No Funny Business, This!
It was the usual Saturday morning-miasma and lassitude hung about in the air. Gingerly, I sat up in my bed with the daily newspapers in front of me. I skimmed through the headlines and the lead story. Nothing out of the ordinary, but the usual political hullabaloo painted in black all over the page. Alas!
My eyes darted towards a mention about the apex court assenting to hear a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by an eminent lawyer Harvinder Choudhary concerning the banning of jokes around the Sikh community on the World Wide Web on the bottom half of the front page. My eyes popped and I grabbed my glasses and got busy reading. What started out as an ordinary, lethargic Saturday morning instantly metamorphosed into something that got me thinking hard. It troubled and provoked me to pen down this article. Author and columnist Taslima Nasreen says, “I believe in absolute freedom of expression. Everyone has a right to offend and be offended”. Tickling can be amusing, enjoyable and laughter-inducing, but when it’s overdone, it transforms to a form of mock belligerence.
Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Chandigarh was fun, but for one thing. No one except my teachers called me by my first-name. Each class had few Sikh boys in a class of 40 students. And so, for us it was always "Sardar" in a mockingly condescending tone. It was almost as if our first names given to us by our parents were of little or no significance. Our identity was challenged.
Eventually, we graduated to senior school. With that came, witty, scornful humour that was targeted towards us, the Sikhs. Seniors in school bus to classmates in recess began cracking jokes – unintelligent, dim-witted, crude jokes. As a child, you don’t tend to pick friends from different communities or backgrounds. Friendships come without any pre-requisites. As teenage sets in, you become more conscious of who you are as an individual –both from the inside and outside. You’re keen to socialise, make new friends and try hard to fit in. But, the daily reminder of the unsophisticated "12 o’clock" joke took things to a different level. I was a national level debater and public speaker in school. It was very hard for me as a Sikh to face audiences and juries that were largely composed of non-Sikhs. Year after year, in school, my appearance on the dais was greeted with roaring hoots of derisive laughter and jeers, reminding me that at 12 noon all Sikhs went into a tizzy! But, as soon as I began to speak; they fell silent, when I used to end, they were all too embarrassed to applaud.
As time wound its way through the cosmic clock, I stepped into senior school and later, the university. I mellowed and simmered down a bit. I gave in to the nasty “Santa-Banta” jokes, though I’ve never found them funny. Every now and then I hear my friends say, “I hope you don’t mind. I don’t mean any disrespect to you or your community. Nothing personal, ya! There’s this Sardarji joke I wanted to crack”. I gave in. But the fiery, self-respecting Sikh in me has awoken. I vociferously and bluntly tell them that YES! I do mind because it hurts my sentiments and feelings. I’ll laugh at myself, at my own expense, only if I want to, so thank you very much!
Although I never bothered to think about the serious ramifications of all of this till I read this news item, I’m thinking about it now and I’m appalled at the potential of the origin of such nasty jokes that openly target members of a successful, victorious, amiable, lovable minority community who are easy to identify, anyway. The mere thought that any social gathering could possibly end up singling out and maliciously ridiculing a group of people who are largely hard-working, vivacious and accommodating is shameful and ridiculous. Unintentionally or not, "with all due respect" or “I hope you won’t mind”, this isn’t amusing and it needs to stop. It needs to stop because Sikhs belong to India as much as any other community does. It needs to stop despite the fact that we all hold free speech dear.
No doubt free speech is fundamental and guaranteed to us by our constitution but it comes with a degree of responsibility. Respect and reverence for other communities are significant pillars of Indian democracy. When free speech is intentionally used to hurt others, then it must be checked and confiscated. Humorists have their place in democratic nations such as ours – they lay threadbare the shortcomings of the fringe, insane elements. But creating jokes about a community, it could be any community, and then shielding it on the grounds of freedom of expression is a crying shame and a bleeding pity which ought to be condemned.
So I thank Harvinder Chowdhury, not as a fellow Sikh, but as a responsible lawyer for bringing this up.