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Dalit atrocities

The Dalit who lost his limbs for protesting against his daughter’s gang-rape

A new book chronicles the amazing story of Bant Singh’s courage, resistance and willpower.

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.

Seeking justice

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.

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“Doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, our mistakes will be there for everyone to see”

Celebrated architect Hadi Teherani tells us what luxury in the living space means to him.

Hadi Teherani is best known for designing iconic buildings in Germany including the famous Dockland office in Hamburg and the Kranhaus in Cologne. But he’s also left his mark on the landscape of Abu Dhabi with the Zayed University, and has designed a luxury residence that will soon grace the skyline of Mumbai—Lodha Altamount. We spoke to him about the challenges of designing luxury living spaces in India.

Q. In your opinion, what is the definition of luxury specifically in the area of private residences? Is it a lot of fresh air, space and daylight? Is it the room composition? Or is luxury something completely different?

Hadi Teherani (HT): For me, luxury is first and foremost to have space, not just enough for what you need but enough space to really thrive. And luxury has always been defined that way. If you look at Art Nouveau houses, those rooms have incredible heights. So yes, space is definitely an important factor when it comes to luxury. In Europe people pay attention to every square metre and here in Mumbai it is the same. There are slums where 4 people live in one room and just across the street somebody is living by himself on 1000 square metres. Once you have space, luxury can be in the features, in using certain materials, and there is no limit. Some things, of course, are simply not available here: the luxury of fresh air and a clean sea. No matter how much money you are willing to spend, you cannot get those. Therefore, you are limited to what is available.

Q. Have you incorporated this concept of space into previous projects?

HT: Yes, in different ways, no matter if you are working on government-sponsored housing projects or in the luxury segment. Usually our projects are more in the luxury segment, where space is crucial. We are currently designing a building where luxury can already be sensed at the parking level. You reach with your car and you are already supposed to have the feeling that you’ve arrived at a hotel lobby. This is how far luxury has come. That the arrival in a garage already gives you the feeling as if you are coming to a palace—you get out of your limousine into this stunning lobby and this feeling continues as you go up into the apartment where you have a bathroom that is 20-30 square metres and not just 5-10. The idea of really designing your bathroom or kitchen has not yet reached India. Bathrooms are still rather compact and practical since the idea of spending quality time in your bathroom doesn’t seem to exist yet. Customers definitely do not request a spacious bathroom when we discuss their projects. For me, personally, a great bathroom is extremely important, as it is the first thing you use in the morning. Afterwards you go to work, and you come back home. But I believe the areas that you use most need to have enough space for you to move and thrive in.

Q. Do you have any role model in the field of architecture? Maybe a building or a person?

HT: The Bauhaus is still my role model. Back then they designed products for day-to-day life, affordable for the general population. But those products have become classics today like the lounge chair by Le Corbusier. Those were project works but Bauhaus thought further ahead. The idea was to give people light, air and space, and to free them from elements that were poorly designed and uncomfortable like big stucco ceilings. The focus needs to be light, air and sun. For them, architecture and product design were always very fluent concepts. Le Corbusier, for instance, designed fantastic buildings as well as whole cities, but on the other hand also designed furniture. Gropius had even designed a car once and furniture, too. This school of thinking has influenced me, and once you have all those “tools” and this way of thinking, you get very far. With this “toolbox” of modern design, you can create anything and influence society. The times back then aided this development; everyone was opening up, living in and with nature, not hiding away in little holes. And the world evolved from there. And today you can see they are daring even more spectacular things in Asia than they used to in Old Europe.

Q. You have already gained quite some experience in India. Is there something that you would define as a typical “Indian palate”, and if so, how does it differ from the international projects? You already mentioned the differences in bath and kitchen design, but are there, for instance, taboos like colours you wouldn’t use or something in room composition?

HT: I haven’t encountered anything like that. What I do experience is that many projects are influenced by religious thoughts and by Vaastu, something like Feng shui. So the master bedroom has to be in the south-west and the kitchen has to have a certain location. Those rules need to be followed exactly, no matter if it makes sense for the building or not. Here in Mumbai it’s a little more liberal but in other regions, Hyderabad for instance, every centimetre has to be exact as per Vaastu. Sometimes they want a dedicated room for pujas. All this changes while designing a project, of course. But overall the ground plans are not that different. The families might be bigger so houses and apartments are bigger as well, or they are trying to utilize each and every square metre and avoid hallways, for example.

Those projects are also in the centre of a lot of marketing. We are not used to that in Europe but here in Mumbai or even more in other cities like Bangalore, along the entire highway from the airport into the city you only see 50-metre-high billboards announcing new real estate projects. You don’t see anything else! And it’s very creative marketing with catchy headlines and slogans. That isn’t happening in Germany. One more difference: when designing upper class buildings in India, they require a maid or servant room, maybe a separate entrance from the staircase and so forth. Here, you can still afford having a maid. In Europe you might have someone coming by for three hours once a week but certainly not living in.

Q. Let’s talk about the Lodha Altamount. What was the challenge?

HT: The design of Altamount was strongly influenced by being a Lodha project and by its location. Next to Altamount stands a luxury highlight of architecture, the Ambani tower, the most expensive home in the world. How do you want to top that? The Ambani tower is very structural. It shoots through the air, it combines all sorts of crafts and structural design elements with gaps and open spaces. You can’t top that and definitely not with our type of design. That’s why we decided to hold back and instead develop a dark and sleek building. That type of building doesn’t exist a lot here in India. Usually buildings have many structural elements like beams and balconies. By creating a calm building in the skyline of Mumbai, we will make Altamount stand out. Plus, the top of the building is very unique. Many structures are either simply cut off straight or completed by a dome. We have two geometric pointy tops so that the building is properly completed and doesn’t look as if it could grow further. It has a head and feet and is finished. So for us to hold back was our way to stand out. It doesn’t devalue the building design in anyway. It is meant expressively in the sense of “less is more”. And the interior is of course very luxurious: it is designed through and through, there is the green car parking podium, each balcony has a mini pool. So all those luxury features are present but the architectural design is based on the idea of “less is more”.

Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.
Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.

Q. Luxury can drift into the eccentric, depending on the client. Have there been any projects that were very eccentric which you still accepted or projects that you had to turn down because they were too eccentric?

HT: As architects, we create a space. What happens, of course, is that people buy an apartment in a great contemporary building and then furnish it in a baroque style. But that freedom has to be there, of course, because we can’t also tell the client which curtains to use or clothes to wear. At a certain point our job is done. However, when it comes to public buildings, the public is supposed to benefit from, so I have to be strict and dictate. In private buildings you can leave it up to the individual but publicly I have a responsibility and cannot consider each and every taste. I have to do a clean job so that in the end every individual can find himself or herself in my design. Anyway, taste always stems from a certain upbringing, culture and environment, so I also have the duty to educate and that’s what I do with my projects. When a small child walks by a building, she recognizes when the proportions are right even if she has no idea about architecture. But if the proportions are off, the child will pick that up too, because every building also exudes energy, either of unease or comfort. So we have quite a big responsibility as well. I always say doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, but our mistakes will always be there for everyone to see.

With one residence per floor and a host of bespoke luxury services, Lodha Altamount is the epitome of unrestricted luxury. Designed by Hadi Teherani, and a part of the Lodha group’s Luxury Collection that has homes present at only the globe’s most-coveted locations, Lodha Altamount is the last word in luxury in India. For more information about Lodha Altamount, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Lodha by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff

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