Bant Singh is counted among the foremost icons of Dalit resistance in Punjab. His voice is his weapon and the songs he sings his ammunition, with lethal lines such as these of revolutionary Dalit poet Ram Udasi:

When the lions roar, all the cowards will flee
The workers and tillers will not go hungry
Come raise your voice,
Come raise your voice, it is time to be angry.

Born to a Dalit family in 1965, unlettered and therefore never having read the esoteric theories of Marx and Mao, Bant Singh was just 12 when he made his singing debut at a rally of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. He grew to become the vice-president of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, a CPI (ML) affiliate, and was a rage at rallies for his soul-stirring songs.

But Udasi’s “cowards” don’t flee in real life. They lurk in fields, in darkness and fog, waiting to ambush those who raise their voice. That is what happened in the late evening of January 5, 2006. Bant Singh was attacked mercilessly for challenging the dominance of the upper-caste in a Punjab village. Both his arms and a leg had to be amputated after the assault.

But what his assailants couldn’t deprive him of was his voice. He sang as he always did, but from the wheelchair, the stumps of what were left of his arms performing the Lal Salam. Years later, journalist-poet Nirupama Dutt asked Bant Singh what the communist Red Salute signified to him. She records his answer in The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage: “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…”

His answer was typically of an archetypal communist, whose passion for revolution never wanes, whose belief in the communist utopia is scarcely ever shaken, who silently strives through the interminable wait for people to rise against oppression.

But Bant Singh stopped waiting for the communist utopia in December.

That month he left the CPI-ML to enter the Aam Aadmi Party, joining the tide of Leftist footsoldiers who had washed up on the party’s shores in the months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Today, Bant Singh is campaigning for AAP in poll-bound Punjab, trumpeting Dalit support for it and injecting radical fervour into what the Congress and the Akali Dal call the “party from Delhi.”

Has the Left lost its voice to AAP, so to speak? Is AAP now the hope of Punjab’s Dalits? But to ask these questions is running ahead of the story of Bant Singh.

Rise to fame

On July 6, 2002, already engaged to be married, Bant Singh’s eldest daughter Baljit was gang-raped in Burj Jhabbar village in Punjab’s Mansa district. Rapes of Dalit girls are common in the state’s lush countryside, often regarded among Jat Sikhs a rite of passage to adulthood. These are seldom reported for fear of stigmatisation and retaliation from the landholding Jat Sikhs, who dominate rural Punjab.

But Bant Singh and Baljit were insistent on going to court, supported in their endeavour by local CPI (ML) leaders. Though Baljit’s marriage was called off, her rapists were convicted. To the dominant Jat Sikhs of Mansa, the conviction symbolised a challenge to their hegemony.

Already, Bant Singh had irked them with his songs that promised a revolutionary dawn, and in anticipation of it, he dressed smartly in trousers and shirt and sent his children to school. He compounded their anger with his opposition to their callous insensitivity to Dalits – for instance, he compelled a gang of Jat boys to shift their badminton court from where Dalit women went for ablution.

Resistance had to be crushed for restoring the old social order all in its pristine brutality.

So, on January 5, 2006, as Bant Singh was returning from an adjacent village late evening, the same gang of Jats boys waylaid him. They chased him through the fields on their motorcycles and in a jeep. Once encircled, he was pounced upon. Four of the boys dragged him to the edge of an irrigation canal.

Dutt writes, “There they put his legs on the embankment wall.… Two (boys) raised the (curved) metal handles (of handpumps) and brought them down with all their strength on his shins. Blow upon blow, and the bones of Bant Singh’s legs were splintered beyond repair.” Then they attacked his arms likewise, peppering their display of bestiality with remarks such as this: “You will decide where we should play badminton?”

They left Bant Singh in the field. A rescue mission was mounted because one of the assailants made a call to a Jat Sikh friend of Bant Singh’s. (The call was made so that the gravity of the offence was diminished in the eyes of law.) Bant Singh was taken to the district hospital. Because of the delay in attending to him, gangrene set in: his arms and a leg were amputated to save him from certain death. The other leg is lifeless.

The horrific attack prompted the CPI (ML) to trigger a movement. Massive protests were organised. Bant Singh became a front-page story and was treated free of cost. The Punjab government paid Rs 10 lakh as compensation. Tehelka magazine initiated a fund for Bant, and collected Rs 5 lakh.

Bant was now the symbol of subaltern assertion. His body amplified the Dalit experience of upper-caste arrogance and the community’s irrepressible quest for dignity. He had become a personification of his songs. In him, Dalits saw their own angst, trials and tribulations reflected.

Roots of discontent

Defiance is innate to a person, but its expression – the act of rebellion – is often a consequence of political education and training. From this perspective, is Bant Singh’s departure from the Left a message to India’s once-formidable nursery of political rebellion that it must frame a new syllabus for a new generation of Indians?

