If one were to go by the sheer number of jokes circulating on WhatsApp and other social media, the answer would be a resounding no! But does that truly answer the question, for the truth is that we Indians love to make jokes about others, but are very sensitive about jokes made about ourselves or our community. And, therein lies the contradiction. To laugh or not to laugh depends largely on who the target of the joke is.
In a culturally diverse country like India, there is ample material for jokes – it could be about quirks of a community, food habits, clothes, mannerisms, accent, hairstyle or just the place itself.
Santa-Banta jokes remain popular
Travel to any hinterland and you will find a local joke unique to that area but the ones most popular across India almost always pertain to a single community. The one community that has had to face the brunt of being the subject and target of maximum jokes, which often toggle between ridicule and insult, are the Sikhs. So much so that the traditional turbaned Sikh with a beard has become stereotyped as being both naïve and stupid, with a love for alcohol and good food.
The interesting part is that the best jokes often come from within the Sikh community and the best narrators of these jokes happen to be the Sikhs themselves. And they revel in it!
It is amazing that India’s premier martial race that has produced some of the fiercest warriors through time, with a long tradition and history of sacrifice for the community and nation, also happens to be one with the best sense of humour.
No other community in India has the ability to laugh at themselves and make others around them laugh as well, without compromising their honour or dignity. This is what separates the Sikhs from the rest.
India has a long tradition of Bengali, Punjabi, Parsi, Tamil, Haryanvi, Malayalee and even Nepali jokes but they all are enjoyed by their respective communities as long as it comes from within. Most communities turn deeply sensitive to such jokes if it comes from an “outsider”.
So barring the Sikh community, it’s hard for any other community to truly claim that they have a sense of humour. Then, there are the universally popular jokes on wives, marriage, divorce, adultery, neighbours, and of course, professionals like politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, among others, all have their share of jokes circulating.
Stereotyping – a global phenomenon
India is not alone, jokes stereotyping nationalities abound. There are tons of jokes on the “stupid Pollack” – slang for someone from Poland, Irish jokes that stereotype them for their love for alcohol, sport and violence, the English – for their famous double meaning one-liners, and the Russian – often stereotyped as being stupid, alcoholic, and communist.
So who can claim to have a great sense of humour?
At an individual level, the hallmark of a person having a great sense of humour lies in his or her ability to laugh at oneself as much as at others.
And every once in a while when a crass joke breaks out, that may well be in bad taste, they still have the sporting spirit to either take it with a smile or simply ignore it.
So, can we as a nation really claim to pass muster as having a sense of humour based on the above criteria? The verdict on that is still out.
Is it fair to target a single community all the time?
The Sikh community may have a great sense of humour, but there is only so much a community can take, especially when other communities have little capacity to laugh on themselves.
In a reaction, one proud 54-year old Sikh lady advocate Harvinder Chowdhury, took up the initiative to fight back and filed a PIL in the Supreme Court on 30 October 2015 demanding a ban on websites that published jokes on the Sikh community.
In her petition, Ms Chowdhury claimed that the Sikh community is projected as unintelligent, stupid, idiot, foolish, naive, inept, not well versed with English language and as symbols of stupidity and foolishness.
While her petition seems fair, the Supreme Court was initially hesitant in taking up the matter saying that many ‘Sardar’ jokes such as Santa-Banta ones actually originated from within the community and was enjoyed by the Sikh community themselves as much as others.
Soon, the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee joined the petition and called for the Supreme Court to intervene in curbing such jokes from circulating in print and electronic media.
The Delhi Sikh community has since taken the initiative to create global awareness by garnering support online through change.org. The campaign has since found support from several prominent persons including London-based popular Punjabi singer Malkit Singh.
With the call for a ban getting louder, the apex court has now asked the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee along with the main petitioner, Ms Chowdhury, to suggest within six weeks how they would like to proceed with the ban and how they plan to enforce it.
Is a ban the right way forward?
In today’s electronic age where a joke can go viral in a matter of minutes, enforcing a ban or imposing penalties is going to be tough. Law and order machinery in the country is over burdened with more serious crimes and the judiciary already has a massive backlog of pending cases to deal with.
This is further compounded by the ambiguity in interpreting what might seem funny to some but insulting to others. Besides, how do you curb members of the Sikh community from having a good laugh on Sardar jokes?
Bans don’t work. A better way for the Sikh community would be to use their in-born sporting spirit to their advantage and gently request a person to refrain from sending Sikh jokes. It will be their magnanimity which will work in their favour and over time, Santa-Banta jokes will evolve into other identities thus reducing the number of Sardar jokes over time.
It would be nice for other communities to be conscious of Sikh sensitivities and educate their children to respect the Sikhs along with other communities, and ensure that racial, religious or community related jokes are not spread, especially through mass media.
It may take time but this would be the best way for curbing jokes on the Sikh community, while continuing to have the Sikhs take lead in having a great laugh at community-neutral jokes.
After all, what will life in India be without the loud, garrulous and infectious laughter of a Sikh!