‘They’ve only got my limbs, I’ve still got my voice – I can still sing!’:
Agrarian Labour Under Assault
As the AIALA prepares for its National Conference, the mutilation of the limbs of Bant Singh by Congress-backed Jat goons in Punjab has underlined the way in which feudal violence is desperate to punish every assertion of rights and dignity by agrarian labourers, most of whom are Dalit.
Two hands and a leg amputated. The remaining limb yet to heal, has turned gangrenous and may also have to be removed. His kidneys have been damaged due to excessive bleeding and he can hardly eat and digest any food.
And yet defiance still sparkles in the eyes of Bant Singh, a Dalit agricultural labour activist of the All India Agrarian Labour Association (AIALA), as he lies in the trauma ward of a state-run hospital in Chandigarh where doctors are battling to save his only remaining leg and even his life.
It is precisely for this defiance, coming from a ‘lower caste’ Dalit, that Bant Singh from Jhabhar village of Mansa district in Punjab was beaten to pulp and left for dead by Jat men armed with axes around a fortnight ago.
Apart from his activities organizing agricultural workers, Bant Singh’s greatest ’sin’, in the eyes of the Sarpanch and former Sarpanch of his village, was the long running battle for justice against the men who raped his minor daughter, Baljit Kaur in 2002. Bant Singh waited for over a month for the local panchayat to deliver justice for his daughter. The panchayat passed their judgement: Baljit Kaur must marry one of her rapists who was a Dalit, and all the rapists, including one Jat man, were to go scot free. Bant Singh refused to agree to condemn his daughter to life-long rape, and filed a court case, in defiance of the panchayat decree. Braving both threats of violence and attempted bribes, he and his daughter stood firmly with their struggle for justice. In the process, they drew closer to the CPI(ML) and its Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, which supported their struggle, and eventually, in 2004, Justice GK Rai, the Additional Sessions Judge of Mansa, passed a strongly worded judgement sentencing three of the rapists for life.
On the evening of January 5, 2006, as Bant Singh returned home after campaigning and collecting funds for the National Conference of AIALA at Andhra Pradesh, at which he was to be one of the delegates from Punjab, the Jats sought revenge for his defiance and his dignity.
Walking through the wheat fields, Bant Singh was waylaid by a gang of seven men, sent by Jaswant and Niranjan Singh, the current and former Sarpanches of Jhabbar village. One of them brandished a revolver to prevent any resistance while the other six set upon him with iron rods and axes beating him to pulp.
Just after leaving him for dead, the attackers called up Beant Singh, another former sarpanch from Bant Singh’s village to come and pick up the body. Even this was not the end of the torment heaped on this 40-year-old father of eight children and the only earning member in the family.
At the Mansa Civil Hospital where Bant Singh was taken soon after the attack, Purushottam Goel, the doctor who admitted the patient, demanded a bribe and did not even care to provide treatment for 36 full hours. Bant Singh was bandaged only on the January 7, and the next day his attendants were told that the hospital lacked facilities to treat him and so he should be removed to some other hospital. By the time Bant Singh was shifted to the PGI, Chandigarh, it was too late to save two of his hands and leg.
The assault on Bant Singh has exploded the myth that massacres of Dalits only happened in the hinterland of backward Bihar – not in ‘developed’ capitalist Punjab, harvesting the green gold of the Green Revolution. Bant Singh’s story reveals the sordid reality behind the media image of the prosperous Punjab farmer on his tractor in a mustard field. Green revolution technology and ‘development’ has clearly failed to erode feudal social relations – on the contrary, feudal brutality has intensified in the wake of the crisis faced by the farmers themselves. Agrarian development in Punjab has not resulted in democratization – rather, it has concentrated land and resources in the hands of a small set of families close to the ruling class parties – Congress and Akali Dal. Sarpanch Jaswant Singh owns 60 acres of land, and all the accused own above 20 acres, and have a track record of ceiling violations and illegal grabbing of land. Agrarian labour, at the bottom of the ladder face destitution and desperate unemployment – along with social boycotts and brutal attacks on the basis of caste. Social dignity for Dalits remains a burning issue in Punjab – just as much as it is in Bihar or UP.
