Sunday, March 20, 2016

The unyielding shall not yield

The Ballad of Bant Singh
A Qissa of Courage
Nirupama Dutt
Speaking Tiger
Pages: 214
Price: Rs 250

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

On the ill-fated night of 6 January 2006, Bant Singh, a folk-singer and crusader of the oppressed was passing through the fields of Jhabhar village on his bicycle. Presently his path was blocked by seven young men. He realised he was in danger because these upper class boys had attacked him twice earlier. Before he could do anything, four of them struck him and dragged him to the edge of the irrigation canal. “There they put his legs on the embankment wall. A rough cloth was thrown on him as four of the men pinned him down. Two raised the metal handles and brought them down with all their strength on his shins. The pain stunned Bant but he still tried to raise himself and shouted, ‘What are you doing? What have I done for you to hit me?’ One of the boys struck him with even greater force and hissed, ‘We are just doing a job that has been assigned to us. Today, you will not get away!’ Blow upon blow, and the bones of Bant Singh’s legs were splintered beyond repair. Then, sure that Bant had been irretrievable incapacitated, they swung him about and began attacking his arms.”

This horrendous incident is from veteran writer, poet, translator and journalist Nirupama Dutt’s book 
The Ballad of Bant Singh, which I received on the very day some Jats of Haryana launched their stir demanding a special backward status. In a matter of days, they spread arson and anarchy all around paralysing the entire state. As I read the book, I found it hard to miss the irony of the whole situation. On the one hand, we have a large population that has been socially oppressed for thousands of years, and on the other hand, there is a better placed social section that is now agitating to gain the selfsame reserved status which was given to the downtrodden to allow them to catch up with the rest.

Nirupama Dutt’s book is about a man from a disadvantaged section stretching his hands out to justice and in turn having them cut off.  What was his crime for which he was brutally attacked and left for dead?

Six years ago, Bant Singh’s daughter Bajleet, who was then a minor, was gang raped. Outraged by the despicable act, he rightfully  sought justice.  In order to stop him from reporting the matter to the police, he was offered money and gold by the culprits as if violation of his daughter’s honour was a kind of minor road accident in which the defaulter offers money as compensation. In rural areas, the poor sections are taken for granted, and sexual crimes against their women are not seen as crimes at all but rather as a favour done to them. When Bant Singh refused, he was threatened with dire consequences. He did not care about such threats, her pursued the case and as a result, three of the accused were awarded life imprisonment.

“Bant Singh’s was that rare case,” writes Dutt, “in which a Dalit had defied the sarpanch of a village to seek justice in a court and had succeeded in having the culprits sentenced to life imprisonment. And for this, he and his family had to pay a very heavy price. This is because a Dalit had actually succeeded in getting an upper-caste Jat man and two others convicted of rape.” This could not be digested by the powerful landowners, and they decided to make an example out of him. The idea of retribution is very strong among the landowners. They seek revenge even among their own caste and it can run through generations. And Bant Singh was from a lower caste, he had to be dealt with severely and immediately.

Dutt’s powerful narrative is a mix of biography and documentary, although at times the documentary aspect becomes longer than necessary. As Bant Singh is also an accomplished folk singer, Dutt has deftly made use of folk songs and poems to tell the story. However, one notices the tendency to read more than what was intended in folk literature, and to see everything from one world-view.

The book portrays the hell Bant Singh, Baljeet Kaur and his family went through at the hands of the rich and powerful. Although they were physically and emotionally tormented, they did not cow down.

When you watch him speak and sing on the television, you find a cheerful man without a trace of self-pity. The head bows to him in respect to his indomitable spirit, and also bows down with shame because such inhumanity continues in this age in the world’s biggest democracy.

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