I spoke to Bant Singh over phone for nearly an hour. His daughter, Hardeep Kaur, acted as our translator as he does not speak Hindi. My first question: Why did he leave the CPI (ML), which ensured his free treatment and mustered tremendous popular support for him?

Bant Singh agreed that his comrades (that is how he addresses anyone from a Left party) provided him immense help, but it is also true, he said, that “not all the contributions made in my name came to me. It went to the party.”

But the CPI (ML) must have incurred expenses on the support they drummed up for him, I suggested, and therefore felt entitled to take a percentage of the contributions that came for him.

To this, Bant Singh said that the party is no longer what it was 20-25 years ago. “Older comrades are dead or have left the party,” he said. It is now mostly dominated by Jats. Earlier, there were many Dalit comrades who fought for the cause of Dalits. It is not so now.”

To illustrate this point, Bant Singh cited his own experience: land measuring three biswas (one biswa is roughly 450 sq feet) was hived out of the plot he owns for building a paved galli (alley) by local authorities. “I appealed to the comrade in Mansa district,” But he did not take my side because he is a Jat. The alley goes to the Jat neighbourhood,” Bant Singh said, suggesting that caste kinship always trumps radical politics.

He thought the CPI (ML) and “other such parties of comrades” are incapable of vanquishing the Congress and the Akali Dal. “Comrades can’t win elections,” he said. “The other parties win Dalits over with liquor, bhukki (poppy husk), and money. Comrades don’t even have a proper vehicle for running their campaigns.”

In other words, Dalits cannot endlessly wait for the revolution, for change. This is why, Bant said, he decided to leave the CPI (ML) and join AAP. “It represents the aam aadmi, the common man,” he said. “It can take on the Congress and the Akali Dal.”

Bant Singh’s subtext is clear: to be taken seriously in electoral politics, a party must succeed in conveying that it is a viable contender for power. AAP created this perception through its performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Punjab, where it bagged 30.4% of votes and won four seats.

Yet, Bant Singh’s entry into AAP was acutely embarrassing for him. On the day he was inducted into AAP, present on the dais were also three of his assailants. Wasn’t Bant livid at his humiliation? He replied, “AAP leader Sanjay Singh called me as soon as I returned home from the ceremony. He asked, ‘Is it true we have inducted your assailants?’ I said, yes. Within 10 minutes, they were thrown out of the party.”

Then, in early January, Delhi Chief Minister and AAP Convenor Arvind Kejriwal rang up to invite him for a personal meeting in Chandigarh. “Kejriwal apologised profusely to me,” Bant Singh said. “He said the party was misled by a local leader.”

Mollified, the Dalit icon is now touring Punjab, drumming up support for AAP among Dalits, a significant percentage of whom is said to have rallied behind it. In a state where Dalits constitute 32% of the population, it is of great electoral importance that AAP has in its fold a Dalit icon, whose very body symbolises a political message, whose songs are an intimation of a hopeful future.

AAP's Arvind Kejriwal apologising to Bant Singh. Photo: Aam Aadmi Party/via Facebook

Bant’s problem is his fame, say comrades

Many Left leaders and activists do accept the ample symbolical significance of Bant Singh. Sukhdarshan Natt is one such Communist leader. A member of the state secretariat of the CPI (ML), Natt was Bant Singh’s mentor. He scripted the movement to secure justice for Bant Singh. And he, understandably, is bitter at his departure from the party.

When I called Natt and said I was doing a story on Bant Singh, Natt declared, “He is no thinker. He is an illiterate who acquired celebrity status because of his decision to seek justice for his daughter’s rape and the amputation of his limbs due to the attack on him. Media wrote on him. Nirupama [Dutt] did a book on him, Tehelka made him famous. This is why he has become a living symbol of Dalit politics.”

Natt said his departure from the CPI (ML) did not come as a surprise. “Because he had become so famous, we were unsure whether he’d stay with us,” Natt said. The CPI (ML) leader added it was untrue that the party creamed away a percentage of the financial assistance given to Bant Singh. “We kept his accounts,” Natt said. “We persuaded him to put his money in a monthly income scheme, which could give him an allowance to live on. But he just kept eating into his funds. Every penny he received is accounted for.”

With his resources depleted in buying land and splurging money on a lavish family wedding, Bant Singh started chasing money, Natt claimed. He said the Dalit leader was keen to attend a festival in Odisha, of which the Tatas were sponsors. He would have perhaps got a few thousands of rupees there. “We dissuaded Bant from going there because we were opposing the Tatas on a land issue.”

Natt dismissed the charge that the comrades did not help Bant Singh to recover the land taken from him to build the paved alley. Natt said the owner from whom Bant Singh had purchased the plot did not tell him that a slice of it had been earmarked for the alley.

