Amrit Hallan

Some thoughts on inherent racism among Sikhs and Hindus

“Oye sardaar.”

“Oye joodi.”

“Oye sardaru.”

“Tere bara baj gaye kya?”

These, and many more expressions an average Sikh child or a Sikh youngster hears on daily basis when growing up in a predominantly non-Sikh neighborhood.

These expressions are normal. Most of the time they’re not even uttered out of contempt.

Sardarji jokes are famous in the Hindi heartland. It is considered perfectly healthy to crack jokes that disparage Sikhs, and it is assumed that they should take these jokes good heartedly.

Although, there can be Gujju jokes or even Bihari jokes, I have often noticed that whereas jokes about other communities are mostly about fun, the Sardarji jokes are normally demeaning and insulting.

Once my brother-in-law remarked that he took up a course in telecommunications to get a promotion and for that he needed to live in a hostel with other candidates. He was the only Sikh candidate among them. Whenever they got together, they made it a point to crack a Sardarji joke. It was out-and-out harassment because the jokes were always directed towards him. Although as a school kid, he lived in a majorly Sikh community in Delhi (Vishnu Garden), he always dreaded the treatment he was meted out in the school where most of the students were non-Sikh. He had resolved that he would not allow his son to grow up in India, if they lived outside of Punjab, with long hair.

During my 11th-12th standard I studied in a government school. There were 3 Sikh students in the class. I rarely heard the other students calling them by name. It was always “abe sardar…”.

If one of them did something funny or something goofy, it would immediately elicit, “abe tere bara to nahi baj gaye?”

If there was a fight, “teri joodi ukhad ke na haath mein de dunga.”

They knew that I was a Sikh too, but many years ago I had cut my hair because due to cerebral palsy, it was difficult for me to maintain them on my own. Hence, I was never the butt of their jokes. It could also be because of my disability.

It was not that they were nasty. I spent 2 years in that government school where most of the students were from lower-middle-class and never even once someone misbehaved with me, or pushed me or taunted me for my disability. Never.

But when it came to calling Sardar-type names to those 3 students, it was no holds barred. Even the teachers never called them by their names. It was always “sun Sardarji”. It’s as if they had internalized this strange language for students with long hair who tied them in a knot over their heads. It was considered to be abnormal to call those students by their names. They were not boys, they were “sardars”.

In the wake of the recent protests by the so-called farmers that have been predominantly spearheaded by the Sikh community from Punjab (many of my relatives have supported the protests) many Sikhs left highly offensive and nasty comments directed at the Hindu community, on Facebook and Twitter. These comments are very shameful and although, I believe it is sometimes hard to tolerate such behavior, giving importance to such behavior is actually helping such nasty people. The comments are so shameful and awkward that I don’t feel like writing them and I don’t know how they could even utter them. But that’s besides the point.

Among many Sikhs, making fun of other communities, especially Hindus and those who speak Hindi, is quite common. They don’t have jokes but they carry a very condescending attitude towards people from U.P. or Bihar. They also make jibes about Madrassis but they have a special reservation of condescension towards “Bhaiyas”, “Purbias” and “Biharis”.

When I cut my hair the first remark my father made was, “Poora bhaiya lagda peya” as if looking like Bhaiya is something demeaning. A few years ago (he is no more) he discovered one of my old photographs in which I was quite thin, looked a bit dark and had a moustache. He laughed deridingly and said, “Es photo che poora bhaiya lag reha hain.”

The Hindus within the Punjabi community are not treated with condescension, but with a little bit of contempt and apprehension. For example, you are told not to trust “Baniyas”, “Lalas” and “Pandats”. There are many folk songs or rural songs that caution you against trusting Baniyas, Lalas and Pandats.

They don’t have nasty jokes about the non-Sikh communities mentioned above, but the feeling of “othering” is always there. I have seen it in my own family and among my own relatives.

I’m not saying this “othering” and racialism is all pervasive, but they exist quite widely. For example, my wife, who is from U.P., repeatedly tells me that in her circles, Sikhs enjoy great respect and their contribution towards saving the Hindus from the Mughals is very well recognized (although, accounts are coming up that claim that this “saving” is quite overrated compared to the stories of valor among the Marathas and the Rajputs). Even in modern times, given a choice, in case of a problem, a Sikh is more prone to be trusted than a member of any other community, for instant help.

When I started interacting on social media, especially on Facebook and Twitter, I noticed that among the Hindu right-wing the Sikhs (at least before the farmer protests) are quite respected, and there are many Sikhs, including myself, who vouch for the ancient and ageless sanatan dharma. I know more about Hinduism and its history than my wife who is a Dwivedi.

There has been some friction due to the highly disturbing images of Sikhs acting like well-fed spoiled brats, running amok, attacking the policemen with swords and trying to run them over with their tractors and then breaking the last straw in the form of desecrating the national flag and hoisting the Nishan Saheb atop Lal Quila.

I come across many comments of people pledging that they are never going to visit a gurdwara again and sit to have langar (because many moronic Sikhs posted videos taunting the Hindus for greedily eating at the langars), and I can understand from where this anger is coming.

I don’t know what is the history behind this needless racism that exists between the Sikhs and the Hindus. Who started this name-calling and this contempt for each other? This friction didn’t start with Bhindrawale or Operation Blue Star or the 1984 Sikh pogrom by the Congress party, or when hundreds of Hindus were massacred during terrorism or after 30,000+ Hindu families had to flee from Punjab during the days of terrorism. I have been seeing this friction since childhood. The songs that caution the Sikh youngsters to be wary of Lalas, Baniyas and Pandats are quite old, and so are the terms like “oye joodi”. The Bhaiya or Purbiya -related jibes are not a new phenomenon.

Maybe it has got nothing to do with someone being a Sikh or someone being a Hindu. Maybe inherently we are racists as a civilization. Maybe in ancient times we were not, but in the previous few centuries, we have internalized racism.