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Sikh Joke, Over Reaction Or Political Play

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012 | 07:12 pm

Jay Leno, in his Tonight Show monologue on Jan. 19, flashed this image of Darbar Sahib as the narrator said: "And here’s a look a Mitt Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee.” Applause. He and the show's parent organization, NBC, is being sued for libel.

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A libel lawsuit filed last week by a California Sikh against comedian Jay Leno is being called an over-reaction by some Sikhs, but Sikhs on both sides of the controversy agree the incident is being exploited by Indian politicians during this election season.

On Jan. 19, Jay Leno, host of the late-night Tonight Show, compared the homes of various Republican presidential candidates in his opening monologue. After showing pictures of Newt Gingrich’s and Ron Paul’s homes, a nighttime picture of the glistening Darbar Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, flashed on the screen as the narrator said: “…And here’s a look a Mitt Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee.” Applause.

The joke was directed at Romney’s immense wealth, countering his claims on the campaign trail of being able to identify with ordinary Americans. But Leno’s use of Darbar Sahib to make his point has outraged many Sikhs here and abroad, and has garnered unprecedented media attention in India. Major Indian news outlets reported on the joke, with many Indian politicians voicing their objections.

“On the surface it looks magnanimous, but there is a lot of mischief involved,” said Tapisher (T. Sher) Singh, writer and founder of the blog, Sikhchic.com.

In a scathing post on Jan. 24 titled, ‘Jay Leno Has Done No Wrong,’ T. Sher Singh blogged: “There is an election going on in India, and it is opportune for these scoundrels (politicians) to drum up a controversy out of thin air, fan the flames, and then claim that they are the defenders of Sikhs. And then milk the uneducated peasants for their votes.”

He took particular aim at Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna, India’s external affairs minister, who said talk show hosts should be “sensitive” to religious groups; Vayalar Ravi, minister for overseas Indian affairs, who said, "Freedom does not mean hurting the sentiments of others;" and
 asked Nirupama Rao, India’s ambassador to the United States to take up the matter with the relevant authorities.

“So, what are these …(politicians) in India huffing and puffing about? So let me see ...,” T. Sher Singh wrote. “Tens of thousands of Sikhs - innocent men, women and children - get murdered in broad daylight, in the open streets of India’s capital city, with the direct involvement of these very …(politicians), either in the mass murders (of 1984) or in their subsequent cover-up.
 And not one of this trinity… said a word. Or lifted a finger. Before, during or after. Twenty-eight years have gone by, and these very same …(politicians) continue to sit on their hands.”


Among the 100 people who commented on the post by Monday, on this point, agreed with him.

“There is a reason why …(politicians) from India want to beat this drum,” wrote Baljit Singh of Birmingham, England. “It fits into their strategy of depicting Sikhs as terrorists who are prone to irrational and disproportionate behavior.”

The Indian embassy in Washington did not return SikhNN requests for comment, but the U.S. State Department confirmed that the Indian government contacted department officials regarding the joke.

The department cannot say anything about discussions between the two countries, said Noel Clay, spokesman for the department. As for Leno’s comment, it is “constitutionally protected free speech, and appears satirical in nature,” Clay said.

“I feel it is racist,” said Randeep Singh Dhillon of Bakersfield, California. Doing business as Bol Punjabi All Regions Community Organization, Randeep Singh and Bol Punjabi filed a libel lawsuit on Jan. 23 against Leno, host of the late-night Tonight Show, and its parent organization, National Broadcasting Corporation.

Neither NBC nor the Tonight Show returned SikhNN requests for comment by the publication deadline.

“I tried calling him and his organization, NBC,” Randeep Singh added. “They refuse to call back.”

“Someone has to stop this,” he said. Because he lives near Los Angeles, home of Leno and his show, it seemed appropriate to file a lawsuit at the California Superior Court in Los Angeles, he said.

“The publication and broadcast was libelous on its face and clearly exposes …(Randeep Singh), other Sikhs and their religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it falsely portrays the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh,” the complaint says.

Randeep Singh also claimed to have suffered “loss to his reputation, shame, mortification and hurt feelings,” according to the complaint.

He has not specified a legal remedy in the complaint, but he may ask for a public apology and a donation to a local gurdwara, said Indra Lahiri, his attorney. The Indian government also can lobby the United States for a political remedy if the law does not provide for a remedy, he added.

But it is possible that the Indian government is getting involved because of political forces in India, Lahiri said.

“This is pretty odd,” Randeep Singh also said of the Indian government’s involvement. But he has nothing to do with them, he said.






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