Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cliches mean nothing to Bant Singh

Cliches mean nothing to Bant Singh
Saturday August 19 2006 16:51 IST

TJS George

Maintain unity. Build a new India. We must eradicate poverty. We will provide health care and education to every child. Our farmers are our wealth. No one can break our unity ....

Sixty-one years of speeches, cliches, shibboleths, exhortations, promises. The problem with Independence and Republic Day is that, when they become state-sponsored events, they turn into empty rituals.

Ideally we should use the occasion for honouring those who do the country proud. Sure, state-sponsored honours are bestowed upon soldiers, policemen and kids who have shown bravery of the exceptional kind. Deserving as these honours are, a great many truly heroic figures go unsung and unhonoured. Medals of Honour 2006 should have gone, for example, to Meher Bhargava and Bant Singh.

Meher Bhargava was shot dead in Lucknow early this year. Her crime? She resisted some young men who made obscene remarks about her daughter-in-law. The men must have been influential enough to not only carry guns but also use them with abandon. Who deserves a medal more than a mother-in-law who died defending her family's honour?

Bant Singh faced a similar situation. He lives in the agricultural village of Mansa in Punjab. Dalit Sikhs are used as bonded labour there and the landlords consider it their right to abuse the men and use their women at will. Some landlords went one day to Bant Singh's place and assaulted his daughter. Bant Singh then did the unthinkable: He fought the abusers.

In feudal Mansa that was an unpardonable offence. A bunch of young landlords ambushed Bant Singh outside his village, tied him up and used metal rods to smash his limbs. They didn't want to kill him. A mutilated Bant Singh, they figured, would send a sharper message to all bonded labourers and all the young girls in their midst. Bant Singh was left in the field. Help arrived only after gangrene started setting in. The doctor at Mansa Civil Hospital refused to admit him unless Rs.1000 was given to him. By the time all that was arranged, it was too late for Bant Singh. Both his hands and one leg had to be amputated.

He is still in hospital. Landless, workless, penniless, he is itching to go out campaigning in the villages against the cruelties of the caste system, against bonded labour, against the rich abusing the poor. He knows, as do his family and friends, that such activities would attract further attacks by the landlords. Next time, he knows, the rich boys will kill him and all those who help him.

But he is determined to fight on. "They have only smashed my limbs. My tongue is still there." His courage comes from having already been an activist, refusing to work in the fields and becoming independent with a small piggery and poultry farm. Politically aware of things like oppression and slavery, he had joined the Bahujan Samaj Party. The extent of cruelty that he saw all around him drove him towards a more radical platform. Today he is a member of the Naxalite CPI-ML.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said spiritedly: "I want those who have mistakenly taken to Naxalism to understand that in India power will never flow from the barrel of a gun."

Meher Bhargava actually saw power flowing from the barrel of a gun, Bant Singh from iron rods. Our country is filled with such heroes, heroines and martyrs. You cannot even address their problem, Mr.Prime Minister. At least, do not preach.


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