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Songs of Courage

The story of Dalit activist Bant Singh and his daughter Baljit is one of great courage. Mumbai will soon have the opportunity of hearing it first-hand

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Bant Singh had two kilos of khoya in his bag as he cycled home on the evening of January 5, 2006. His wife needed the khoya to make sweets for lohri, and Singh was thinking of this and other matters when he was waylaid by a gang of young men who assaulted him, smashing his limbs to splinters. They beat him because Singh was a proud and unafraid Dalit in a caste-divided society. He was a labour activist, who refused to bow down before the upper castes, even striking out on his own as a small businessman, rather than toiling on someone else’s fields as a labourer. This was one unwritten law, broken. Singh broke another when, in 2002, his daughter Baljit — then a ninth standard student — was gangraped by upper caste men, and instead of accepting some money and keeping quiet, he took the rapists to court.

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The attack on him was meant to be an example to all other Dalits who dared to get above themselves, but, as journalist Nirupama Dutt writes in her book, The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage, it proved powerless to silence the voice that was Bant Singh. Both his legs and one arm had to be amputated after the attack, but on the eighteenth day after he lost his limbs, Singh once again sang his songs of protest and pride.

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“The sight of him does not evoke pity, but it reminds us what courage means. It shows us that nothing is so bad that you can’t fight it,” says Dutt, who will be in Mumbai with Singh and Baljit to attend the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest, which begins today. All three will be in conversation on two different occasions, with the journalist interviewing the father and daughter about their story. Singh will also be performing some of the rousing songs that he sings at rallies. “Bant is unlettered; he sings from the oral tradition, and many of his songs are inspired by the revolutionary poet Sant Ram Udasi. Bant had, in fact, met Udasi when he was a young boy and he has been singing since then,” says Dutt, “Wherever he goes, people open up and are very warm to him. His sincerity comes across, and people respond to his story very strongly.”

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While Singh has talked about his story and performed at various events across the country, including the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, this is the first time that Baljit, now married and a mother of three, will be travelling to tell her story before an audience. “The only time she has spoken up in public before was at a rally after Bant was attacked,” says Dutt, “In fact, I was reluctant to interview her for my book, because I felt awful about making her relive those memories. But she told me that this was nothing compared to the kind of questions that the police and the court had asked her. And I realised that it was my middle class hang-ups that were holding me back. When you have gone through something terrible, you find the courage to speak out, and Baljit is Bant’s daughter all the way.”

First published on: 17-11-2016 at 12:02:32 am
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Get well soon, ma’am

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