, Stuart Rogers, executive director of the Birmingham Rep, said the venue had been left with no alternative but to end its run of Behzti because of a genuine threat to the safety of theatre-goers.

Speaking at a news conference at the city centre playhouse, he said: 'It is now clear that we cannot guarantee the safety of our audiences. Very reluctantly, therefore, we have decided to end the current run of the play purely on safety grounds. The theatre vigorously defends its right to produce Behzti and other similar high-quality plays that deal with contemporary issues in a multi-cultural society.'

He added: 'We sincerely hope that the play will be produced again as we are certain that it is a work that should be seen and discussed.'

He went on: 'Sadly, community leaders have been unable to guarantee to us that there will be no repeat of the illegal and violent activities that we witnessed on Saturday. It remains a matter of great concern to us that illegal acts of violence can cause the cancellation of a lawful artistic work.'

The Sikh viewpoint that the play mocked Sikhism was given by Mohan Singh, from the Guru Nanak gurdwara in Birmingham, who welcomed the cancellation. He said the Rep could have avoided the disturbances more than a week ago since the demand had been for the setting of the play to be shifted from a gurdwara to a community centre.

'It's a sad fact, but it's a very good thing that they have seen common sense on the issue,' he said. 'But the fact of the matter is that it has taken things to become violent before it happened. What precedent does this set' Will it happen again when people think peaceful protest is not going to work' Those are the answers we need.'

He rejected claims that free speech was being stifled. 'Free speech can go so far. Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run. Are you going to upset 600,000 Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the UK for that' Religion is a sensitive issue and you should be extremely careful.'

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