Saluting Bant Singh and Celebrating Resistance:

A Cultural Evening in Delhi

When Congress backed landlords assaulted Bant Singh, an activist of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha(MMM) from Mansa, Punjab , they probably thought that with that gruesome act they would succeed in terrorizing Bant Singh and the other rural poor who had begun asserting themselves. What they had not anticipated was the resolve of the rural poor to lead a life of dignity and the sacrifices they were willing to make for that.

Bant Singh, as Liberation readers would know, had lost his limbs after he was waylaid in a field while returning from a meeting in January 2006 and attacked with hand pump handles by seven assailants. This was following the justice won, after a long legal and political battle over the rape of his minor daughter by goons supported by the local Congress Sarpanch.

The atrocity created the uproar that it deserved and the agrarian workers and rural poor gave a war call for justice and have continued to organise under the banner of MMM and AIALA. Bant Singh in turn announced that far from being intimidated, his resolve to pursue worker's rights and for the dignity of dalit poor was firmer than ever. Ten months after the assault that took away his limbs, Bant Singh is determined to continue his work in organising the rural poor.

The Forum for Democratic Initiatives (FDI), Delhi, which had sent a team to Punjab in January 2006, to enquire into the details of the incident has been involved in bringing to the attention of the democratic polity on how Bant Singh's case reflects the other face of capitalist, prosperous Punjab. The campaign has highlighted the plight of those caught in the grip of feudal hierarchies and caste exploitation while mainstream media and the State paints a picture of capitalist growth and prosperity. The agrarian crisis has worsened the situation in rural areas of Punjab and particularly the condition of small, marginal farmers and the agrarian labour. They are buckling under economic crisis and facing threats of auctioneers, commissioning agents, loan retrievers as well as the age-old weapons of social boycotts and bonded labour. While many have buckled under the pressure as reflected by the high level of suicides among the agrarian community in the Malwa region, there are others, like Bant Singh, who have thrown their weight in the strength of the collective struggle.

To salute the spirit of this struggle by the rural poor and to honour Bant Singh, who has shown exemplary courage in the face of repeated adversity, a cultural evening was organised in Delhi , on 15 October 2006. Fund collection was also taken up in the evening as drive for Bant's rehabilitation. The evening began with Banthso (Guddi), Bant Singh's wife addressing the gathering. Comrade Kavaljeet from MMM, Mansa spoke of the current situation in the region. The Convenor of FDI, Radhika Menon, conducted the meeting on behalf of the felicitators, which saw a gathering of cultural performers, intelligentsia, and Delhi citizens, who had come together to celebrate resistance. Mandala presented Sharan Kumar Limbale's autobiographical story Akkarmashi, while Mahmood and Daanish presented the subversive but lost art of Urdu story telling, Dastangoi. The secular spirit of sufi was conveyed by Dhruv Sangari, Balli Cheema recited two of his new poems, while a rendition of rousing protest songs by Hirawal from Patna, brought the passion of poetry and politics to the evening. Footage taken by Daljit Ami of the AIALA rally in March 2006 in Chandigarh was shown, and an exhibition of photographs taken by Raghu Rai and Anurag Singh with text by FDI on Bant Singh's case and the situation of agrarian labour in Punjab set the context for the evening. The highlight of the evening was a moving video, prepared in the form of a ‘Video Letter from Bant Singh', prepared by Sanjay Kak and shot by Anurag Singh. In the 7-minute video letter, Bant Singh renders songs that have been the spirit of struggles and speaks of the battles engaging the rural poor and dalit in Punjab .

Writer Arundhati Roy welcomed the celebration of resistance and the efforts to rehabilitate Bant Singh as a political act. She said Bant Singh must be given back political limbs because they were smashed and taken away as part of a political act. She said there would be those who would want to depoliticise his rehabilitation but that his rehabilitation would be incomplete without knowing the context of his struggles.

The fund collection for Bant Singh's rehabilitation by AIALA has seen a warm response from across a wide section of people. FDI has been coordinating the efforts for this rehabilitation. If Bant Singh were to stand up again in the village, where his tormentors tried to cut him down for asserting the dignity and rights of the poor, it would be on the strength of the solidarity of the hundreds and thousands of people who have extended hope to this struggle in a small village in Punjab – thus defeating the very terror that his tormentors had sought to instil.

- Radhika Menon