Culture

I’m a Sikh and I Laugh the Loudest At Santa Banta Jokes. Why Ask For a Ban?

They are reminders that I am a proud Sikh, and among all other significant contributions we make to society, we also make people laugh – especially in these intolerant, stressful times

Jokes about Sikhs are a reflection of the success of the community. Credit: Rob/Flickr CC 2.0

Jokes about Sikhs are a reflection of the success of the community. Credit: Rob/Flickr CC 2.0

I grew up in a Sikh household, on a staple diet of dal makhani, tandoori chicken and – Sardar jokes. Yes, you read that right – I am a Sikh. If I got angry, the family would laugh: ‘Barah baj gaye Preeti ke’ (loosely translated as ‘she is going nuts’); if I committed a faux pas like tasting my soup with a straw, my father would shake his head and say, ‘now you are behaving like a Sardar!’ Jokes on Sikhs were an intrinsic part of my growing up years.  Among my peers I was always Santa-Banta’s Preeto – sometimes smart, sometimes utterly dumb.

So when I read that an Indian woman had filed a PIL to ban all websites that have jokes about Sikhs, my first reaction was disbelief. I checked the date: surely it was not April Fool’s Day?  My second reaction was anger. In her PIL, Harwinder Chowdhury stated that the jokes make Sardars come across as people of low intellect and that her children felt humiliated and embarrassed and didn’t want to suffix ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ to their names for fear of being made fun of.

Well, firstly I must ask: did the lady ask Sikhs like me for an opinion? Maybe she felt offended, but she does not speak for the whole community. Like my family and friends, a large number of Sikhs are unperturbed about such jokes and in fact laugh at them too.

Why so touchy?

But most of all, I felt dismayed. When did Sikhs, the most vibrant, confident and generous community in India become so tunnel-visioned that their self-esteem and pride are being eroded by jokes? This is a community that is too proud to ever consider itself a minority in India, and never asks for any kind of special status. Why would it be upset by mere humour?

In fact, Harvinder Chowdhary is 30 years too late. For a few years post the 1984 Sikh carnage, Sardar jokes did not sound funny. Those were difficult times. There was a mixed sense of anger, shame, embarrassment and bitterness among Sikhs and non-Sikhs. It did not seem right to make jokes on a community that had suffered persecution; the jokes were not received well by Sikhs who were still smarting from the hurt.

But now this PIL itself is a joke.

For me, jokes about Sikhs are a reflection of the success of my community. Sikhs work hard and drink harder, and our food, dance and music have cut through language and cultural barriers in India. We earn our money and flaunt it. We are exuberant and colourful – our homes are flashy as are our clothes and jewelry. We know all that and revel in it. At the same time, there is incredible pride that we are respected for being a generous, warrior community.

The charm of Santa Banta

But think of the jokes themselves! There is a certain charm that Sardar jokes have achieved pan-Indian status. There are Gujarati, Parsi, Bengali jokes, not to mention the Jat, Bhojpuri, Bihari, ‘Mallu’ and ‘Madrasi’ ones – but none have characters as iconic as Santa-Banta. In my opinion, that is a lot of positive cultural influence.

Most important, as a Sikh I have never felt there is malicious intent behind these jokes. Sardar jokes are not exchanged behind closed doors. Friends or colleagues don’t suddenly hush up when I walk in on one. On a group chat, the Sikh members are not left out of Sardar jokes. There is implicit faith that the jokes will not be misunderstood; indeed it is Sikhs themselves who have a larger repertoire of these jokes to regale their friends with. (I have too.)

I confess to being baffled by this PIL. The jokes do not undermine my pride in being a Sikh. They do not ridicule my religion, my Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib, the gurudwaras, or the sewa and langar in those places of worship. They do not undermine the beauty of Sikh women, our parents or our ancestors, or the turbans and beards the menfolk sport.

I really wish we would stop taking ourselves so seriously. The Santa-Banta jokes that keep streaming into my phone lighten up my day and make me smile. They are reminders that I am a proud Sikh, and among all other significant contributions we make to society, we also make people laugh – especially in these intolerant, stressful times. So keep those jokes coming!

Preeti Singh is a US-based freelance journalist and author

  • Bikramjit Singh

    I must say I have never read so much rubbish in my entire life as I have read in this article. If the author’s family really did tell Sikh jokes then that tells a lot about her family than of Sikhs as a whole. Sikh jokes are made to take a swipe at the community and if one objects then the answer is always ‘it’s only a joke’ This Priti Singh person must belong to that small breed of self-hating Sikhs who make jokes on themselves. My answer to anyone cracking a Sikh joke in my presence is a punch in the face. No one I know what crack a Sikh joke and I am sure non-Sikhs friend of any self respecting Sikh would also not crack such jokes but the friends of self-hating Sikhs will always crack jokes in their presence because they know that those Sikhs have no self respect and will take any amount of ridicule. I think this Priti Singh needs to be aware that when her friend crack a Sikh joke in front of her they are laughing AT her and not WITH her. She and her family seem to be joke to be honest.

