Monday, July 02, 2018

The Ballad of Bant Singh by Nirupama Dutt

Picture credit HERE
A little background: When I was little, I grew up in a small hill-station town called Shillong, At that time, many houses had their toilets away from the main house, so people went to defecate there. Irrespective, though whether the toilet was inside or outside the main house, there was a back door to the toilets even if they were inside, with WC/Indian model. It is through these back doors, and the open toilets in other houses, that I saw men with pagris come to clean toilets or take the excreta away, replacing full for empty oil-tins which served as excreta collectors. Quite naturally, in many houses, you had to change your clothing to go to the toilet and then, return and wash up or even have a mini-bath, wear fresh clothes and then enter the house again. As a child or even a teenager, I was not aware of the caste system in India. The word Shudra/which is now addressed as Dalit was only in my sociology books, but I had no knowledge of who they were.

Then I came to other parts of the country. I was shocked to find, men and women in pagris living in our locality and their children going to the same school as I did. As far as my life in Shillong was concerned, I had some lovely friends called Jyoti and Daljit Kaur as schoolmates. In Shillong, these men who came to clean the toilets I knew lived in Bara Bazaar, but it was not until, August last year that I walked through their lane, going out to catch a bus to Upper Shillong. It was a lovely habitat – both sides filled with shops and residences and even a Gurudwara.

“Oi!’ I said to myself, ‘this is just like parts of Delhi.”

That this area can be under attack, is unthinkable, because, these hard working Punjabi Dalits have lived here for a long time and washed and cleaned toilets of many of the Shillongites, including Khasis.

As a resident of Delhi for the last twenty years, I have been the recipient of Punjabi heartwarming inclusion, visited Gurudwaras and even went an stayed in Beas, Radha Swami Satsang.  The painful stories of Dalits can be read on my blog.

But, no to The Ballad of Bant Singh, the torchbearer of what Dalits in Punjab are trying to get rid of the exploitation of their women, the rape that goes unrecorded, and the sheer violence that erupts when there is resistance from them against the upper caste.  

But, you can’t kill a mockingbird – their songs will tear through your soul making you bleed with anguish yourself. Created in volumes the soulful music of Udasi, who inspired Bant Singh, with his revolutionary sharyari,  the songs flow in your blood-steam like molten iron in your veins, red with pain that must be intolerably hard to bear, at the same time, sweet music to the ear and soul. An abundance of these lyrics is captured in the book.

They say a soulful voice can only take birth out of extreme pain. The need to talk and sing about a revolution in society is as old as humans on earth are, especially when discarded as the scum of society.

Poet, journalist, Art critic, Niruma Dutt’s painstaking work on The Ballad of Bant Singh is one such tale, written over a period of three years through the violence and ultimate dismembering of Bant Singh limbs, whose voice could not be tolerated by upper caste communities.

But, when blood speaks with anguish, hearts melt and the revolution moves on, with stronger intent and unwavering faith, that one day, they will overcome! There is no power in Punjab that can silence Bant Singh. Salute!

The poet and revolutionary, Bant Singh, has stirred the souls with his songs at the Jaipur Literature Fest, and now may travel across the globe singing his song of freedom.

“Many are the crossroads from life to death. The route that is different, may I be taken that way.” – Udasi

Below are some points from the book, which are interesting to note.

“In Bhuj Jhabbar, fifty-five percent of the population is Jat and forty-five Dalit. There are only two other castes in the village: two Bania brothers who are shopkeepers, and two houses belonging to families of the Jheevar or water-bearing caste. “  

Bhuj Jhabbar, is the village in Mansa district of Punjab’s Malwa region where Bant Singh lives.

“Most of the Dalits in this village – which is jointly set up by Jats and Dalits of Akila village not more than two hundred years ago – are agrarian labourers. It has a total population of around fifteen hundred...Only five Dalits of the village have government jobs and that too of the Class III or Class IV variety. There is one retired army jawan but his sons too are working as attached labourers. The Dalit tenements are shabby.”

Dalit women are regularly raped by upper caste men; indeed, it is almost a ritual that first the upper caste men must deflower a Dalit woman, while they take great pride in making the girl shriek with pain and horror. In her testimony, Bant Singh's daughter says, and I quote from the book -

“I, Baljit Kaur, daughter of Shri Bant Singh, am a resident of Bhuj Jhabbar in Mansa district, Punjab. I was gang-raped on July 6, 2002. I did not conceal the incident and along with my father waged a struggle for justice…”

“What, after all, does a Dalit labourer have? He has neither money nor influence. All he has is his own body, which he must use to earn a livelihood. And, as for the body of a Dalit woman, it is very easy for it to be seen as an object of casual, easy abuse. In bant’s case, and in Baljit’s, it was their bodies which became the sites of oppression.”

Quoting from Kushwant Singh’s book, The Sikhs, Dutt writes, “Sikhism did not succeed in breaking the caste system. In intermarriage is considered the test of equality, at no time, was there much intercaste marriage between Sikhs converted from different Hindu castes. The untouchable converted to Sikhism remained an outcast for matrimonial alliances. Although he was no longer untouchable in the sense of not being touched and sat in temples along with other Sikhs, in time…Sikhs of higher caste refused to eat with untouchables Sikhs and in villages, separate wells were provided for them.” Today, the author continues to tell us, cremation grounds in villages and small towns continue to be separate and the past decades have seen the rise of caste-based gurudwaras.

Thus, far from only being a very comprehensive biography on Bant Singh, only, Dutt has done her cultural, sociological and anthropological work so much in depth, that The Ballad Of Bant Singh, stretches past the boundaries of its covers to become, even a textbook for students studying anthropology, or sociology, of Dalits in Punjab.

It is a must-read for anyone interested in the Dalit movement in India, Punjab.

The Ballad of Bant Singh is available in both English and Punjabi. The English version is published by Speaking Tiger. You can buy it HERE 


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