“I want to go and sing and campaign and rally the poorest of the poor. I want to work 30 days of the month, perhaps stay for two days in my village and then travel, meet people, hold rallies and mobilise the poor. I want to do things quickly and not wait eternally. I want my people to be liberated. I am becoming impatient. I want to walk. I want to walk. I want to run. Just help me a bit, I will show you I can run.”
Bant Singh, his two lower-arms and one leg gone, is sitting in the Mansa Civil Hospital, a torso flaming with anger and celebration. He laughs and jokes like a little boy as he cajoles his wife, Harbans Kaur, to make nimbu paani for his visitors. He takes calls on a cell phone given to him by friends, urging, “Carry on the fight, I’ll be there the moment the doctors let me be.” His wife and his eldest daughter, Baljeet, say they want to help Bant Singh with his political work among the region’s Dalits – making them aware of their rights, fighting for justice – because this is “the path he has chosen”. It is a path that has led to Baljeet’s rape, and the brutal loss of Bant’s arms and leg. But it is also one that has led to a new sense of empowerment for many of Punjab’s most oppressed communities.
Bant Singh is a Majhabi Sikh Dalit, a rebel and a singer who had long rendered ballads of dissent, breaking historical taboos. In his village of Burj Jhabber in Mansa District of Punjab state, he has been something of an invisible legend – while people may have been afraid to follow him, many were nonetheless drawn to Bant, perhaps believing that his path could lead to Dalit liberation.
Mansa is situated in the once-prosperous Malwa region. Stories stalk the landscape here of thousands of debt-ridden farmers who have committed suicide, consuming the same pesticide that has contributed to the failure of their crops. Drug and alcohol addiction is rampant, female foeticide is almost a norm and violence simmers in the by-lanes. Activists argue that these social conditions are a recipe for a leftwing revolution, or else the reassertion of a Khalistan-type rightwing ideology.
Burj Jhabber offers the archetypal situation of the position Dalits hold in Indian society. Here, as in most villages, not a single Dalit family owns land. Government funds for Dalit upliftment are usurped by the upper-caste members of village panchayats. The local Dalits live in small mud-and-thatch huts, and toil as either daily wage labourers or bonded labour for pay far below minimum wage. Dalits are also often forced into debt traps; many women work under the begari system, whereby they try to pay back small loans through years of hard labour. In this relatively prosperous village, Dalits are exiled to a corner that has no water, no health centres, schools or toilets. If any Dalit deigns to lodge a protest or refuses to work under such conditions, the landlords have an announcement made from the local gurudwara: No Dalit man, woman or child will be allowed to make ablutions in any part of the village.
It is because such a system makes protest nearly impossible that Bant Singh is such an aberration. He had refused to work in the landlord’s fields, instead starting a piggery and a small poultry farm, and selling toys in nearby villages. He also refused to go to the local gurudwaras, where he said Dalits were humiliated; when he visited the neighbouring villages’ gurudwaras, he would bring back the leftovers of the langars (communal kitchens) to feed his pigs. He took those pigs to the landlords’ farms, to the village pond, to the local veterinary clinic, to the fields where the Jat Sikh kids played cricket; in each place, he would refuse to move when told to do so. Bant Singh even took on the landlord’s goons, who would loiter in the Dalit ghetto, eve-teasing young women. Such actions directly challenged the fundamentals of dogmatic, feudal history, and the landlords were fully intimidated.
For a while, Bant Singh worked with the Bahujan Samaj Party, a political group founded to represent those disenfranchised by the caste system. He subsequently became involved with a variety of political fronts before finally joining the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, the aboveground Naxalite organisation that began working with the poorest of the rural Bihari poor in the early 1970s, and also took on the region’s landlords. The CPI (ML) Liberation now has six MLAs in the Bihar Assembly, and is strong in and around Mansa as well, although the group had expanded to Punjab prior to Bant Singh’s involvement.
