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
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