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India: The struggles of a Dalit Sikh activist

Book Review

Monday 29 February 2016, by siawi3


Book Review: The Ballad of Bant Singh- A Qissa of Courage

Dhaval Kulkarni

Sun, 28 Feb 2016-07:20am , Mumbai , dna

Journalist Nirupama Dutt’s book detailing the struggles of Dalit Sikh activist Bant Singh is necessary reading for those who live in their ivory towers and deny that casteism exists, says Dhaval Kulkarni

Book: The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage
Author: Nirupama Dutt
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
224 pages

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar points out in Annihilation of Caste that "the effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable". Virtue, he says in his stinging, cutting-to-the-bone critique, "has become caste-ridden and morality has become caste-bound".

In the Indian social milieu, the irrational and unnatural institution of caste is not restricted to Hindus alone. It manifests in some form or another in religions like Islam and Christianity. It is unfortunate that Sikhism and the Bhakti movement, which were part of the larger, anti-caste project, have been corrupted by the very primordial systems they once opposed.

It is in this backdrop that poet, journalist and translator Nirupama Dutt’s powerful narrative on Bant Singh, a "symbol of Dalit resistance in Punjab" must be read. While Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide exposed these fault lines in Indian society, The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage makes for necessary reading, especially for those who live in ivory towers and deny that casteism still exists. It details the struggle of the Dalit Sikh agrarian labourer and activist of Burj Jhabbar village who lost both his arms and a leg when he was brutally attacked by upper-caste Jat men. His crime? He had dared to take on a Jat man and two others and ensured their conviction for the gangrape of his minor daughter, who was engaged to be married.

The book paints a moving picture of the Dalit Mazhabi Sikhs (Dalit converts to Sikhism) and their hardships and of Bant, the gutsy "singing torso", who continues to fight for the cause of the dispossessed with his moving rendition of songs. Dutt writes about the hardships that these Mazhabi Sikhs face – youth working as attached labourers with Jat families at low wages and women whose bodies are seen as "an object of casual, easy abuse".

The turning point for Bant, who came from the Choorha caste of sweepers, the Dalits among Dalits, was when he heard poet Sant Ram Udasi, also a Mazhabi Sikh and a Naxalite poet. This drew Bant, whose songs form an integral part of his activism, to the ultra-Left CPI (M-L) Liberation Party and Mazdoor Mukti Morcha.

Flitting between narratives, Dutt recounts the horror of the attack on Bant by seven boys who bashed his limbs to pulp with metal handles of hand pumps. "One of the farmhands who reached first was so horrified at the state Bant was in that he fainted," notes Dutt, adding that Bant asked his rescuers to "first take care of this man and then attend to me".

More was to follow. When he was taken to the Mansa Civil Hospital, the doctor demanded a bribe of Rs1,000, which Bant borrowed from a chemist and a tea vendor. The "landlord-police nexus" ensured that the charges against the accused were watered down. It was only after his comrades held a press conference in Chandigarh that the blackout by local reporters ended and the wheels of justice were finally set in motion.

Bant represents the rooted, organic idiom of the Communist movement. Despite his Leftist leanings, Bant has no knowledge of Marx and Mao, with his ideals rooted in the soil of Punjab. The book makes only a fleeting mention about the Naxalite movement in Punjab, whose poet Udasi inspired Bant. Some more details would have certainly helped. In a society where an accident of birth can determine the course of one’s life, Bant’s brooding: "So ridiculous that birth should decide the fate of a person!" lingers long after the book has been read.