But Bant Singh’s biggest ‘crime’ came later, when he successfully organised small-scale and landless farmers – particularly Dalits – of 12 villages in a mass organisation called Mazdoor Mukti Morcha (MMM). In the face of his successful membership drive, in June 2002, the area’s landlords began to wage a nasty counter-war.
That was when they had Baljeet raped. Bant Singh fought back. “This was no time to turn back,” he recalls. “We had to find justice, at any cost.” He organised protests, the CPI (ML) Liberation led a resistance movement, and the area villages were galvanised in solidarity. But although the rapists were arrested and jailed, the intervention by the law did not endthe matter.
In early January 2006, as Bant Singh was cycling home after an MMM membership drive, he was attacked. While the perpetrators – young heirs to landlords and lackeys of village sarpanchs – did not want to kill him, they did want to send a clear message to anyone else in the region who would dare to defy the feudal code. After covering Bant’s hands and legs with several layers of cloth, the attackers used cast-iron handles of hand-pumps to break each of his limbs. Bant Singh says that he beseeched his attackers, “Kill me, but don’t leave me like this.” To this they demanded, “So, will you ever again tell the boys not to loiter in the Dalit areas when your girls are around?”
Later, the thugs called a former sarpanch, and told him to go find Bant Singh where they had left him in the fields. The man rushed Bant to the 25 km-distant hospital, but the doctor refused to touch him without first being paid INR 1000. By the time the money was collected, gangrene had set in. Bant Singh ultimately had to loose both of his lower arms and his left leg.
The resistance began. The CPI (ML) Liberation, together with 14 other organisations, led mass protests. The story of Bant Singh spread from village to village, and the Dalit rebel became a living legend in Punjab. For many, his struggle for dignity seemed to move beyond the clichés of political discourse, becoming instead an essay on humanity and liberation. Bant Singh became an icon of Dalit resistance, and the landlords retreated as the poor advanced.
Bant Singh’s assailants were arrested and jailed. The Punjab government gave him INR 10 lakh, and ordered the suspension of the doctor who had refused to treat him. His children, among the rare Dalit children who go to school, would not have been able to stay in class without a wage earner, but have now been allowed to remain. Bant receives hundreds of visitors every day at the hospital; they come to see him, talk to him, listen to his ideas, hear his revolutionary songs.
The Mazdoor Mukti Morcha has also become a force to reckon with, taking up individual cases of atrocity and exploitation. “We won’t take it lying down anymore,” says Roop Singh, a village elder in Burj Jhabber. “We want the money that the government allots to us, which the landlords usurp. We want space in the gurudwara. We want equal wages for men and women.”
The new dynamic has also led to a situation in Punjab similar to Bihar’s syndrome of militia violence. There are confirmed reports that wherever the movement of landless, small-scale farmers and Dalits is becoming strong – as in Mansa District – landlords are creating private vigilante armies along the lines of Bihar’s Ranvir Sena. Recently, large landowners held a meeting to discuss how to counter the movement inspired by Bant Singh. But the Dalits are ready, says activist Jasbir Kaur: “History moves in predictable cycles. And we are here to change history. The Dalits have suddenly realised that they too can walk with their heads high.”
Bant Singh smiles when he talks of history. “History is in our hands,” he notes. “My life is in my hands. My people’s life is in our hands. If we don’t fight back and demand our rights and identities, we are doomed. We have no option but to dream.” Then he sings a song by the legendary folksinger Sant Ram Udasi, his guru and idol. Bant Singh – who has come to be known as Inquilabi, a nickname referring to the revolutionary legend he has become – sings in a soft, lilting melody, his eyes like a forest in flames, his body still, his half-arms moving like a warrior’s sword. He sings:
Brave brothers, you must struggle for your rights.
Bring them back from your womb again;
Give birth to them in this land,
Where they will come from the slaughterhouses
And the spits of history
With the hope of humanity.