‘I am a proud Sikh, and I love Santa-Banta jokes’
My name is Manek Singh Kohli, and I am an uncut and unshaven Sikh. I have grown up in an upper-middle class urban household where Sikhism is explicitly followed. In my school days I have had a flurry of jokes and ridicule hurled at me, sometimes ones that are very unforgiving.
I, however, do not agree with a word of what Mrs. Harvinder Chowdhary, a practicing lawyer and a fellow-Sikh, has presented as an argument justifying the ban of over 5,000 websites containing ‘Sardarji jokes’. Not only do I think that her PIL, which the Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear, does not stand on any logical or rational grounds, it also amounts to tainting the rest of us with the intolerance.
What the jokes actually show is how tolerant, sporting and open-minded we are – a class apart from several others claiming to be fighting for their community in India today.
To me Sardarji jokes or Santa-Banta jokes are silly, childish, playful, juvenile, and yet harmless. I had truly hoped my entire community, as sporty as it is, would have looked at them in the same light. After all, there are tons of Sikhs who take these jokes like they should be taken - lightly. In fact, Mrs. Chowdhary, Khushwant Singh was one of them.
What do you have to say about his joke books that contains various jokes (mostly compiled) with Sikhs as the subject of amusement? Singh is known for his contribution to the community's intellectual image – as an author, a historian, and an opinion leader. One cannot possibly say he has defiled the community. A professor of mine once commented on this very aspect of the Sikhs, “They are the most glorious community in this country, and that is because they are the only people who laugh when someone cracks a joke on them”. As I grew up, I found more and more calibre in his statement.
To be honest, Mrs. Chowdhary, I am offended. It is only from 'your' perspective that these jokes appear to ‘defile Sikh dignity’. Others who have rallied up in your support simply share this perspective. What appeared harmless to Khushwant Singh is a violation of a fundamental right to you. You present yourself as a ‘crusader for this cause’ whose family was targeted during the 1984 Sikh riots, and who has faced racism and hatred throughout. My sympathy rests with everything you and your family have endured – but how do you get to decide for the entire community? Why are you victimising the twenty five million who rose from the ashes of the anti-Sikh riots and thrived collectively? Also, how is this even a contentious issue? The civil rights movement in the USA took place because blacks were not given equal rights and were treated as second-class citizens. Have we ever been treated in this manner? I would have empathised with your stance if that was the case.
I repeat myself to say that it is your behaviour that offends me and not these jokes. We have done so beautifully as a community. Should we really fall into a web of intolerance, finding new and new reasons to be offended? Because, trust me ma’am, that is a rather sticky web, and one of no return.
One more question - Why are you doing this? Is it for your children? It must be, since you have said, “My children want to drop their Sikh surnames because they face a lot of ridicule.” In fact, this statement particularly led me to retrospect. You know, 12-year old me had a flurry of jokes and comments sprung at him too. The “sardar ke baara baj gaye” (The Sikh’s gone mad at the stroke of the twelfth hour) and “sardar toh paagal hi hote hai” (the community as a whole is mad) are some that stay hauntingly fresh in my mind. Of course, I was offended. I possibly even had bad days as a result. But then, others endured such ridicule too.
“Abhe chinni banniye” (a statement proclaiming a ‘banniya’ as someone reluctant to spend money), "Kattuey" (a very offensive term hurled at a few of my Muslim friends that meant ‘circumcised’), and others that proclaimed all Sindhis to be miserly, and all South Indians to be ‘Madrasi’. I was offended with jokes against my community, but so were others against theirs. And you know what – we all fought our way out of these. It was a learning curve, because stereotypes are a part of life and maturity immediately makes them fall flat on their faces. Your children are probably going through the same, and will learn to take this in their stride. You are a brilliant mother, Mrs. Chowdhary, but please do not try to mother me and every other Sikh in the nation.
I know you believe that your cause is service to the community. After all, till how long will us minorities be the butt of ridicule? But I have a counter argument. Such jokes have neither been created to offend nor to convey facts. No matter how inane they sound, (Sikhism being synonymous with stupidity, for example) no one really doubts the intellect of a Sikh. Also, if they were created to offend, they would be far more malignant. Mrs. Chowdhary, I think all you need is a sense of humour. Go to Google, search for ‘Sardarji jokes’ and open the first five links that pop up. Make some tea, and slowly sip it while scrolling through these pages. Caution: be careful not to fall off your seat laughing. The tea is hot.