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Some of the most prominent ‘Sardar jokes’ have emerged from the Sikhs themselves. Khushwant Singh never tired himself of the humour directed against his own community. Jokes emanating from inbuilt stereotypical prejudices are always offensive and there is an absolute need for self-restraint. But there are others that harp of stereotypes again without being demeaning and we do not see any harm in them. The Supreme Court of India shall very soon take a call on the ‘Sardar jokes’, which a section of the community finds demeaning. Which is what brought back this particular anecdote. Here’s an erudite observation by Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.


Irishman: Well did you not say that they drive on the right side of the road in Europe!
Englishman: Indeed they do!
Irishman: How in the Heaven’s name can they do it! I tried it on the roads here and I can tell
you, it is extremely dangerous!!

I heard this wisecrack during my sojourn in Ireland where I started my professional career. And it was narrated by an Irishman himself!

The Supreme Court of India shall very soon take a call on the ‘Sardar jokes’, which a section of the community finds demeaning. Which is what brought back this particular anecdote.

Every society has a collection of wisecracks, which are directed towards a section. The Irish jokes are quite prevalent in the United Kingdom. And even within Ireland, there are loads of ‘Kerrymen’ jokes floating around, which are directed towards people coming from County Kerry. Having lived in the country, I found them somewhat incongruous particularly as those hailing from Kerry are generally considered to have the best intellect in the whole of Emerald Isles.

Polish jokes are commonplace in the United States and there are big tomes available on them in nearly every bookshop. In Australia, people from Tasmania are generally dismissed as dimwits, who require two heads to function normally. For the record, Ricky Ponting, one of the greatest cricketers to emerge from Australia is a Tasmanian. In the Atlantic provinces of Canada, the Newfoundlanders and those from Cape Breton Islands have to bear a similar brunt.

The whole point here is that I have, until now, not come across a single Irish who has taken umbrage at the ‘Paddy’ jokes nor have I come across any Kerryman object to Kerrymen jokes. I do not remember the Poles or the Newfoundlanders raising any objection to this widespread practice.

Does that mean that the Sikhs are being unduly sensitive! I do not think so. Some of the most prominent ‘Sardar jokes’ have emerged from the Sikhs themselves. Khushwant Singh never tired himself of the humour directed against his own community.

I think it would be important here to state my own personal position vis-a- vis this issue. I have a personal code of conduct that I observe with religious conviction that prevents me from narrating any joke directed at a particular community unless I have a degree of an equation with them which does not have the potential for any misgiving. And when I do have that equation, it is based on an understanding that I can take jibes against my own community.

More importantly, even with that equation, I would not narrate a joke, which was in any way derogatory or abusive towards a section of the society.

I have very close friends among the Sikh community, Irish, and the Poles! And when I am in their company, some jokes do inadvertently crop up. But there has been no occasion when this has led to any unpleasantness. Everyone understands that none of the jibes are derogatory in nature and they fulfill the need for humour.

A bit before my time just after the War, the Jews were victims of such wisecracks all over the world. Some of the Jewish jokes were decidedly cruel and demeaning; they should not have found a place in the civilised conversation.  And it is certainly true that some of the ‘Sardar jokes’ also fall into this category. I certainly object to any joke that targets a religion, race or a physical/mental problem. I cannot even begin to describe some of the jibes that my Jewish friends narrated to me that they had to endure. They bordered on obscene and I certainly would have objected to them.

Thankfully, they are a thing of the past! The Jews all over the world have amply demonstrated that many of the prejudices and misgivings people harboured about them were completely untrue.

That had certainly not diminished the number of Jewish jokes. Plenty of books on the Jewish favourite jokes has emerged from the Jews themselves. One of the perineal Jewish favourites:

Q: What is the evidence that Jesus was Jewish?
A: He lived at home until he was 33, he went into his father’s job, his mother thought he was God, and he thought his mother was a virgin! What else could he be!

Jokes emanating from inbuilt stereotypical prejudices are always offensive and there is an absolute need for self-restraint. But there are others that harp of stereotypes again without being demeaning and I personally do not see any harm in them.

I shall narrate a personal experience. Years ago, when I was a professor at Columbia University, New York, I was invited to a meal at a friend’s place along with a few guests, who were Sikhs. Our host asked one of them if he would like another round of ‘lassi’ to which he responded that he was a Sardar and he would love it. One of the other guests, a very senior Indian Foreign Service Officer strongly objected and said that any such stereotype even if it reflected on the well-known Sikh fondness for lassi was demeaning to the Sikh community.

We respected his sentiments but the meal was a lot more somber after that. Many of us felt that the comment was innocuous and did not merit that over-reaction. If anything, it was reflective of a bindass never say die attitude of the Sikh community, which has held them so well and evoked global admiration.

Religious jokes are almost always in bad taste and I object to any demeaning stereotype of a Muslim or a Hindu when it is presented. But most of the stereotype in the jokes of the type I have just narrated cannot possibly be seen as religious slurs.

Indians themselves have been subjected to stereotypes. I recall the great star Peter Sellers on the two movies, The Millionaires and The Party, where he played an Indian. In the second, it was a pure satire of the gawkiness that Indians at the time were associated with. I did not take umbrage but I know a few people who did – even in the first movie where he plays an awkward Indian psychiatrist! But just as well there was no invocation to the courts to rule on this matter and it died its natural death.

Once a community learns to laugh at itself, the potential to feel offended is diminished automatically. Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar are two top British stars. They ruled the roost for a long time. After watching them, it was clear to everyone that the Indians could laugh at themselves. And there was no more Peter Sellers brand of mimicry.

Learning to laugh at oneself is a sign of self-confidence within the community. And this is what Khushwant Singh tended to believe when he used to narrate the ‘Sardar jokes’. But equally there is a responsibility on each and every one of us to appreciate fully, which of our actions can be perceived as demeaning and exercise self-restraint. In the long run, it is these attributes that are likely to offer a solution to this problem rather than recourse to the courts!

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the internet.

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