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US snubs India on Leno skit, says comments satirical, constitutionally protected

Contributed by Anonymous on Tuesday, January 24 @ 09:12:55 CST

The Times of India, Chidanand Rajghatta, Jan 24, 2012

WASHINGTON: The United States on Monday snubbed India even before it could lodge a formal protest over the purported insult to Sikhs, saying comments made by the comedian Jay Leno in a skit briefly involving the Golden Temple appear to be satirical in nature and are constitutionally protected under free speech.

A State Department official emphasized at the same time that the US has "absolute respect for all the people of India, including Sikhs," and pointed out that President Obama was the first president ever to host a celebration in honor of Guru Nanak Dev in the White House. "And our view is, obviously, that Sikh Americans have contributed greatly to the United States," spokesperson Victoria Nuland added.

Nuland's comments came even before the Indian Embassy, at the prodding of Indian overseas affairs minister Vayalar Ravi, objected to a comedy skit in which Leno twitted wealthy presidential candidates for their lavish homes, topping it by showing the Golden Temple as Mitt Romney's vacation home. The skit mainly ridiculed Romney, who is being scrutinized for his immense wealth ahead of the Presidential election, and neither Sikhs nor their holy shrine appeared to be subjected to derision. Only a brief, second-long still photo of the Golden Temple was flashed on Leno's Tonight Show.

Ravi himself admitted he had not seen the skit, but was driven to comment on the matter by a journalist who conveyed to him the "outrage" in the Sikh community in the form of an online petition. But most Sikhs didn't watch the skit, didn't care, or simply took it in the satirical or comedic spirit in which it was made. Spoof and hyperbole is the lifeblood of late night comedy skits.

In fact, two major Sikh activist organizations -- United Sikhs and Sikh Coalition -- which have campaigned successfully for more sensitive treatment of Sikhs at US airports and their rights to bear religious articles, took no note of the purported offense. A turbaned Sikh was recently elected mayor of the historic city of Charlottesville. Some publicity-hungry campaigners in the US, including self-professed Hindu activists, routinely invoke religious sensitivity and outrage on behalf of their community to generate headlines.

Nuland barely hid US exasperation at the Indian government's hypersensitivity on the matter, while presenting Washington's fortitude in protecting Leno's right to free speech. "I think that Mr. Leno would be appreciative - I hope he'll be appreciative - if we make the point that his comments are constitutionally protected in the United States under free speech, and frankly, they appear to be satirical in nature," she said.

The US observation, obliquely critical of New Delhi's stand, comes at a time when liberal activists say the Indian government has abdicated its responsibility of protecting free speech at the Jaipur Literary Festival by buckling before communalists for electoral gains. In remarks to journalists in Washington, Ravi maintained that it was the responsibility of the government to maintain communal order and freedom of expression did not mean the right to hurt religious sentiments.



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