Sikhs fail to see funny side of phone jokes
("Times," December 4, 2007)
New Delhi, India - What happens when you combine old jokes with new technology in India? Answer: you get slapped with a criminal investigation.
As the country's second richest man discovered today, it may not pay to distribute ethnic gags, no matter how well worn, after the Sikh community formally protested against an “utterly disgusting” gibe circulated via his mobile phone network.
Anil Ambani and Reliance Communications, India's second biggest mobile phone operator, were charged by police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh with “insulting a religion or faith” after a complaint in Lucknow. The charge, if proved, carries a maximum punishment of three years in prison or a fine.
Sikhs in the city of Meerut staged violent protests this week after Reliance sent its “joke of the day” to subscribers via text message.
The joke, which originated from a website called santabanta.com, was: What is the difference between a Sardar (Sikh) and a donkey? Answer: a tail.
Jagmeet Singh Meet, a Sikh leader, said: “Our community has been the butt of ridicule and snide jokes. Be it television, plays or movies, we have been targeted. But this joke by Santa Banta on Reliance is utterly disgusting.”
Sardarji jokes are as commonplace in India as blonde jokes in Britain, playing on the Sikh stereotype for dimwittedness because of their burly physique and reputation for making good soldiers and poor intellectuals.
Many originated from the community itself, based on its tendency for self-deprecation and good humour. But in recent years, with the advent of the internet and mobile communications, the dissemination of age-old jokes has increased.
Sikh leaders say that the trend is getting out of control and they are being unfairly abused in a way that is starting to affect the morale of its youth.
In March, a group of young Sikhs calling themselves the Sikh Media and Culture Watch forced police to arrest a Bombay bookseller for stocking the Santa Banta Joke Book, which is based on two satirical Sikh cartoon characters.
Two years ago, a scene in the Bollywood film Shabd, involving Zayed Khan trying to cheer up Aishwarya Rai by selling a Sardarji joke, was cut on the order of the censor board after protests by Sikhs.
The latest controversy has stirred up emotions among India's minorities living in a Hindu-majority country, who claim that the line between wit and bigotry has been crossed.
Reliance said it was not responsible for content by One97, a third party supplier, which had been instructed under contract not to disseminate racially or religiously offensive material. The company is considering legal action.
Daily jokes, paid for by users via a monthly subscription, are carried by other networks but none is run by as high profile a businessman as Mr Ambani. With a net worth of $45 billion, according to Forbes, he is second only in wealth in India to his estranged brother Mukesh. His mobile phone network, with 40 million subscribers, is his biggest asset.
Reliance said that it had sent a letter to the Sikh community in Uttar Pradesh and a text message apology to its subscribers. One97 also issued a public apology and said that it had withdrawn the Santa Banta jokes from its service to all network operators in India.