(This article was first published on 14 May 2019. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives after the announcement of a film based on Bant Singh.)
Video Editor: Sandeep Sumar, Mohd Irshad
Cameraperson: Aishwarya S Iyer
“If you, India, your kids have to die because of starvation, then what was the point of your independence?” Bant Singh asks as he sings a folk song with a clarity and depth that has overcome the most heinous violence.
Singh, a Dalit man, dared to do the unprecedented in 2000. He dragged three upper caste landowners from his village to court on charges of raping his minor daughter. He braved threats, refused bribes and got them convicted. However, three years after the conviction in 2006, he was held at gunpoint while six others men brutally beat him with rods and used an axe to chop off his hands and a leg. Against all odds, Bant Singh survived.
In the run up to 2019 Lok Sabha elections, The Quint met Bant Singh at AAP Punjab chief and Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann’s office. In 2017 he was inducted as a star campaigner for Punjab state’s polls, and continues to work for the party. He meets Dalit families to urge them to vote for AAP that he calls aam party.
However, a look at Bant’s tryst with politics exposes how he was sidelined, ignored and cheated despite being the Dalit icon of Punjab.
Born in Punjab’s Mansa district, very early on Bant Singh decided he will not be oppressed owing to his caste. His father was a guard and his mother a house-maker, but he had other plans. Almost unaffected by the inhibitions that accompany being from a lower caste, he decided he will start his own work, a makeshift make up store. “I decided I will not be a labourer, nor be enslaved to any anyone. I will make my own money and eat and live off it,” he said looking back at the first job he dearly loved.
His participation in politics deepened after the attack on his life. A member of the Communist Part of India (Marxist-Leninist) he began to use his life story to galvanise support from Dalit communities that constitute one-third, or 32 percent, of Punjab’s population.
His association with the Left party ended bitterly after leaders from the party swindled the money that was donated to him, Bant says. They also took away his party post and began sidelining him. Miffed, he began to keep to himself till he found a more viable political alternative.
In 2017, he joined the AAP, and was welcomed as its star campaigner. However his induction into the party was bittersweet when it was found that on the same event that he was honoured and welcomed, Harvinder alias Honey and Navdeep alias Appi were also extended the same honour. Both men were amongst the seven others who had held him down, and injured him to within an inch of losing his life, and left him to die. “They did not know their criminal past,” Singh tells The Quint.
The news spread fast but Bant Singh made no scene. As the leaders were apprised of their criminal past, both Honey and Appi were expelled from the party. In the only photograph one finds of AAP president Arvind Kejriwal and Dalit icon Bant Singh on AAP’s Facebook page is a meeting where Kejriwal met Bant Singh for damage control. “Arvind Kejriwal himself folded his hands and apologised to me,” Bant says calmly.
Despite being inducted as a star campaigner, Bant Singh was not used for campaigning in or around his village. “The local MLA did not ask anything of me. Did not talk to me. I was sent to other places like Jalandhar and Ludhiana sometimes. They did not give me any money for campaigning also,” Singh says unprompted.
“They did not give me any money last time. This time also they have not brought it up. Let’s see maybe they give me something this time,” he says.
Despite being sidelined and cheated by political parties, nothing has stopped Bant from using the political stage to fight for the cause he most believes in, to uplift the Dalits of Punjab.
He is particularly aware of how Dalits are cheated during campaigning ahead of polls. “When voting happens, Dalits are given alcohol, they are also given drugs, given some money, given promises of some land. They joke around with the Dalits and after coming to power do not care about Dalits for five years.”
He also knows his story gets attention, at least from the brothers and sisters within his community. “They listen to me. They think that if my hand was cut, their hands could be too. That if my daughter was raped, tomorrow it could be theirs. Till I am alive I will fight for the rights of Dalits.”