Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Origin of Sardarji Jokes?

I was wondering how Sardarjis became the butt of jokes considering the British had classified them as a 'martial race'. The 'Lions of Punjab' were seen by British to be everything that the effeminate Hindu (and especially Bengali Hindu) was not.  Sikhs were formidable fighters and, to top that, were considered extremely loyal to the British. Punjab was therefore the main recruiting ground for the British Indian Army. The Sikhs of Punjab proved their loyalty in during the First World War and, as an official report in 1920 on 'Disturbances in the Punjab' states, had even helped the British to 'put down the Gadr movement'. How, then, did this 'martial race' with its macho, trustworthy members become the the butt of jokes? I put this question to my father and after some discussion we arrived at a theory as to what may have led to this! 

The more learned, western-educated Bengali Hindu may have played a sneaky role in this. Bengali Hindus were the most educated and therefore posed the greatest challenge to the British Raj. To stymie this challenge, knowledge produced by the Raj made these western-educated Bengalis the object of its ridicule, portraying them as cowardly, effeminate men who ran from battle and therefore deserved conquest. 

Humiliated by the British denigration of them as cowardly and feminine, and provoked further by their comparison with Sikhs whom the British orientalists praised, in contrast, as 'masculine', the English-educated babus may have lashed out at Sardarjis, in turn making Sikhs the object of their ridicule. Sikhs were not as literate or well-educated as these Bengali babus, and coming from a rural/pastoral background, the urbanised, westernised babus may have found it easy to ridicule them as as awkward, village 'bumpkins' who did not understand urban, western, or 'modern' ways of life - akin to Charlie Chaplin's faux pas in 'Modern Times'! 

Their turbans must have been scoffed at too. This is rather curious as even respected Hindu political figures be it Gokhale, Tilak, or Malaviya and other renowned figures such as Swami Vivekananda wore turbans. Perhaps an urban, upper-caste snobbery played a role here. How dare these uneducated, uncouth rustics... these boorish, low-caste yokel adorn themselves with turbans that ought to be worn only by the urbane and the genteel?

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Just thought it was interesting to think of the history of The Sardarji Joke. While thinking about this, I came across a history of how Sikhs came to be associated with "barah baje" (the joke, at least as I understood it in school, was that at 12 o'clock Sikhs go bisserk for no rhyme or reason :S). The association of Sikhs with 12 o'clock apparently dates back to a story about Nadir Shah's invasion of India in 1738. Apparently, Nadir Shah's troops had plundered Delhi and captured hundreds of women. The Sikhs decided to attack Nadir Shah's camp and free the women but since they were outnumbered by the latter's army, they decided to raid his camp at midnight (12 o'clock). Due to this intervention by the Sikhs , many captive women were freed and "dignity was restored" to the Hindu community. How such stories of valour and courage were forgotten and replaced by Santa-Banta jokes, and kids in school setting their alarms to 12 o'clock and Johnny Lever looking at his watch while the little 'serdy' kid counted stars in Karan Johar's first movie is what I was interested in! 




12 comments:

Apurva Sukant said...

Nice read! Finally I know the 'why' of 12'o clock jokes, had been a forgotten childhood curiosity.

Soheb said...

interesting read

Vanya said...

thanks Apurv and Soheb :)!

Karthik said...

Fun topic for a blog! Remember sitting at your dining table discussing the origins of quaint surdy behavior. "Surdy surdy ki gal hai? Birdy birdy Sea gull hai". Too much.

Tapeesh Sood said...

an interesting read...

Vanya said...

Thanks for reading and commenting guys :). appreciate it!

Inderpal Singh said...

Were these jokes heavily predominant in the Indian society prior to the 1980s? Or had they become more entrenched in the Indian psyche post 1984? Perhaps they were used as one of the many methods to dishearten the Sikh struggle and to further oppress the community?

Anonymous said...

Hi Vanya,
This is quite interesting and I happen to come across it while searching for pieces on the effeminate Bengali Babu culture as a topic of my work(something which seems to have been well researched and written about!).
S

Lisa said...

Nice read. Bengali angle to the sardarji jokes is a new one to me. I have been pondering over the same question for a while now but never made that connection. One thing can be safely said that they have their origins in prejudice. Unfortunately, jokes are the most clever ways to humiliate someone since they are supposed to be laughed at; fighting back becomes a huge challenge. Impressive tactic but harmful for any society or individual as they do a lot of harm to the Sikh community, be it bullying in schools or just insulting their religion or creating beliefs/attitudes contrary to the 'truth'. I have never really enjoyed these jokes (and I have shunned someone for making an insulting video on Sikhs since my friend got offended) but I found something quite startling: I once wondered "she is so smart but she is a Sikh"!! (Sikhs are stupid!! is what the jokes are all about.) Impressed by the power of jokes though.

Ramakrishnan T S said...

Superb article.. Seems like Britishers succeeded in dividing us more than we were divided already

Ramakrishnan T S said...

Superb article.. Seems like Britishers succeeded in dividing us more than we were divided already

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