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05 January 1998

How the Sikh joke was born 

Preetinder Singh  
Hindus use the 12 o'clock joke to rib the Sikhs without quite knowing what it's about. In turn, the Sikh victims get infuriated without quite knowing why. The origins of the joke, now lost in the mists of time, were in dead earnest. If the Sikhs knew the real story, they would be proud to be alluded to as the `12 o'clock people', and the Hindus would regard them with a new respect.

To understand the joke, we have to go back to the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Then, Delhi was ruled by Aurangzeb, an autocrat who had a firm rein on his government and patrolled his borders well. There was little chance of an invasion, but the emperor's insistence on concentrating all power in his own hands -- for fear of meeting the same fate as he had inflicted upon his father Shah Jehan -- ultimately ensured the downfall of his line.

Aurangzeb did not allow even his own sons to acquire administrative experience for fear that they would get too powerful for him to handle. In the absence of compelling authority, the Mughal empire crumbled immediately after his death. Under Bahadur Shah, his successor, the centre refused to hold and the borders became vulnerable. In 1739 Nadir Shah, King of Persia, crossed the frontier and swept down towards the capital. He was the first invader who was here only to plunder and kill, with no intention of staying on. His troops reached Delhi, where they killed 1.5 lakh people, both Hindus and Muslims. He headed homewards almost immediately, taking back incredible loot gold, jewelry, elephants, horses, camels, skilled labourers and, as is usual in war, women.

The troops had to pass through Punjab and when the Sikhs heard of the enormous number of captured women, they decided to intervene. Without a strong military leader, they could not afford to make a frontal attack. They took to making midnight guerrilla raids on Nadir Shah's camp. Every night, small bands of Sikhs would strike with the sole intention of freeing as many of the captive women as possible and returning them to their homes before daybreak. These attacks became something of an institution later, after Nadir Shah had quit the country, when an increasing number of invaders began to come down into the Indian plains, drawn by its fabled riches.

Thus was the 12 o'clock joke born. Initially, instead of being grateful for their heroism, Hindus would say that the Sikhs are in their senses only at night. It was apparently futile to expect help from them at other times. Then they referred to midnight, for they didn't want to credit the Sikhs with sense for the duration of a whole night.

The Sikhs were naturally annoyed. They were trying to help the Hindus and were getting only derision in return. They were always armed, and did not hesitate to draw steel. To minimise personal risk, Hindus started referring to the relatively neutral 12 o'clock, rather than midnight, and even then they often ran for their lives. The final result was the safe, bald statement, `It is 12 o'clock,' shorn of all reference to its very interesting history.

When Hindus crack this joke, they are oblivious to the fact that had the Sikhs not intervened, their womenfolk would have been dishonoured and taken into exile. The Sikhs should be proud of the 12 o'clock incident. Because of them, the dignity of the Hindu community was restored after Nadir Shah's invasion, the most terrible act of war ever to be perpetrated in India.It hurts me most when a woman inflicts the 12 o'clock joke on me. It sets me wondering whether one of my forefathers had not rescued one of her foremothers. Had it not been for help from my community, perhaps, this woman might have been living in a foreign land, and in very different circumstances.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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