It was with an apt “Lal Salaam” that author Nirupama Dutt welcomed Punjab’s Dalit leader Bant Singh on stage, which set the tone for what was to follow. Bant Singh is a legend. A bonded labourer from Jhabhar village in Punjab’s Mansa district, his struggle with prejudice began long before his 16-year-old daughter was raped by upper caste men.
His daughter was engaged to be married, she had yet to give her 10th exams, but one fine day everything changed.
After a protracted struggle, Bant Singh created history by becoming the first Dalit to raise his voice against upper caste violence and get a conviction for the accused. When Singh’s daughter was asked about the episode and the humiliation she faced both from the police and in court, she replied “I threw stones at every brick that hit me” recounts Nirupama Dutt, who released her book on Singh’s life titled The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage at the event.
However, Singh’s miseries didn’t end with the trial. In 2006, Bant Singh was brutally beaten up for raising his voice. Alone and unarmed, he was left to die. At the hospital, doctors refused to treat him without a fee of Rs 1000. He was Rs 300 short. A chaiwallah stationed outside the hospital paid the difference. The Rs 300 constituted his entire earnings for the day.
Sadly, gangrene had set in and Singh lost his arms and a leg. But the attack gave him a new reservoir of strength, which helped him to continue the struggle. “My arms and leg are gone but not my voice” he says, “I have crores of limbs”.
Dutt shares an anecdote: When his daughter was born, Bant Singh went around the village distributing sweets, and when one person asked him why he was celebrating the birth of a daughter, he replied “everyone is equal for me.”
A prolific singer, Singh kept the audiences enthralled with his melodious voice that spoke of Bhagat Singh’s struggle, and his own, which was to “bring down the mountain of tyranny”.
Dalit rights are now centre stage with the suicide of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula. “He (Rohith) should have killed off the people who wronged him instead of taking his own life,” Singh said.
A staunch supporter of the Left movement, Bant Singh is a man of the people. He admits to not knowing who Marx and Lenin are. “I am a leader from Punjab. I know the issues faced by the underprivileged there. That’s all,” he said.
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