  • deepk

    I did not expect The Wire to publish this nonsense . When did Preeti singh ( which is not a traditional sikh name in itself, A real sikh girl will have Kaur in its name) took mandate from entire sikh community and reached this conclusion. Every day most of sikh kids have to face bullying in schools due to these jokes. At least this PIL is trying to create awareness about the discrimination Sikhs used to face in schools/colleges/offices and in their daily lives.

    To author, stop fooling others by calling yourself a sikh, your name says you do not even know the basic tenants of Sikhism.

    To The Wire , Please double-check the credibility of author and story before publishing it on your website

    • George Mathews

      I was bullied by a Sikh in Delhi when I was in 8th std. I am from Kerala. Bullying is a serious issue and is not community specific.

  • RPS KOHLI

    Sorry, Preeti Singh your opinion is a minority within Sikhs. I was a victim of bullying for being a Sikh. For me my school in Orissa was a everyday trauma. Despite topping in all subjects I was ridiculed with ’12 baj gaye’. My sons faced the same. I can laugh at myself. I love humour. But not the cost of my religious sentiments. I am sad at your writings because you come from a civilised structured formal society. Please look at the definition of Racism by The Center for study of white American Culture. http://www.euroamerican.org/library/definitions_racism.asp I have started a signature petition online change.org/bansikhjokes and I wish that you too make amends and sign on it

  • Jaz Singh

    Seeing how I am not a Catholic, and clearly do not have a Christian name, perhaps The Wire would like to employ me, in the same way it did ‘Preeti Singh’, to write somethng about how I feel as a Catholic about a Catholic issue ?
    If that sounds ludicrous then perhaps the editorial team here at The Wire should reflect on just how ludicrous and unprofessional they have been in publishing this piece by a woman that does not have a Sikh name (in Sikhism, a lady cannot have the name ‘Singh’) and is clearly not a Sikh, articulating a point of view that virtually doesn’t exist at all among any Sikh in the entire world.

    I think this might be a good time for the editorial staff at The Wire to click on the ‘About’ tab at the top of the webpage and re-familiarise themselves with the magazine’s founding principles.

  • Praneet Singh

    Dear Fellow commenters,

    I read the article on ‘why ban sikh jokes’ with interest. I am a Sikh, and completely agree with the sentiment and argument presented in the article. As a kid, even I was initially disturbed by these jokes, till I realised that building strong friendships and laughing at them made all that tension go away!!

    No community in the world can ‘dictate’ or ‘mandate’ how the world should think about them by ‘legal’ means or ‘petitions’ .. it has to come from basic action and behaviour, and the Sikh community has (and will continue) to demonstrate tolerance, simplicity, hard work, justice and honesty – all things taught by the gurus. These in itself make the Santa Banta and other jokes at the community a very very small issue, not worth getting hyper about.

    I was also particularly disappointed to see some of the negative comments on the article — people seem to have wanted to attack the writer personally, rather than address the main debate. This is in very poor taste, and these people should do some introspection on why they are attacking the writer, rather than present any credible arguments against the point of view presented!

    Someone has talked about how Preeti Singh is not a Sikh name .. how ridiculous is that argument. Are we saying that ALL Sikhs have surnames of Singh and Kaur? REALLY!! (what about the many Sikhs who don’t use that surname? What about the many people in north India who are not Sikhs but have Singh in their surname? Or the large majority of Sikh women who do not use Kaur in their names???) These people should just look around them to do a quick sample survey if they profess to know the community so well!

    Someone has started a petition to ‘ban Sikh jokes’ … do we really think that public opinion about a community can be ‘mandated’ by a petition or the Supreme Court??? REALLY!! What if 1 billion people in India sign that? Will it stop Santa Banta jokes? It actually smells of self service and self importance, with people wanting to feel important or have an issue to rake up for their own political aspirations or personal goals!? Are we not better off working to serve our communities, and work hard to succeed in our own honest occupations rather than rake up non-issues with these ‘petitions’!!

    I do think some of the respondents should go back to the teachings of the gurus, and focus on those if they claim to be true Sikhs. Tolerance – the ability of the Sikh people to always be able to live amongst many religious faiths and opinions, stay simple and to embrace the good points in each faith, and succeed in that environment – has especially been the hallmark of the Sikh community. That very tolerance is missing in the comments by some of these self professed Sikhs!!

    Praneet Singh

    • RPS KOHLI

      Dear Praneet
      Your ‘Holier than thou’ attitude itself is a reflection of your mental state itself. I feel that you do not have the exposure to the western societies and the democratic nature of their social fiber.
      You talk of Tolerance but what about Civility? Tolerance at times breeds indifference and apathy, which is widely prevalent now. The mark of any society is Civility. What if our sister is eve-teased or molested? Would we ask her to be Tolerant or go-after the Tormentor?
      Civility is definitely a higher Virtue than Tolerance. Can you imagine yourself addressing people as negroes or Jews in USA? Probably the people around you would talk you down for being rude or racist. This is Civility.
      You have your own opinion but please do not presume that yours is the right one only. The petition is for gauging public opinion as was asked by the SC. Pls go and voice your opinion on it for or against.

