Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Fighter of Our Times

(Bant Singh)

Drops make an ocean; it is true in the case of people’s movement and also the movement against the people. When Kanaiah Kumar is arrested on sedition charges, the youth of India turned drops of protest to form a huge ocean of resistance. So are the people who now stand for the over politicized nationalists sentiments; slowly they too are turning into an ocean. Elsewhere, the stories of rape, Dalit beating and caste discriminations are submerged in the noise of the wailings of the hurt nationalist sentiments. But the injured and insulted ones are coming together, slowly, steadily and forcefully in order to change the course of history. As Malcolm X once put it, now the chickens are coming to roost. The tables are being turned. This is the last throes of the upper caste and upper class hegemony in India and they are desperate. The oppressed people are going to take over this country and Bant Singh, who has been hailed as the singing human torso is one of those drops which constitute the ocean in the making.

Bant Singh’s story is all over the world. But in the times of television and social media, our attention span has become a monkey that jumps from one branch of information to the other. Upon hearing the news of atrocities committed against the oppressed, downtrodden, children, old people and women, we are enraged and our passions run helter-skelter and find manifestations in our angst ridden status messages. But then we move on to the next happy moment, reassuring our paining selves with the news of good tidings, only to shudder at the memories of the bad events that have just passed. Bant Singh with his revolutionary songs reminds us that we need to have this never say die spirit in order to change the world. When he was asked to shut up by the Panchayat and also by the relatives and friends, he did not shut up. Like any other valiant father, Bant Singh also stood up against the tormentors of his daughter who had raped her after her marriage was fixed. Both the daughter and father went to court and got punishment for the rapists. But the dominant and powerful Jat community in rural Punjab took revenge by cutting away the legs and hands of Bant Singh. He survived with one useless leg saved by the doctors just give him at least some human shape.

 (The book cover )

In 2006, when this tragedy hit Bant Singh, though initially it was not known to many, thanks to the consistent efforts of the left wing political activists (CPI) and many other social organizations, it had become a national issue. In a decade’s time people seem to have forgotten him as they are now burdened with so many other issues, despite their graveness all seemingly facile and passing. Noted journalist and poet, Nirupama Dutta, however has taken the pains to keep the issue alive by bringing out his biography. Titled ‘The Ballad of Banta Singh: A Quissa of Courage’, this book is a journey of Bant Singh’s life, which has always been filled with optimism and fighting spirit even if at each juncture it is bogged down by Punjab’s casteism amongst the Sikhs. One of the positive sides of this book and Nirupama’s narration is that it never gives a graphic description of Bant’s daughter’s ordeals as a rape victim. She, Baljit Caur, appears as a hardworking and fighting young woman who does not carry the burden of victimhood. She has all the reason to behave one as her first marriage engagement to a better family was called off due to the incident and also was socially ostracized for a long time.

The places where Nirupama could have gone into the detailing of the plotting and planning of the rapists and also the actual incident to make the book spicy and catchy she takes the stance of a diligent activist and a feminist who has tremendous self-respect respect for a fellow human being. As a writer, Nirupama’s attention is to bring Bant into focus and show the reader how this man, despite of the ill fate fallen on him, kept on working for the poor and downtrodden. One would wonder whether Bant is the text of sub-text of the book as Nirupama gives a very erudite but crisp narrative on the caste systems prevalent in Punjab. Bant Singh comes from the Mazhabi Sikhs who had converted to Sikhism from the lowest castes in the Hindu hierarchy. They converted to it because they thought this religion with no caste barrier would give them respect and dignity. But as time went by, the Mazhabis became more and more oppressed by the dominant Jat Sikhs. The author, through Bant Singh speaks her own anger against the system even if she hails from a privileged class and caste.

(author Nirupama Dutt and Bant Singh at the Jaipur Literature Festival)

Bant Singh’s perseverance in fighting against inequality through his recitals of poetry of Ravi Das Udasi, the famous romantic revolutionary poet of Punjab, has become the topic of veneration and admiration amongst many activists from across the globe. Bant sired eight children and he educated all of them though he himself was not educated. Once he was introduced to the poetry of Udasi, he became the voice of the poet. Nirupama recounts the story of Bant using Udasi’s poems as the anchor lines. The book is painful as well as inspirational. Behind every inspirational story, there must be a thing of pain which often is not seen by most of the public. As he started getting financial assistance from organizations and the governments after his story became the national news (tehelka was at the forefront to create a fund for him), the villagers started telling that now Bant had changed as he became rich. Bant counters the criticism with a smile saying they too could become rich by losing their limbs. The most important thing about Bant Singh is that he does not lose hope. Even today he sings it with all his might and he vows to fight for justice for all the downtrodden people. Bant Singh is Rohit Vemula, he is Kaniah Kumar, he is Jyoti Pandey and he is all of us who have been asked to prove our nationalism by toeing the line drawn by the bigots. 

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