On January 5, 2006, Bant Singh, a Dalit agrarian labourer and activist in Punjab’s Jhabar village, was ambushed and brutally beaten by upper-caste Jat men armed with iron rods and axes. He lost both his arms and a leg in the attack. It was punishment for having fought for justice for his minor daughter who had been gang-raped.
What does the laal salaam mean to Bant? He smiles. “The red salute links me to every worker in the country. In this greeting, red is for the blood that flows through the veins of a labourer; the blood that a worker is not afraid to shed in struggle. You know the red of the Communist flag means the same. The flag was first white, but the blood of the workers dyed it red.”
After this simply and surely put reply, Bant moves on to discuss the activities of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha of the All India Agricultural Labour Association (AIALA), associated with the CPI Marxist-Leninist (CPI M-L) Liberation Party. This overground party evolved from a faction of the ML and it now participates in the democratic process of the country with representation in state assemblies.
Word gets around that Bant has visitors from Mansa; some elders from the neighbourhood come calling and settle down on charpais in the courtyard.
As the discussion warms up, a tall, slim and attractive girl brings steaming hot tea. A little boy is trailing her. Natt, patting the child on his head, tells me, “This is Baljit, Bant Singh’s eldest daughter.” I am silent for a moment, then force a smile on to my lips as I look at this young mother who is barely out of girlhood.
Her testimony echoes in my ears: “I, Baljit Kaur, daughter of Shri Bant Singh, am a resident of Burj Jhabbar in Mansa district, Punjab. I was gang-raped on July 6, 2002. I did not conceal the incident and along with my father waged a struggle for justice...” I wonder if I will ever be able to talk to her about her travails. The idea that she would have to relive her pain all over again is horrendous to me.
I was to realise later that my hesitation arose from the comfort of my own relatively privileged existence. Those who are pushed to the wall find the courage to tell their tale of woe over and again.
Bant Singh’s was that rare case in which a Dalit had defied the sarpanch of a village to seek justice in a court and had succeded in having the culprits sentenced to life imprisonment. And, for this, he and his family had to pay a very heavy price. This was because a Dalit had actually succeeded in getting an upper-caste Jat man and two others convicted of rape.
What, after all, does a Dalit labourer have? He has neither money nor influence. All he has is his own body, which he must use to earn a livelihood. And, as for the body of the Dalit woman, it is very easy for it to be seen as an object of casual, easy abuse. In Bant’s case, and in Baljit’s, it was their bodies which became the sites of oppression.
There was this very crude joke that a Jat boyfriend told me many years ago when we were classmates at the School of Journalism in Panjab University. “In the village we laugh that if you make out with an ‘untouchable’ girl [the word Dalit was not in vogue at that time in our part of the country] you get defiled and then you have to make out with a Brahmin girl for purification’s sake!” At nineteen I just dismissed it as a rustic off-colour joke without realising that I was probably being considered a potential agent of purification.
Bant lost three limbs on 8 January and, as he was moved into intensive care, his comrades, after recovering from the grave shock, got busy in organising the struggle for justice. One of the first steps was to appeal to the police authorities for sterner action against the culprits, with recommendations from the doctors at PGI that Bant’s life was still in danger. The next was to hold a Press Conference in the basement of Punjab Book Centre in Chandigarh’s Sector 22 on 11 January.
The Times of India carried a story in which correspondent Ramaninder Kaur brought out the grave injustice in no uncertain terms: “In a country where law-breakers excel in subverting the system, how much is a landless farm worker expected to pay for getting justice for his minor rape-victim daughter? To be precise, two arms and a leg.”
Other papers followed and the blackout which the Mansa reporters had imposed gradually lifted. This brought a sad reflection from Comrade Jeeta: “After the attack, we contacted the media but even the local papers did not report the beating up of a Dalit. It was only when his limbs were amputated that journalists seemed to find the incident newsworthy.”
Tragic indeed are the yardsticks of news-making, but the reports on Bant soon flared into outrage and the collective conscience was roused from apathy because it was not just one man’s tale – Bant emerged as a symbol of Dalit resistance in Punjab.
The people’s support
A rally of agricultural workers demanding justice and compensation for Bant was called at his village on 16 January, 2006, while he was still in intensive care at the PGI. But the terror unleashed by the brutal attack took its toll on the attendance and only some five hundred activists from different outfits trickled in.
However, the tide had turned within nine days. The rally on 25 January had a phenomenal attendance with over ten thousand agricultural labourers and activists. Recalling the mammoth gathering, Kanwaljit recalls that the most emotive moment came when Baljit got up, holding her three-month-old baby in her arms and spoke out in angst.
He said, “Comrade Swapan Mukherjee, who had come from Delhi, saw Baljit and asked her to speak. Without any hesitation she got up and said what had happened to her and now what had been done to her father. ‘How long will we suffer such injustice,’ she cried out and tears sprang to many eyes. It was an act of great courage because a girl in Punjab never speaks of any sexual exploitation, but here was someone breaking a taboo and calling out for justice.”
Bant had supporters in Punjab and elsewhere. The Forum for Democratic Initiatives sent a team to Punjab to enquire into the details of the incident and launched a nation-wide campaign which laid bare the ugly face of prosperous Punjab.
Above all, it was Bant’s spirit which made the movement. On the eighteenth day after his amputation, while his condition was still serious, he surprised doctors and his fellow patients alike by singing some of Udasi’s songs from his sick-bed. “That was the moment,” said Kanwaljit, “when I decided: no more robot-making; it was time to quit my job and become a whole-timer with the Party because here I was now in the company of crusaders, the real men and women.”
He has since organised agrarian labour in the Sangrur district and has not regretted the decision even for a moment. Bant and he share a special bond, because during the three months that Bant was in PGI they were constant companions. Kanwaljit says that Bant endeared himself to everyone in the hospital with his wit, humour and courage.
The song of the oppressed
The sad and violent secrets of human existence linger in the picturesque countryside. “How can such ugliness co-exist with the innocent beauty of the ruralscape?” I wonder, as I collect bits and pieces about Bant’s life, as well as the lives of many like him. “I hope Bant is safe in the open like this?” I ask and Natt laughs at the naiveté of my question. “What more can they do to him? Kill him? But they will not, for they have perhaps realised that it may not be so easy to play with the lives of the oppressed. The oppressed will rise and question injustice.”
My first visit to Bant was at an end but I was left wondering how I would play Boswell to him. This was a new territory that I was entering, one paved with misery, but one which Bant and his people gradually eased my way into it. The untravelled path has its lows and one sometimes stumbles or sinks into deep depression but, most of the time, one is elated by the courage and resilience that comes to the fore.
This, then, is the ballad of Bant Singh.
Excerpted with permission from The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage, Nirupama Dutt, Speaking Tiger Books.