I know the pain of Sardar jokes – but I won’t support a ban on them

Imagine being in the shoes of a Sikh child, five years old, who fails to understand why he is the butt of all jokes.

As a child who studied in a non-Sikh community school and lived in a non-Sikh majority neighbourhood in a metropolitan city, I was always confused and angry. Teachers would tell Sardar jokes in classrooms and I had no option but to laugh along. My peers would jeer at Sardars and call them names in a way children cruelly do when they find an easy target.

Some 35 years on, I still hear kids telling the same jokes.

Subconsciously and unknowingly, generations have inherited their parents’ flaws, racism, insecurities and the folklore that is Sardar jokes. There is a general belief that Sardars have a great sense of humour. That laughing at them is somehow alright.

Why am I talking about this now? Because of the Supreme Court’s decision to consider a petition seeking a ban on Sardar jokes. Around a fortnight ago, it gave Sikh religious bodies six weeks to devise methods to make sure that such jokes don’t get circulated.

As a humorist, I firmly believe that you have no right to make fun of anything if you cannot make fun of everything. And that includes stereotypes. But imagine being in the shoes of a Sikh child, five or seven years old, who fails to understand why he is the butt of all jokes and why the Sikh in all the jokes is an imbecile and a moron.

That is not humour – it’s bullying.

Symbols of religion

Sardar jokes have been part of our society for a long time. Generations have laughed their lungs out on Sardar jokes, including Sardars themselves. I doubt anyone knows more Sardar jokes than Sardars themselves. I myself have participated in nightlong sessions at family gatherings telling Sardar jokes.

So why is this brave, rich, cultured community with a great sense of humour angry? Why is it necessary now to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention? Have we crossed a line? Or have we become too intolerant as a society? Or are elections in Punjab close by?

Being an agnostic Sikh (no pun intended), I have always questioned the logic of organised religion. A big part, indeed a fundamental element, of any faith is symbols. But somewhere along the way, we forget the intention of the symbols and make them the most important thing about the faith. And over time, these symbols become vulnerable to jokes. This may be why Sikhs, recognised by the visual symbols they adorn, are quickly relatable to jokes.

Inclusiveness and diversity

Still, banning anything that exists as a funny idea cannot possibly be a solution. A society’s sense of humour is built over decades and cannot be switched off on call. Can the jokes then be regulated? Again, I’m afraid not.

The only solution can be sensitisation of teachers, inclusiveness in education and creating awareness among students about our diversities. Segregation by way of building more community-based schools is also not the solution. If anything it will further widen the rift.

The defenders of our faith, who are very vocal about this issue at these politically charged times in Punjab, have done next to nothing to provide any kind of solution. Per their claims, the Sikh community is being shown in poor light and its great contribution is not being publicised enough. But who is stopping them from publicising our contributions to this nation? If their claim of being the most misunderstood community is valid, who is responsible for not creating enough awareness about Sikhs? Can we shift that blame to someone else as well?

There are good jokes and there are bad jokes. Equally, there are good Sardar jokes and there are bad Sardar jokes. Anyone who intends to bring change cannot do it by being brittle about it. One needs to stand strong and understand history. The construct of even the shallowest joke is based on some truth. One needs to understand that the truth travels through ages of perception before manifesting as a joke.

We need to be offensive as well as be offended. Because when we are offended, we create a space to push the envelope. And in the end, it will be the most offended and most accepting of change who are going to survive.

Maheep Singh is a writer and humorist who expresses himself through stand-up comedy, theatre and poetry. He tweets at @Genuine_Jokey.

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