Leno’s Remark Stirs Debate in Sikh Community

The NBC host and comedian Jay Leno’s wisecrack last month, in which he showed a photo of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, while poking fun at the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s millions, has met a mixed reaction from the American Sikh community.

News India Times’ Ela Dutt reports:

On Jan. 19, during his monologue at the beginning of “The Tonight Show,” Leno showed the imagined homes of the various Republican candidates. Taking a dig at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose tax returns show he made some $42 million over a two-year period, Leno pulled out a glowing photo of Amritsar’s Golden Temple, revered by Sikhs worldwide.

“Here’s a look at Mitt Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee,” he said.

While some Sikhs have denounced Leno’s remarks on Jan. 19 as racist and even have filed a lawsuit against the comedian and NBC, others are dismissing the reaction as political correctness and the comment as a harmless joke.

Randeep Dhillon, of Bakersfield, Calif., filed a lawsuit seeking general and punitive damages, in which he claims that Leno “falsely portrays the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh.”

Harjot Singh Khalsa of Milpitas, CA., launched a petition campaign on change.org to “send a strong message that the sentiments of Sikhs worldwide are off limits.” In an earlier version, the petition included the following claims, according to the SikhNN website:

“This is not the first time that this show host has targeted Sikhs in his monologue. Previously, in 2007, he (Leno) called Sikhs ‘diaper heads.’ In 2010, he remarked, falsely so, in his monologue that President Obama could not visit Sri Darbar Sahib (also known as Golden Temple) because of requirements of wearing a turban. Clearly, Jay Leno’s racist comments need to be stopped right here.”

Some Sikhs have disputed Dhillon’s assertions, and particularly the “diaper heads” claim. Anjlu Kaur wrote in a dispatch from Washington for SikhNN website:

A thorough search of Jay Leno’s monologues show that claims by two California Sikhs that the comedian insulted the community with his monologues in 2007, in which he allegedly called Sikhs ‘diaper heads,’ and in 2010, in which he allegedly embellished about the president’s cancellation of the Darbar Sahib trip because he had to wear a turban, were inaccurate.
A source close to The Tonight Show, and its parent organization, National Broadcasting Corporation, provided SikhNN with a transcript of the only monologue in which Leno mentioned ‘diaper’ and ‘head’ in the same sentence, but not together. And it had nothing to do with Sikhs.

After seeing the transcript, Harjot Singh has removed the “diaper heads” reference from his petition, but not the 2010 reference, according to SikhNN:

“I remember watching that show in 2010,” he told SikhNN by email. “I also read his top 10 jokes on Google referring to President Obama’s visit to Golden Temple… So on the petition I won’t be removing Jay Leno’s remarks about President Obama in 2010 for not visiting Golden Temple because of turban issue.”

Gurpatwant Pannun, who has filed a complaint on behalf of the advocacy organization Sikhs for Justice with the Federal Communications Commission, sees the latest comment as part of a pattern.

“It is an abuse of freedom of speech if you are ridiculing a group over and over again,” he told News India Times.

But not all Sikhs are outraged, News India Times reports:

“It was meant as a joke, but he could have been more sensitive,” Charlottesville, Va., Mayor Satyendra Huja, the first Sikh mayor and the only Sikh in the city, told News India Times. “Leno should just apologize and get over with it.”

Some Sikhs are calling Dhillon’s lawsuit an over-reaction, and argue that the controversy is being fueled and exploited by Indian politicians during this election season, according to a column on SikhNN:

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.”

That post, which contrasted Indian politicians’ current uproar over Leno’s comment’s with the inaction of the Indian government during and after 1984’s anti-Sikh riots killed  thousands in India, garnered more than 100 comments, including the following:

“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 government has denounced Leno’s comments while the U.S. State Department called it a “satirical” reference and underlined freedom of expression.

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