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Insights into Editorial: Why humour in public discourse is necessary for social wellbeing

Insights into Editorial: Why humour in public discourse is necessary for social wellbeing 

06 February 2016

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The Supreme Court recently agreed to examine a PIL which seeks a ban on jokes on Sikhs and Sardars.

Why such jokes should be banned?

According the PIL, such jokes are a violation of their right to equality with fellow citizens and an attack on the dignity of the community. These jokes, according to them, portray the Sardar community as the people of low intellect.

  • The petitioner argues that cracking jokes on a particular community amounts to racial abuse and hurting religious sentiments and also alleged that Sikhs faced ridicule in foreign countries as well because of these jokes.

Other grounds:

Most Sardar jokes smear the community with negative qualities (like the oversexed Sardar, scatological Sardar, foolish Sardar and so on). By branding Sardars as ‘irregular’, these jokes make an ‘other’ out of a community that is not afraid to mingle with different communities.

What has the Court observed?

The Supreme Court, in its initial hearing, has told the petitioner that there are many Sikhs who do not mind such jokes. Many people take these jokes sportingly.

  • Hence, it may not be an insult but only some casual comic statements for amusement.

Arguments against this petition:

If the strength of our country lies in its diversity, we must be able to revel in our differences and laugh at the idiosyncrasies — real, exaggerated or even imagined — of every community.

  • Sikhs are not the only ones here. In Mumbai, jokes abound about “mad bawas”, in Kolkata about “kanjoos Maadoos”, about “maka paos” from Goa and “wily Malayalis” from the south. The list is much longer.
  • There are many more stereotypes — Gujjus who carry theplas all the way to Antarctica, Bongs who pronounce everything like a rosogulla, and Sindhi businessmen who strut about in blingy suits.
  • Jains and Muslims haven’t been spared either. Bollywood films like Two States and Vicky Donor capture intercommunity prejudices, both artfully and humorously, but end up celebrating the spirit of happy accommodation in intercommunity marriages.

What if the petitioner wins?

If the petition were to succeed, many more peeved and easily offended persons will join the bandwagon and seek bans on perceived insults.

  • In that case, according to some, the society would turn into a boring and colourless and it would be difficult to celebrate our quirks and poke a little innocent fun at one another.

What the law says?

Humour, parody and satire are integral to the freedom of speech, a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution.

  • The grounds on which the freedom of speech can be restricted are limited and quite exhaustively set out under Article 19(2).
  • These restrictions are sovereignty and integrity of the country, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality. Restrictions can also be imposed on grounds of contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
  • The threshold for hate speech, punishable under provisions of the Indian Penal Code, is much higher. To constitute an offence under Section 153A, one must show that the language of the writing or the utterance is of a nature calculated to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between communities.
  • Likewise, the offence under Section 295A, which punishes acts intended to outrage religious feelings, must be deliberate and malicious.

Legal aspect of this debate:

Given the pride of place accorded to the freedom of speech under our Constitution, restrictions must further qualify as being reasonable, as minimally invasive of the fundamental right as possible.

  • Unless jokes about communities get nasty enough to threaten public order, or the integrity of the country, which they most certainly do not, there can be no case for interfering with free speech. Nor can such generic jokes amount to defamation for they are directed not at identifiable individuals but a whole community.
  • Unless humour and parody cross the boundaries of free speech and enter the realm of what is described as hate speech, there can be no case for proscribing them.

Way ahead:

When the petitioner said the issue involved sensitivity of a particular community, the Court gave her the option of placing her petition before a Sikh judge (Justice J S Khehar) of the Supreme Court.

  • The petitioner has however said that she would argue before the current bench and asked for some time to come back with more case laws and other material to support her plea.


Humour in public discourse is necessary for social wellbeing. As Justice Sachs said in the Laugh It Off case: “A society that takes itself too seriously risks bottling up its tensions and treating every example of irreverence as a threat to its existence. Humour is one of the great solvents of democracy. It permits the ambiguities and contradictions of public life to be articulated in non-violent forms. It promotes diversity. It enables a multitude of discontents to be expressed in a myriad of spontaneous ways. It is an elixir of constitutional health.” In times when the world is grappling with the challenges thrown up by multiculturalism and the complex problems of assimilation and accommodation among disparate cultures, India stands as a shining example. And being able to make fun of one another may have something to do with it. A little jest can do no harm. It can only do a world of good. Eliminate humour from political discourse and the freedom of speech is rendered a limp and lustreless right.