“We offered him two solutions – either the owner compensated him monetarily for his loss or gave him land of three biswas elsewhere,” Natt said. “But Bant insisted he must get back his land. We are political people. We can’t take a stance not based on principles.”

For Natt, Bant Singh’s obstinacy is a consequence of his sudden fame. He explained, “Such a person becomes egoistic. He wants the party to do what he wants. That is not possible.”

I bounced to him Bant Singh’s allegation that Jat Sikhs have captured the “party of comrades.” Natt responded: “Bant has invented the excuse to justify his decision to join AAP. We are not Bahujan Samaj Party. We don’t emphasise caste and religion. We have intellectual leadership. For historical reasons, intellectuals predominantly come from upper castes. We are the people who have waged battles against our own class.”

In a tone full of pathos, Natt sighed and added, “Bant’s departure to AAP is such a disservice to Dalits. He has given credence to what we have to constantly hear: ‘You people fight for lower castes, but they ultimately sell out.’”

Bant Singh campaigning for the AAP in Punjab. [Photo: Aam Aadmi Party Vadodara/via Facebook]

Left out?

Do Natt’s answers reflect the party’s upper-caste ethos against which Bant Singh, self-avowedly, rebelled? Or is the chasm between lower caste followers of the Left and its upper-caste intellectual leaders too wide for Marxism and Maoism to bridge?

For her book, Dutt extensively met both Bant Singh and Punjab’s Communist leaders. About Bant Singh’s charge that comrades betray upper-caste arrogance, she said, “Within the party system, there is condescension in some leaders regarding their lower caste followers. You scratch them and their caste feelings surface.” She also adds a caveat to Natt’s criticism: “Bant’s behaviour is aspirational.”

It is no secret that the Left has not been able to adequately address the caste question, which hobbles it from winning new followers in this era of lower-caste assertion. This is one reason for the creeping disconnect between the masses and the Left, suggested Manmohan Sharma, secretary, Voluntary Health Association of Punjab, a non-profit working towards equal access to health. “New issues – for instance, environment concerns – have emerged and the Left has been left behind,” he said.

I spoke to a prominent Left activist who has decided to vote for AAP. Requesting not to be identified, he said the shrinking of Left space is evident from the fact that comrades in the age-group of 20-55 are not to be found. “And the young Leftists you find are of very poor quality,” he said.

He said the mainstream communist parties – the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India-Marxist – entered electoral politics to show that the bourgeois democracy cannot deliver and will, ultimately, collapse under its own weight. But the reverse happened: democracy in India has deepened and the communists are increasingly unable to swim in it.

This is because the Left has not altered its rhetoric to suit the changing times. An ageing professional engaged in the Left movement in Punjab said, “The issues of roti and kapda have been resolved to a great degree, particularly after the economic liberalisation, which has enabled the state to undertake welfare measures. But we are still mouthing old slogans.”

The collapse of the communist movement has also persuaded its votaries that their dream of a classless society is just that – an illusory goal. It is perhaps more realistic to think of a change in the style of governance, turning it clean and efficient in delivering the services it is tasked with. This is the defining principle of AAP’s agenda, perhaps the reason for its appeal to the disenchanted Leftists.

Veteran Leftists in Punjab have turned to AAP because they see in it a chance of vanquishing the Congress and the Akali Dal, which, to them, represent the quintessential establishment. By contrast, AAP has managed to portray itself as an outsider. This has been reinforced with the Modi government gunning for the party.

In the land where Sikh Gurus inaugurated a tradition of martyrdom, and where Bhagat Singh has a veritable cult following, it pays to be a rebel. No doubt, Communist variants have waged significant battles for people’s rights, but their failing was to acquire a mastery of electoral politics, the only route through which power can be legitimately possessed. “To vote for the CPI and the CPM was to akin to voting either for the Congress or the Akali,” said the Leftist professional.

In other words, it is back to what Bant Singh had said, though not in as many words: just how long do you wait to see the transformation around you?

Perhaps 70 years is a wait long enough.

Worse, the wait seems increasingly futile. In the 2012 Assembly election in Punjab, the three Communist parties – the CPI, CPM and CPI (ML) – lost their deposits in 29 of 30 seats they contested. In 2007, they lost deposits in all the 45 seats they fielded candidates in. None of the three managed to bag even 1% of the total votes cast in either of these elections.

The moral of the story is that you cannot be a winner unless you wish to become one. Tired of the Left’s lack of electoral confidence, Bant Singh shifted to AAP. Indeed, Punjab’s Dalit icon is also the symbol of the Left’s growing electoral irrelevance.

Bant Singh’s biographical details and Udasi’s song have been taken from Nirupama Dutt’s The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid