By dismissing the petition to ban the online dissemination of the Santa and Banta jokes, did the Supreme Court miss an opportunity to contribute to the virtually non-existent humor jurisprudence in India?
Shivangi Gangwar, Associate Professor, Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.
Santa and Banta jokes are the mainstay of most Indian childhoods. Santa and Banta were used as stage names by the comedian duo Gurprit and Prabhpreet Singh but somewhere along the line, they turned into fictional characters in their own right and acquired pan-Indian fame.
The defining characteristics of Santa and Banta jokes are that both are simple-minded middle-aged men belonging to the Sikh religious community. Most Indians consider these jokes lame but many Sikhs find them to be offensive and demeaning, not because of what is said but because of who says it.
In 2015, Harvinder Chowdhury, a Sikh lawyer, petitioned the Supreme Court of India to ban the online dissemination of the Santa and Banta jokes. The Court admitted the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition and constituted a committee to look into this matter, before ultimately dismissing the petition in 2017, without judging it on merits.
This paper will examine this specific attempt of the Indian judiciary to regulate humor, within the broader context of freedom to religion and free speech. It will study the arguments raised in the PIL, the recommendations of the committee, and the observations of the Court. No study has been done of the relationship between law and humor in India.
This paper will examine whether the Court missed an opportunity to contribute to the virtually non-existent humor jurisprudence in India. Last year a children’s book The Art of Tying a Pug was withdrawn by its publishers because of the backlash it faced from the Sikh community on the wordplay in its title, which referred to the dog breed and the turban (pag or pagdi) worn by Sikhs.
This incident is illustrative of the chilling effect on humor publications and the current publishers’ strategy of withdrawing the material deemed offensive instead of submitting it for judicial determination.
Could a decision on merits in the Santa and Banta jokes case have laid down guidelines on what was acceptable and what was offensive? What would such guidelines be? Is the laying down of guidelines even possible, or desirable, given the unique set of issues presented by humor for the law?
Ethnic jokes, in the form of minority-majority community jokes, are found in cultures all over the world. This paper will also undertake a comparative analysis of ethnic jokes in an attempt to answer these questions.
Published in: HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research
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