They are goofy, slightly confused about everyday realities, and they utter with silly abandon what regular intelligent people would stay clear of. Hilarious, innocent, chaotic and idiotic at the same time, Santa and Banta have made us laugh for generations. But the lovable sardar duo may go out of circulation soon if Harvinder Chowdhury has her way. The 52-year old lawyer has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the duo’s antics. She feels sardarji jokes are giving a bad name to the community across the world.
Harvinder Chowdhury. Image Credit: Naresh Sharma/Firstpost
A two-judge bench of the apex court has agreed for a possible hearing on the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by her a month later from now.
Chowdhury, a senior standing counsel in the Supreme Court, did her Masters in Law from Liverpool and had also worked as a legal correspondent for a national English daily during her initial days. Besides pursuing her legal career, this mother of three grown-up children is also writing two books. In a free-wheeling chat, Chowdhury speaks to Firstpost about her PIL and circumstances that compelled her to ask for a ban on Santa and Banta.
The Sikhs in India are known for their sense of humour and wit. They are a self-assured community which can take a joke on themselves. They have even scripted jokes on themselves. There never has been an objection. What made you take the legal route on this issue?
It’s wrong that objection wasn’t raised against jokes on sardars. A large numbers of jokes aimed at Sikhs (sardars) is not done innocently, but is a deliberate attempt to project them as unintelligent, stupid, idiot, foolish, naïve and inept. The fact that the characters are not well-versed in the English language is seen as a mark of foolishness and stupidity. The Sikhs are recognised by their turban (headgear). Now there are websites of jokes on sardars, which ridicule sardars wearing turbans as people with low intellect. As a result, several Sikh students are racially targetted abroad. For example, they say Iske to 12 baj gaye…12 baje sardar pagla jayega (He is a gone case…at 12 noon sardar will go mad). To stop this nuisance, I filed this PIL.
Better late than never. It’s high time that we came out strongly against the wrong portrayal of the Sikhs through Santa Banta kind of jokes. Many of the jokes are highly objectionable and have pornographic content. I have been contemplating for quite some time, but it got little delayed as I had to deal with several other problems in work and life. In between, I had been gathering evidences on this issue.
How can jokes on sardars demean the Sikhs and what are its repercussions?
My children ask me — in fact, many in our community do so — that as Sikhs, do they have some problem in their DNA that all sardars are ridiculed and jokes are cracked on them. Do we have any answer for this? For centuries, Sikhs have made major contributions in every field, agriculture, sports, defence services, etc. Sikhs are present in 170 countries and have contributed to the nations’ economies. They played an important role during India’s freedom struggle, but why are they selectively tragetted through jokes? Till now, people didn’t have realisation about this issue. Due to this, a large number of Sikhs have given up wearing turbans and dropped Kaur and Singh from their surnames. This is a violation of our Right to Freedom of Religion and our expression of faith. They face racial discrimination abroad and have even faced physical assault.
Did you personally face any insult that made you firm on taking this issue head on?
Yes, personally I’ve been facing this pinch — even today, despite being a senior lawyer. Even on the day when I filed my PIL before the bench, a lawyer sitting behind in the courtroom (in the Supreme Court) sarcastically remarked “Yeh sardarwala petition sirf ek sardarni hi file kar sakti hai” (This typically sardar-type petition could be filed only by a sardarni). Can you imagine the audacity of that lawyer? In August, in the Bar-room we were discussing an amendment in a case related to rape. A lawyer passed a comment at me and the time was noon. “Inke to barah baj gaye” (literally means she’s a gone case). Even at market places, I’ve faced comments like “Aap ne to sardar wali baat kar di”, which means you’ve talked like an idiot (sardar). During the Sikh riots, I lost members of my family, and my hair and hands were burnt, because outside my house the name plate displayed that it was a Sikh family’s residence.
What is your plea before the court?
We’ve sought mandamus through the Ministry of Information Technology (IT) to ban websites portraying the Sikhs as fools and to install web-filters so as to filter websites which target the Sikh community through objectionable content. It’s violation of sections 153A and 153B of IPC.
What the apex court has asked from you after the PIL was filed?
The court was very sensitive and took note of this issue. It has asked me to provide documents to prove how these websites on jokes have been perpetually causing injury to the sentiments of the Sikh community, violating secularism and national integration, and crossing the level of amusement by creating absurdity. The court has also wanted to know whether or not websites on sardar jokes violate the Fundamental Right of Life and to live with dignity guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, by projecting the Sikhs as stupid, idiot, foolish and of low intellect.
Have you demanded any compensation?
Yes, I’ve demanded it for the damages incurred to Sikhs due to derogatory language used to portray them through jokes. I don’t want it should go to the National Legal Aid Committee for a social cause.
What will be your next move?
I’m contemplating an FIR against these websites. There are more than 5,000 websites on sardar jokes. And, I’m told that the Santa Banta joke website’s revenue is more than Rs 500 crore! The Ministry of IT, Cyber Law Cell has asked us to file FIR against these websites for further action. There should be an act in the IPC to stop this public nuisance.
Are you getting support from any organisation?
We’ve undertaken a signature campaign and obtained 10,000 signatures. The World Sikh Association and Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Managing Committee have joined this movement. More than anything, it’s the common man coming forward to fight for the cause. We’re working towards making it a big movement.
Noted journalist, columnist and writer Khushwant Singh, one of the most well-known and respected Sikhs, neither shied away from writing and cracking jokes on sardars nor did he object to any being circulated by anybody else. What is your take?
Though he never cracked filthy jokes related to sardars, he did disservice to Sikh community by encouraging jokes on them and not objecting to those created by others.