Sardars, Jews, Muslims, Dalits. Are Minorities the Butt of All Jokes?

What’s the point if we can’t have a good laugh. Sardar jokes have been a part of the culture for several decades now, and the recent demand for ban on jokes directed at Sikhs has raised several questions with regard to jokes and hurt feelings. Considering telling a joke is a cooperative effort, it requirs both the teller and audience to mutually agree on the content and form of the joke. It appears as though Santa and Banta are turning out to be anti-jokes with a portion of the Sikh community wanting them banned.

Let us look at the attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015. The Muslim community in France is not only a minority community, but they are also a deprived community living on the margins of the French society. Though the Charlie Hebdo magazine regularly ridicules the dominant Christian community and their belief more than the tales of Prophet Mohammed, certain members of the Muslim community found the portrayal of their messaih offensive and attacked the magazine head office on 7 January 2016. While violence cannot be justified, it makes one wonder whether the thin line between humour and humiliation is actually context driven. When there are clear disparities of privilages between the dominant community and the minorities, can a minority see itself at par with the majority when it concerns being the butt of jokes?

Unlike the Muslims in France, the Sikhs in India (or world over for that matter) are a relatively well-off community. The former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh was a sikh, several cricket players including Harbajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh are Sikhs, and the Bollywood Deol celebrity family is Sikh. Theirs is the fourth biggest religious group in the country. Nevertheless, they make up for a meagre, less than two percent, population of India, and are, thereby, a minority in the country.

It is the minority communities that are the butt of all jokes in many countries, whether they are well educated and wealthy, like the Jews in America, or the poor and marginalised, like the lower castes in India. Professor Chaman Lal, Retired Professot in Hindi Translation, from JNU says,

"Jokes or for that matter any verbal expression become problematic when they express abuses, insulting remarks about oppressed people by hegemonic classes in full view of public. In that situation these need to be objected to and even dealt through law. But that is for all communities, why just Sardars! Jews in the world are subjected to perhaps even worse jokes."

If we take a closer look at the Indian scenario we find that the Mala community has as many jokes on the Madiga community (both ex-untouchable castes of the southern states), as the Madiga has on the Mala; similarly jokes on Iyers in an Iyengar household (both Hindu Brahman caste of Tamil origin) and vice-versa is common. But jokes don’t remain in the sphere of satire, they often occupy the public and political spaces when jokes turn ugly. In other words, in a system of graded inequality, one community is superior only as long as few others are inferior. Jokes play a critical role in keeping this dynamics alive.

With respect to Sardar jokes, the dynamics is different. Sikhs crack Sardar jokes as much as others do; Khushwant Singh published Sardar jokes and was even popular because of them. This potential of self-referential jokes in the public domain has been an integral part of the Sikh community. They are, as a result, seen as a fun-loving community. Sikhs are known for, in popular culture as well as in real-life, laughing as much as losing temper, and being inclusive people who do not hold grudges. There are, however, studies that prove the existence of caste within the Sikh community even though the philosophy of the religion is against it. Professor Chaman Lal says that Banias have jokes against Brahmins and vice-versa, but

"Sardar jokes are somewhat healthy as community itself can crack jokes on itself. So demanding a blanket ban, even ban is hurting community's mental health. Jokes express human beings creativity as well and any kind of stifling is suppressing creativity as well."

Were the Sikhs pushed to such a point that they filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for Sardar jokes to be bannedand followed the petition with a 800-page long method implement the ban?

The Madrasi jokes on South Indians in the North Indian Hindi speaking belt; the mockery on the Telugu population as Golti in Tamil Nadu; or Tamils as Pandi in Kerala; or Tamils as Aravam speaking among Telugus; the mutual ridicule of Biharis and Bengalis, can make a never-ending list. While it is humorous for the people cracking the jokes, let us not forget that those on the receiving end do not find it equally funny. Can these jokes then be considered humourous? Or is it humiliation?

In another multi-cultural society like the United States, Mexicans, Canadians, Chinese and Jews are objects of satire in Hollywood films and American sitcoms. At the same time the US late night talk shows are known for showing popular politicians and celebrities as objects of mockery. Though racial discrimination is rampant in the US, in popular culture, mutual mockery of people belonging to different communities, is also present. Self-replicating and self-reflexive humour is as integral to American popular culture as discrimination. They do sometimes lead to controversies, because the American society is also an unequal society were the minorities find jokes against them offensive.

Why not crack jokes on one’s self, on one’s own community, religion, and nationality without distancing oneself from one's own identity, in the same way that we ridicule people of other social backgrounds? Khushwant Singh was able to do it; several Sikhs do it on a daily basis.

However, self-reflexive jokes are not as easy as they appear. In the age of identity politics, one must be proud of oneself to be able to ridicule oneself. For example, there are popular Facebook pages and blogs exclusively for Tamil Brahmins. It brings to social media the sterotypes of Iyers and Iyengars: their food habits, Tamil vocabulary, dress cultures, and expresses self-reflexive humour. There is an innate sense of pride when done by upper castes; the lower castes and ex-untouchables will not be able to do the same. Sharankumar Limbale in his autobiography Akkarmashi writes how his grandmother would eat bhakari made from the corn she had dug out a pile of manure so that her grandchildren would have what little good flour she had left. There is only pain in his community’s food habits.

All said and done, with the tremendous rise in the use of virtual media among Indians, Sardar jokes have reached everybody and this has offended a portion of the Sikh community. Maybe the age old linear jokes stereotyping Sardars as “low-intelect, stupid and foolish” has run its course. Now that there is visible discontent from a portion of the community. Maybe it's time we become more sensitive who the subjects of our ridicule are?