Bant Singh is known in his village and among his comrades as a singer of rousing protest songs. When his comrades met Bant Singh in hospital, they broke down – but Bant Singh told them, ‘They’ve only got my limbs, I’ve still got my voice – I can still sing!’ As we salute Bant Singh’s courage and his spirit, as we feel outrage and anger at the brutality unleashed on him and his family of 8 children in which he is the only earning member, it seems that today’s Ekalavyas are not willing to give up their rights as ‘dakshina’ – and mutilation and barbarism can’t silence their songs and crush their spirit of resistance.
Democratic rights groups as well the AIALA and CPI(ML) have submitted a representation to the NHRC and the SC/ST Commission, demanding that:
1. The Punjab Government make arrangements for best possible medical treatment and artificial limbs for Bant Singh.
2. A high level team of the National Human Rights Commission visit the patient and his village to ascertain facts of the case.
3. The culprits as well as Jaswant and Niranjan Singh be booked under Sec. 307 IPC and Sec. 120B and the SC/ST Act and immediately be arrested.
4. A compensation of Rupees 10,00,000 be granted to the family and a permanent attendant be provided to Bant Singh.
5. The wife of Bant Singh be provided with a Government job.
6. Dr. Purushottam Goel be immediately terminated.
7. An Independent National Commission be set up to enquire into atrocities on Dalits in Punjab, in particular those employed as agricultural labour.
Agricultural Workers Pledged to Avenge the Attack on AIALA Leader Bant Singh
Braving the rain and biting cold, thousands of agricultural labourers, women, poor peasants and youth thronged into a large field in Jhabbar village on 16 January.
Through this massive protest meeting, people of the area as well as those who came from other districts of Punjab, expressed their anger and demanded exemplary punishment to the attackers and conspirators of this heinous crime. They expressed their solidarity with the dalits of Jhabbar and nearby villages, whom the landlords wanted to terrorise by attacking and physically crippling comrade Bant Singh. For Dalits and struggling agrarian labourers, Comrade Bant Singh with his severely mutilated and amputated limbs, emerged a vibrant symbol of defiance and resistance against oppression and injustice.
A large number of women and youth with their traditional arms in hands participated in the rally. Addressing the rally, Baljit Kaur, daughter of Bant Singh, declared that her father had struggled to secure justice for her, and to resist against the life of bondage that the poor Dalits were condemned to lead; those who sought to punish him for waging this struggle must be punished, and Bant Singh’s struggle for emancipation must continue.
The meeting was addressed by Bhupinder Sambhar and Gulwar Mohammad Goriya of CPI and Punjab Khet Mazdoor Sabha, Tarsem Jodha of Lal Jhanda Bhatta Mazdoor Union, Laxman Singh Semwal of Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, Lahari Ram Balli of Samata Sainik Dal - he also served as Secretary to Late Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, and the veteran dalit social activist Jai Singh. Nephew of Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh and noted Civil Libertarian Prof. Jagmohan Singh also addressed the meeting.
Comrades Malkiat Singh and Kanwaljeet from MCPI(U) who have played a pivotal role in taking care of Bant Singh in the hospital in Chandigarh as well as in building a public opinion among various sections of people, also came from Chandigarh with many young people to address this gathering. State Secretary of CPI(ML) Rajwinder Singh Rana and Central Committee member Swapan Mukherjee addressed the meeting on behalf of the CPI(ML).
The administration tried its level best to foil the meeting but failed in face of a stiff resistance. A large number of armed police with SP of the district stayed at the venue throughout the meeting while the ruling Congress party’s leaders and their agents continuously tried to put pressure on the administration to ban the meeting.
The meeting called for a widespread campaign and mobilisations all over Sangrur, Bhatinda and Mansa, culminating in a massive gherao of the Administrative Headquarters and a total strike of agrarian labour on 25 January. Even as the struggle intensifies, the silence of the Congress and the Akali Dal becomes deafening: it is the silence of complicity and guilt, and it is also the silence of fear – fear of an awakening among the rural poor inspite of the terror sponsored by them.
- Swapan Mukherjee