Chandigarh-based poet and journalist Nirupama Dutt’s The Ballad of Bant Singh is a lyrical and moving biography to the Dalit singer. In the poem called Of Bant We Sing, Dutt introduces us to her characters, ‘those who refused to bow’, and to Singh’s daughter, Baljit Kaur, the girl who ‘asked for a pistol in her dowry’.
Dutt takes her reader to the heart of rural Punjab. Her love for its soil and its people, and her agony over its fault lines of caste and gender, underlie the narrative. The story is laced with Punjabi and Hindi verses (translated into English) by poets like Sant Ram Udasi, Jagrup Singh and Kumar Vikal, which are poignant and often ironical.
Bant Singh is a legend for his ‘Qissa of Courage’ as Dutt titles his story on her book cover. He was widely covered in the media as his story told of tragedy, but more than that, it personified courage.
Belonging to the village of Burj Jhabbar, Mansa district, Punjab, Bant is a singer of revolutionary songs that highlight the plight of Dalits. He himself is a (Dalit) Mazhabi Sikh. Caste and how it affects women is an important facet of the book. Dutt explains in detail how the Sikh Gurus (especially Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Ramdas) embraced Mazhabi Sikhs as their own sons, yet these reformist tenets were slowly eroded and replaced by mainstream caste equations.
A political activist with the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha party, Bant Singh had to confront the upper-caste forces of his village when his 16-year-old daughter, Baljit, was gang raped just before her marriage. The wedding was called off and Baljit was sent away to relatives in another village, but she kept up the refrain, ‘Bhapaji, we must kill them. We have to kill them. See what they have done to your sherni (lioness).’ In her social milieu, Baljit was a woman of unusual grit and courage.
‘Tradition has sanctioned the abuse of Dalit girls,’ Dutt writes. She enumerates how there was even a tradition of women from a Dalit bride’s home having to put up a gidda (dance) show for upper-caste men, to lewd songs that the men chose. She sensitively explains how Dalit girls might be initiated into sex with upper caste men because of their supposed ‘social and economic inferiority’. Even popular village songs urge them in this direction.
Dutt’s exploration of caste explains the socio-economic conditions that surround incidents like the gang rape and hanging of two teenage sisters in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, in March 2014, and the subsequent dismissal by a political leader of the guilt of the upper-caste perpetrators with the defence, “Boys will be boys.”
After Baljit’s rape, Bant Singh ignored warnings from the local police and counsel from community members. He went on to file a case against the perpetrators. Baljit gave her testimony fearlessly, and they won the case.
On a winter’s evening in January 2006, while riding his cycle home—from another village where he had gone to buy khoya to make sweets for his children for Lohri—Bant Singh was attacked with sticks and the metal handles of hand pumps. His arms and legs shattered, he was left in the icy fields to die.
Dutt quotes Beant Singh, Bant’s friend who received an anonymous call from one of the attackers, and took his gun and two helpers to search for him. “I wondered how we would pick him up and put him into the car. I tried to raise his arm and it folded like the sleeve of a cotton shirt. I tried to lift his leg and it was the same.”
Eventually, one arm and both legs had to be amputated. But Dutt does not dwell on the tragedy of this. She recounts that when Bant Singh was informed about it, he said, “Anyway, what use are my arms and my legs, I have to sing with my throat.”
The book salutes the spirit of a living legend. But its true strength lies in the dexterity with which Dutt has woven the beauty and bloodiness of Punjab into her tale.
Dutt’s own connection with her state and her empathy with those who are yoked by its traditions comes through in this verse by Sohan Singh Misha:
Teri doorh vi surme vargi
Mitran de ghar jandiye sadhke
(Even your dust is soothing, like kohl to the eyes, O road, leading to the home of my beloved.)