I’m neither Santa nor Banta Why I support a ban on jokes about Sikhs

‘I don’t mean any disrespect. Nothing personal, yaar. There’s this surd joke I want to share’. This is how it begins. I do mind. I’ll laugh at myself if I want to, thank you very much.
I’M NOT usually a ban-friendly person. I like the freedom that comes with free speech and all of that. But a mention about the Supreme Court agreeing to hear a Public Interest Litigation regarding the banning of jokes about Sikhs on the front page of the newspaper did a better job of waking me up than any cup of coffee ever could. What started out as a regular, lazy Saturday morning has turned out to be quite thought-provoking. I was reminded of what I read somewhere recently: Tickling can be fun, pleasurable and laughter-inducing, but when it’s overdone, it is just a form of mock aggression.
Growing up in a cosmopolitan suburb of Mumbai was fun, but for one thing. No one except my teacher called me by my name. Each class had just one or two Sikh boys in a class of 40 -50 students. And so, for us it was always “Pape” (as in “Pa-pay”) or “Sardar”. It was almost as if we didn’t exist as individuals. I was just a generic member of a community that seemed destined to not have useful first names.
Then came Class IV. Humour kicked in. Kids in school started telling jokes – simple, dumb, crude jokes. At age nine or ten, you don’t understand much. You’re keen to make friends and to fit in. But, the daily reminder of the “12 o’clock” joke took things to a different level. I simmered.
Now, when I hear someone say, “I hope you don’t mind. I don’t mean any disrespect. Nothing personal, yaar. There’s this surd joke I want to share”, I tell them that I do mind because it would be disrespectful.  I’ll laugh at myself if I want to, thank you very much.
No laughing matter
But, pause for a moment and think about where that nine-year old kid, who would have first started telling “Sardar” jokes, get those lines at that time? Radio or TV didn’t have any programme on jokes, let alone this kind. Newspapers didn’t have them, did they? Did kids hear them at home? On the dinner table? Or post-dinner while relaxing in the living room? Did the Dad tell such jokes or did the Mum? Grandpa? Uncle?
Although I didn’t think about all of this back then, I’m thinking about it now and I’m horrified at the possibilities of the genesis of such jokes that target members of a peace-loving minority community who are easy to identify, anyway. The mere thought that a dinner table conversation or a session of funny stories over tea could end up singling out and ridiculing a group of people who are largely hard-working, lively and helpful is worrying. Inadvertently or not, “with all due respect” or not, this isn’t fun and it reminds me of mock-aggression and it needs to stop.
It needs to stop because India needs to grow up and stop being the kid at the dinner table listening wide-eyed to and laughing at crassness. It needs to stop despite the fact that we all hold free speech dear.
Free speech is great but respect and empathy are an even bigger cornerstone of civilisation. When free speech is intended to hurt or hurts, then it must be confiscated until the impressionable little child grows up and understands the responsibilities that come with freedom. Satirists have their place in society – they reveal the silliness of certain folk, even making it clear to them. But telling jokes about a community, any community, and defending it on the grounds of freedom of expression is clearly doubly hurtful. Being laughed at and laughing with someone are two entirely separate things.
So, thank you petitioner Harvinder Chowdhury, for bringing this up. In my eyes, you’ve already won.
I’m not Santa and I’m not Banta and I don’t want to be tickled anymore. —Scroll.in

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