The alleged racist abuse directed at a Bollywood film star appearing on the Channel 4 reality show Celebrity Big Brother became an international issue yesterday.
In a day of extraordinary developments, Chancellor Gordon Brown was forced to defend Britain against allegations of racism on his first full day of a trip to India.
Mr Brown said he regarded the alleged racist comments made on the programme as "offensive". He added: "I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything detracting from this I condemn".
And as the protests grew more vociferous, No 10 was put on the defensive. Tony Blair's spokesman said any perception abroad that Britain tolerated racism had to be "regretted and countered".
Yesterday, Indian TV news was dominated by images of Shilpa Shetty in tears after arguments with flatmates, during which she was allegedly called a "Paki" and a "cunt".
"Racist Big Brother leaves Shilpa shattered," read the headline in the Deccan Herald, one of several newspapers to carry the story on its front page.
And in the city of Patna, effigies of Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O'Meara were burnt. "The big question is: why does everyone hate Shilpa Shetty?" the Indian Express asked on its website.
In one recent argument on the show, Goody told Shetty: "Go back to the slums and find out what real life is like, lady. You are not some princess in fucking Neverland. You're not some princess here... you need a day in the slums... fucking go in your community."
And Danielle Lloyd was heard to mutter, out of Shetty's earshot: "I think she should fuck off home." Britain's media watchdog Ofcom reported a record 19,300 complaints against the programme, with a further 2,000 contacting Channel 4 directly.
Last night, it emerged Channel 4 and Endemol, makers of Big Brother, are facing a lawsuit from viewers who say they were distressed by what they saw. In what would be the first case of its kind, seven Asian viewers, all victims of racism, have instructed the civil rights law firm, Equal Justice, to institute proceedings in the "provision of services" under the Race Relations Act 1976.
Keith Vaz MP, former minister for Europe, used an early day motion in the House of Commons to call on Channel 4 bosses to take "effective action" against the "unacceptable" racist language allegedly used.
The London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, said: "The mocking of Shilpa Shetty's accent, her Indian cooking and other aspects of her culture, as well as such basic things as repeated failure to get her name right and referring to her in extreme derogatory terms are completely unacceptable ... All cultures are welcome in London and we do not ask anyone to give up their culture or background in order to be welcome and to contribute to the city and its great prosperity. The treatment meted out to Shilpa Shetty is totally opposite to such an approach."
But Channel 4 appears in no hurry to take action. Ratings for the highlights show on Tuesday evening hit 4.5 million viewers, up from 3.5 million on Monday.
The bookmaker William Hill said Shetty was now the new "hot favourite" to win. In a further twist, Goody and Shetty are to go head to head in the next round of evictions.
Last night, Channel 4 claimed there had been "no overt racial abuse or racist behaviour directed against Shilpa Shetty within the Big Brother house". It said what had happened could be characterised as a "cultural and class clash between her and three of the British females in the house." It added: "Unambiguous racist behaviour and language is not tolerated under any circumstances in the house. Housemates are constantly monitored and Channel 4 would intervene if a clear instance of this arose." Channel 4 said it had spoken to Shetty, "who has not complained or raised the issue of racism".
Hours later, however, Shetty spoke for the first time of her fears that she is the victim of racism. Unaware that the race row has developed into an international incident, the housemates last night had an argument over Oxo cubes.
After the spat, fellow housemate Cleo Rocos told Shetty: "I don't think there's anything racist in it."
Shetty replied: "It is, I'm telling you."
One of the complainants bringing the claim against Channel 4 said the comments he heard triggered memories of racism he had experienced in the 1970s. Tallat Mukhtar,a former banker who now runs his own firm, said: " This series has taken me back to the 1970s when I was racially abused on the streets and encountered the Jade Goody mentality. I find it disgusting that Channel 4 and Endemol broadcast such material. Even if it boosts their profits, it is not a fit or ethical way to make money."