Tucked between the highlights of Booker prize winners and politicians in the busy program of Jaipur Literary Fest 2016, the unadulterated music of revolution was resounded in the presence of Punjabi Dalit icon, Bant Singh. Frequently breaking into songs that promise the removal of oppression from its roots, Singh is a pillar of strength in an age where young scholars, unable to cope with caste atrocities, succumb to death. He belongs to the class of agrarian labour workers of Punjab and has been involved with the leftist labour movement of resistance since his youth. Poet and journalist Nirupama Dutt’s The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage tells this tale of extraordinary heroism.
In 2006, Singh was brutally beaten and discarded to die by upper class Jat boys that led to the amputation of his arms and one leg. This was in retaliation to the legal fight he had put up against some upper caste boys who had gang raped his minor daughter.“Incidents like these are very common in Punjab as far as Dalit girls are concerned which is almost like a coming-of-age ritual for the feudal boys,” Dutt recounted. “But Bant fought it out in the court and they were the first Dalit to get the upper caste boys convicted in the court.”
Renowned Dalit writer Desraj Kali explained the underlying power politics which had resulted in such acts of violence. “Bant’s refusal to work as a labourer was a big revolution in Punjab.” Deviating from the age-old tradition of working as bonded labourers for the rich landlords, Singh owned his small business of selling cosmetics and other knick-knacks and finally rearing pigs. This was an audacious step for a Dalit and the fact that he was making a decent living independently gave rise to jealousies among the upper caste men. “The poetic tradition of his verses can be traced to the lyrics of Sant Ram Udasi and further more to the native cadences of Guru Gobind Singh,” Kali elucidated.
“On the 18th day in the hospital he got up on his bed and started singing- I still have a tongue, I still can sing,” fondly remembered Dutt. The feisty spirit of rebellion in Singh was evident when in the context of Rohith Vemula’s suicide he said, “Anyone who is killing himself should first kill his oppressor.”
Tehelka met with Singh when he was narrating a recent incident of how he along with his party workers were fighting for two boys, one of whom had been hacked to death for opening a ‘dhaba’ by upper caste boys. He said he is willing to go and fight for Vemula in Hyderabad if supported by local activists over there. Women’s issues also did not evade Singh’s mind as he spoke strongly about the necessity of education in women and against the evils of female foeticide. “I am an outsider here,” he said about his participation in the fest. “But for the labourers and workers, for those who do not get ‘roti’ to eat, for the illiterate, songs are there to unite them and spread the message of protest.”