Wednesday, February 03, 2021

THE BALLAD OF BANT SINGH: A QISSA OF COURAGE

‘I, Baljit Kaur, daughter of Shri Bant Singh, am a resident of Burj 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…’ As Nirupama Dutt met Baljit for the first time, this testimony played in her mind and she wondered if she would be able to talk with Baljit about it all, ask her to relive it all again. Dutt writes, ‘I was to realize later that my hesitation arose from the comfort of my own relatively privileged existence. Those who are pushed to the wall find the courage to tell their tale of woe over and again.’

The comfortable living rooms of the relatively privileged wonder - In the coldest winter in decades, amidst pouring rains, surrounded by indifferent citizenry and hostile state, why are the farmers on the roads?

Bant Singh is a member of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha. Apart from helping and organizing members of his union, at all union events Bant sings songs of Sant Ram Udasi. ‘Maan dhartiye teri god nu chan hor bathere, tu maghda rahi ve surja kameya de vehre.’ Bant was not one to be cowed down and he waged a battle for justice and in 2004 in a rare occurrence of a Dalit winning a legal battle against an upper caste, got conviction for three. This legal win was to come at an even bigger cost and an even bigger battle awaited him. On the evening of 5th January 2006, Bant Singh was ambushed by associates of the rapists and brutally beaten with iron rods and axes.

Farmers occupied roads and railway tracks for months. Govt ignored them. Farmers were not one to be cowed down and they marched towards Delhi and camped at its borders. A govt. that first refused to talk with them, refused to let them march towards Delhi, refused to acknowledge anything was wrong in the farm laws, and a govt. which used pliant media to paint them in the color of separatists, relented bit by bit (can enter Delhi, can amend laws, can suspend laws for a duration, etc.) These little wins came at a great cost – over 180 lives lost so far. But even bigger battle awaited them. 26th January arrived and the morcha got ambushed. The spirit of lacs of marching tractors was brutally beaten and crushed.

By the time Bant Singh reached PGI Chandigarh, 48 hours after the assault on him, gangrene had set in. when informed that both his arms and one leg will need to be amputated, he said ‘I suppose the doctors know best. Anyway, what use are my arms and legs, I have to sing with my throat. As long as a Comrade’s throat is not slit, it is all right.’ 18 days after his amputation, still in a serious condition, Bant surprised doctors and fellow patients by singing songs of Udasi from his sickbed.

The mob is pelting stones at the gathered farmers as police stands guard, watching, even encouraging and protecting the mob. Someone throws a crude petrol bomb on the ladies’ shelter. Someone smashes the washing machines. A sewadar at the langar is pulled into the mob and along with the mob, the police rain lathis on him. But their throats are not slit, not yet. From the gathering where tear gas is being shelled comes the sound of sangat chanting ‘Satnam Waheguru, Satnam Waheguru.’ From the throat of the sewadar, with his turban removed, his hair loose, his forehead bleeding, erupts the blessed Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal. As the state got ready to amputate the morcha, tears of one man surprised the nation. Morcha began to sing again.

Annie Zaidi in ‘Known Turf’ asks, ‘And what do you do when a man minus three limbs in a government hospital’s trauma ward begins to sing?’ Nirupama Dutt answers – quite simple, really – you salute his spirit.

One evening at Sanjhi Sath, at Singhu, Bapu Jagraj, who has filled a diary with his poems since he has been at the Morcha recites one for all present, ‘Kirti kisano kathe hoke ladhiye, Karaan pranam lahoo rangi madhiye.’ A sea of red flags marches towards the main stage at Singhu border - Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Committee and Pendu Mazdoor Union members are here in hundreds. Slogans of Kisan Mazdoor Ekta fill the air. Few days back a speaker on the stage said, ‘we are all sitting as one here – kisan-mazdoor, Punjab-Haryana, male-female. We will win this battle with govt, but the real morcha will start when we head back homewards.’ Often in the morcha one hears the slogan, ‘Baba Nanak teri soch te, pehra deyange thok ke.’ Denunciation of caste is one of the primary teachings of Guru Nanak. As and when the morcha heads back, may the teachings of Nanak and learnings from the morcha travel with it.

Nirupama Dutt dedicates the book to the revolutionary poet of Punjab, Sant Ram Udasi, ‘whose songs gave Bant Singh the strength to sing, fight and live with dignity.’ ‘Meri maut te na royeo, meri soch nu bachayeo. Mere lahu da kesar, rete vich na ralaeyo.’

Many revolutionary poets, singers, writers are giving strength to the farmers morcha – ‘to sing, fight and live with dignity.’

Nirupama Dutt’s Ballad for Bant Singh then, in part, is also a ballad for all those struggling for their rights.

Yes, in Punjab, we love to sing

But today we will sing not

Of ‘old and distant unhappy things’

Nor of ‘battles long ago’ –

We will sing, yes we will sing, of

This day, of the here and the now

Of those who refused to bow

Those who can tell us how

Songs of hope are born in want

Why some can have it all

Why some cannot.


(2020 – LOCKDOWN BOOKS REVOLUTION SERIES#4)

#kisanektamorcha

#StandWithFarmers

#SpeakUpForFarmers

#FarmersProtest

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