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Sardar jokes or Khalistani: two faces of the Sikh stereotype

If jokes and cinematic representations often tend to depict Sikhs as laughable, news media takes on the task of portraying the community as violent and dangerous

Nihang Sikhs ride a motorcycle at the site during farmers' ongoing protest against the three farm laws at Tikri border, in Delhi on Sunday. (ANI Photo)

The Sikh has long been constructed in stock images placing him in a strange position, where he constantly needs to reiterate other aspects of himself. These images form a lens through which a pre-determined version of him is made available for social consumption. Irrespective of his difference, he is perpetually at risk of being held ransom to the value iterations surrounding these images. Over time, these have evolved into stereotypes, which have infiltrated personal interactions, media representations and the social psyche....

The pervasiveness and persistence of these images despite their growing incongruity to the average Sikh require an analysis of the impetus behind them. Anxiety over difference leads to ‘othering’, which at some level is assuring oneself of one’s own superior stance. Hobbes, in the 17th century, said that laughter directed at someone is a validation of the self, which by implication involves denigrating the other. This includes experiencing importance by comparing oneself with the weak points of others.... Sigmund Freud elaborated this further when he said that by making someone ‘small, inferior, despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him which is important because someone else bears witness to it through laughter’....

When this humour arises out of social or cultural anxiety, it involves imposing implications of inferiority or comicality on the ethnicity of the people concerned. By placing them on the cultural boundary, those at the dominant centre emphasise their distance from what is constructed as the cultural norm. Built within this are attempts at drawing comparisons to ‘our’ way of doing things which are ostensibly the correct and rational ones, against ‘their’ ways which are constructed as absurd and irrational....

Many of these traits are visible in the constructions around Sikhs, whether in humour or cinema. Humour might not be intended to have any specific consequences but it does reflect the social environment which goes into making it. The Sikh in ‘sardar jokes’ is generally subjected to the majority’s superior gaze. His work ethic is projected as one relying more on brawn than on brain. His acumen in fields requiring physical prowess is portrayed from the reverse perspective, as lack of intellectual acumen within modern economic and market systems. This, often, takes the form of contrast between the shrewdness and frugality informing what is constructed as the purposive and organised life of the majority, and the sardar’s less calculative, ‘obtuse’ approach. Humour targeting his language constraints implies the apparent sophistication of the onlooker. The consistent focus on his awkward accent and loud manner of speaking puts him in the category of the lesser ‘other’.

His blundering use of English, the linguistic marker of elitism in Indian society, firmly places him in the non-elite category. His social skills or the lack of them make him consistently laughable. He is never tuned into the nuances of social etiquette and ends up making hilarious faux pas. He elicits laughter with his attempts at being a part of the mainstream, which he is at odds with, due to his over-the-top enthusiasm and silly antics.

The same image gains visual currency in cinema. A male Sikh in Indian cinema is loud and boisterous, his gregariousness a genial indicator of his underdeveloped social etiquette. He is generally the drunken wedding guest, the neighbourhood uncle always in balle balle mode, the taxi driver who speaks with an alien and obdurate accent, the fat young adult who is infantilised in his obsession with eating, etc. Even if he is shown as good-hearted, he is either a simpleton or a socially awkward character on the verge of being a caricature. In most cases, his colourful clothes, his strange mannerisms and even a differently structured physical body make him the subject of ‘carnivalesque curiosity’....

These images do not just construct the Sikh in a diminutive manner but also place him on the periphery of a majority culture instead of making him the centre of his own world. Built within the images is a systematic negation of the validity of his cultural difference. His difference is portrayed not as one which needs to be recognised and accorded a place of its own but in terms of a joke or a spectacle. It offers no contextualisation in a distinct, fully formed social and cultural background, which would necessitate his evolution into a complete person. Unlike other characters plotted on different referral points of a real-life continuum, a Sikh in Indian cinema is shown to have a limited underdeveloped response and is generally used as a side character....

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The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition (Blooomsbury India)
The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition (Blooomsbury India)

Systematic constructions can become even stronger when these begin to be created or reinforced through knowledge-producing mediums. While jokes and cinematic representations have constructed the Sikh as peripheral and laughable, the news mediums did the more dangerous task of constructing the Sikh as dangerous. The political turmoil of the 1980s and the rise of radical sentiments among a section of Sikhs in Punjab led to unfortunate incidents of terrorism in the state. Bhindranwale’s exhortations to the community to build a highly masculinised and defiant Sikh identity also equated this identity with the turban, the beard and the kirpan, which distinguished them from others. However, media used the images without qualification so that the average Sikh using these as basic symbols of his religious identity also got constructed in the same image.

While covering acts of aggression by militants before and after Operation Blue Star, images of AK47-wielding turbaned and bearded men introduced as Sikh militants rather than just militants, reinforced the identification. Ordinary Sikhs came to be identified as people who thought and felt differently from others and who in their hearts were fundamentalists. The sentiment grew stronger in the months following Operation Blue Star when Sikhs as a community were attributed a religious fanaticism a generalisation that would lead to dire consequences for the majority community. Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards validated the opinion and infused the images in circulation with greater authenticity. The Sikh was the ‘other’, the dangerous fundamentalist, the fanatic in search of revenge. That none of these images synchronised with the Sikh living next door seemed to be of little consequence. The events of November 1984 saw the Sikhs in Delhi and other North Indian states suffer the consequences of this image construction.

As an anthropologist collating information while working closely with the Sikh victims of the 1984 genocide, Veena Das came across views, which would be highly surprising for the average Sikh. Das collates the essence of what she discovered in her interactions, in a few succinct points. For the majority,

A Sikh does not believe in any loyalty except that to his religion....

A Sikh is like a snake. He will bite the very hands that feed him.... Sikhs are naturally aggressive and attracted to violence. They are not capable of observing normal social constraints.... There is a fanaticism bordering on madness in Sikh character.

The play of perceptions generated through these opinions determined how the majority saw the Sikhs even while the killing, looting and burning was going on. Sikhs taking shelter in gurdwaras were seen as groups collecting weapons to attack the majority community. Those who refused to move to shelter houses for fear of being trapped were painted as zealots awaiting martyrdom. All this eventually built up collective rancour, which failed to distinguish between the image and the individual, between social reality and political rhetoric....

The ‘othering’ passed on from one generation to another and exacerbated by the more recent events became the reason for the backlash which has since sunk into the community psyche. A lot of time has passed since. The militant movement in Punjab has ended as much due to the elimination of various actors of that movement as the wish of the common Sikh to resume a normal life. Sikhs outside Punjab, victims of insane violence, have resumed their lives too. Individual relationships between Sikhs and the people among whom they live have in many cases emerged stronger for many among the majority rose above political rhetoric. Yet, the images constructed around the Sikhs survive at a subconscious level. This is evident in how the submerged image of the Sikh as a fundamentalist makes the Khalistani trope easy to revive as and when convenient.

Excerpted from The Sikh Next Door with permission from Bloomsbury India.

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