If the Naga Munchetty fiasco wasn’t cause for enough embarrassment for the BBC, an apparent attempt to censor a script referring to a Sikh Guru’s martyrdom for fear it, ‘might offend Muslims’ should certainly be. The Beeb’s in-house ‘thought police’ have driven Lord Singh to quit a radio slot he’s contributed to for thirty-five years. It’s a sorry state of affairs – not just because it highlights a new high in BBC paranoia on giving imagined offence to imaginary people, but because it demonstrates how historical facts (not just opinions) are not immune to censorship. In the end, the broadcast went ahead. It did not criticise Islam and unsurprisingly received no complaints.
It goes without saying Lord Singh’s – (known to listeners as Indarjit Singh) longstanding contribution to Thought for the Day (TFTD) on Radio 4 has been widely appreciated, in Britain and beyond.
One of his talks caught the ear of Prince Charles, leading to the establishment of the Lambeth Group to celebrate the Millennium in the Royal Gallery in Parliament. His first ever contribution to TFTD, a humorous reflection on irrational prejudice, is still used as a teaching aid in schools. In 2004, he came second to Bob Geldof in a ‘people's peer’ poll of Radio 4 Today programme listeners. The softly-spoken crossbench peer will leave behind an incredible broadcasting legacy; in Estonia, he was introduced by the British ambassador as ‘the man who brought Guru Nanak to the breakfast tables of Britain.’But even a man in possession of one of the calmest of temperaments I’ve come across has had his fill of censorious producers when he says even Jesus Christ himself wouldn’t get past the BBC’s ‘thought police’ today.
The offending script in question was in relation to the martyrdom of Sikhism’s 9th Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur. In 1675, he gave his life defending the freedom of religion of the indigenous Hindu priests in Kashmir, who like Yazidis under Islamic State, were given an ultimatum to convert to Islam or perish by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb.
The central message from this dark period in history is clear: the Guru chose to give his life in defence of freedom of religious belief for a faith other than his own. He stood up for the oppressed against the oppressor, despite knowing he’d pay the ultimate price. The essence of Tegh Bahadur’s sacrifice is captured in words penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her summing up Voltaire’s position on free speech, ‘I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ The saga represents central tenets of Sikh ethos: tolerance for the belief of others, whilst standing up to tyranny, whatever it takes. So why the need to try and whitewash a seminal moment in the history of the Indian subcontinent, and one which Sikhs and many Hindus commemorate each year?
Political correctness is partly to blame, but there are other things at play here. Over the last few years, we have seen the growing influence of various well-funded lobby groups and activists, aiming to place boundaries on free speech, or what journalists can and can’t say in relation to Islam.
Will Heaven has written about the latter in the Spectator highlighting dangers to the free press, and it’s frightening. I’m guessing those who’ve backed a controversial APPG definition of ‘Islamophobia’ are likely to be sympathetic to the BBC’s attempt to censor Sikh history, because it fits their criteria for so-called ‘Islamophobia’. According to the APPG report, ‘claims of Muslims spreading Islam by the sword or subjugating minority groups under their rule may be ‘Islamophobic’. Worse still the expansive term is absurdly equated to ‘racism’.
What this all leads to is a situation where it is only possible to discuss positive aspects of Mughal, Ottoman or Moorish rule, and be selective when discussing historical facts – or face consequences, perhaps arrest, if this ever becomes a legally-binding definition. Let that be your thought for the day, especially given all main political parties, (bar the Conservatives) and many ill-advised councils up and down the country have formally adopted the definition.
Although it’s regrettable Lord Singh has left TFTD, his decision speaks volumes of his character. On his departure, he wrote, ‘I am leaving Thought for the Day with great reluctance. But I can no longer accept prejudiced and intolerant attempts by the BBC to silence Sikh teachings on tolerance, freedom of belief and on the duty we all must share to build a more cohesive and responsible society.’