  • MANMEET SINGH

    FIRST OF ALL I AM SORRY TO SAY THAT I AM UNABLE TO KNOW YOUR GENDER AS YOUR NAME SUGGESTS PREETI ( FEMALE ) AND YOUR SUFFIX NAME IS SINGH ( SIKH MALE) SO WHAT EVER YOU ARE….

    MAKING FUN ON ANY RELIGION IS OF BAD TASTE AND SOME PEOPLE LOVE TO TASTE BAD THINGS DOESN’T MEAN THAT ALL SHOULD LOVE TO EAT BAD.

    SECONDLY THE INTOLERANCE OF SIKHS IS AN EXAMPLE IN THE WHOLE WORLD FOR GIVING JUSTICE TO ANY ONE WHO IS IN FIGHT OF SAVING HIS OWN LIFE , ( KASHMIR PUNDITS ) CAME TO GURU TEG BAHADUR SAHIB JEE AND GURU JI SACRIFICED TO SAVE THE HINDU RELIGION FROM THAN MUGAL EMPERORS.. .

    AFTER THAT THE HISTORY OF GURU GOBIND SINGH JEE IS BEEN KNOWN TO WHOLE WORLD OF MAKING MUGALS LEAVE INDIA AND ESTABLISHING THE KHALSA RAJ BY HIS FOLLOWERS….

    NOW THE SIKHS / SINGHS THE FOLLOWERS OF GURU GU.GOBIND SINGH JEE WHO HAD EARNED THE MEDAL OF SARDAR ( THE LEADER ) IS BEEN DEMORALISED BY SOME NUTS AND DEAR BROTHER/SISTER PREETI EVEN YOU ARE INFLUENCED….

    PLS STOP IT AND SIGN THE PETITION OF
    BAN SIKH JOKES…

    Lastly the lawyer who had filed the petition of ban on jokes is HARVINDER KAUR CHOWDHURY but in her some certificates the name is incomplete that is Harvinder Chowdhury. ..

  • Tarsem

    This article is a disgrace. I am from America myself and just started my path of Sikhi few years ago, and even I can see that you are not an actual Sikh, but you just identify yourself as one by name.

    “Sikhs work hard and drink harder, and our food, dance and music have cut through language and cultural barriers in India.” – I believe your are talking about PUNJABIs, not Sikhs. Drinking is forbidden in Sikhism, but Punjabi culture was in India before and after Sikhism was introduced. What has happened is that Punjabis(mainly jats), have taken the arguably easy things from Sikhi (keeping Singh or Kaur name, tying turban, keeping beard), and have cast themselves as a part of the Panth. I don’t
    mean to assume anything about you, but just through your writing I can tell you are not well versed or even follow
    the basic tenets of Sikhism.

    Sikhi is not a coat you can just wear and then hang on the hanger when you feel like it. I’m willing to bet that you wouldn’t dare think about drinking or have any bad thoughts while your at the Gurdwara Sahib, sitting in front of Guru Maharaj Ji. I bet you wouldn’t crack a “sardar” joke around the actual Sadh Sangat. Worst yet, how about play this “santa banta” movie in a Gurdwara. I bet your dal makhani eating conscience wouldn’t allow you to. Oh but suddenly you leave and turn the blinders on and watch, say, and think whatever you want. This is called a “manmukh,” or one who thinks what he/she wants to think. An actual Sikh however, is a “Gurmukh” – he/she thinks what the Guru Sahib Ji instructs them to. In other words, they don’t just turn the blinders on and do Papp as soon as they leave a holy place. They keep that fear of Almighty Akal Purakh within themselves AT ALL TIMES.

    You are probably aware (but then again maybe not) of the thousands and thousands of heads Sikhs have given for the survival of humanity and basic rights. They have sacrificed themselves for the religion of others (where does that happen today!?). Hindus walk on the blood soaked dirt of many brave Sikhs who sacrificed themselves as their Guru Jis commanded, and yet, they have the audacity to turn around the spit on the very people who gave them the freedom to live freely. Now I won’t
    lie, Sikhs (but more so Punjabis and Hindus) have propagated these insulting stereotypes as well. They’ve actually kind of done it to themselves. Go to any Punjabi wedding and see how embarrassing it is to call yourself a “sardar.”

    But this is where people like you and me come in. Believe it or not, but I wasn’t too far different from you
    just a few years ago. Read more Sikh history and get involved with the Sad Sangat Ji. Learn Gurmukhi and read Bani and understand what the Guru Sahib Ji is actually saying. Learn some instruments to do Shabad Kirtan, defend yourself with Gatka martial arts. Sikhi is a very hard discipline that should not be taken lightly. Jokes are normal and just in “good fun” huh? See how far your jokes get you and this community when our brothers and sisters are getting killed in Punjab by drugs, hate crimes and lack of education.

    Change your ways, you have the potential to become great.