His songs fall on deaf ears

Bant Singh donning his new party’s cap in his home in village Burj Jhabbar in Mansa district, Punjab (Pic: RP)

On the evening of January 5, 2006, Bant Singh was returning home. He lives in Burj Jhabbar village in north India’s Punjab — a state ravaged by the violence of India’s partition in 1947.

Singh is from the sweeper community, considered low in India’s caste hierarchy. His forefathers embraced Sikhism at some point to escape the chains of orthodox Hinduism. Sikhism promised emancipation for people like him. But even this faith could not provide dignity to people like Bant Singh. They remained under the thumb of the dominant Jutt Sikhs, a major land-owning community in Punjab that was the major beneficiary of the Green Revolution that India ushered in in the 60s. Today low castes like Bant Singh, known as Dalits in India, constitute 32 percent of Punjab’s population. But they are mostly landless — only five percent of them own land in the state. So they are mostly dependent on the dominant castes for a living and end up being exploited by them. Bonded labour is not unheard of.

Bant Singh refused to cower down in front of dominant castes. He reared pigs that fetched him decent money. He confronted Jutt youth and did not shy away from asserting himself.

That January evening, a few young Jutt men lay waiting for him in their fields. As he crossed them, he was brutally assaulted. Badly injured, he almost died. But then he was picked up by a neighbour and admitted into a hospital. He survived, but lost his both hands and a leg.

Bant Singh was an activist of a far left party in India called the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation, one of the dozens of parties that broke from the original Communist Party of India on one deviation or the other. Singh became an icon of Dalit resistance and was used by his party to mobilise Dalit support all over India.

But, after working tirelessly for a decade, Bant Singh felt cheated. The party had used him but had failed to lend him any support on multiple occasions. They had even siphoned off some money that he had received from various organisations, he said.

Now, Bant Singh has joined a new political party that came into existence in India a few years ago, running high on the anti-corruption tirade its leader (and now Delhi’s chief minister) Arvind Kejriwal had spearheaded.

But even this party has not respected Bant Singh. One the day he joined the party, its leaders made two men convicted in his assault case (currently out on bail) join the party. Bant Singh says he was told that these two men are crucial to winning votes of dominant castes from his village and adjoining areas where they wield influence.

But as of now, Bant Singh has not lost hope. He says he believes in his new party. “I know how to fight and how to sing. And I will keep doing that,” he says.