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Casteist Assault in Punjab


Frontline, Mansa, Punjab, Jan. 28, 2006

Photo: Bant Singh

The brutal attack on a Dalit in Mansa district in Punjab points to the persistence of caste violence in the state, which has grown with Dalit assertiveness.

His battle for justice has cost him both his arms and a leg, but Bant Singh still has a lot of fight left in him. In the trauma unit at the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine Hospital in Chandigarh, where doctors are struggling to save his remaining leg, the 40-year-old Dalit continues to sing his beloved folk songs.

On January 7, Bant Singh, a resident of Jhabbar in the southern Punjab district of Mansa, was surrounded by a group of Jat youths from the same village. The upper-caste men brutally beat him with iron rods. Three days later, after gangrene set in, doctors amputated his limbs.

It is not the sheer violence of the attack that makes Bant Singh's story an exception; it is his extraordinarily courageous refusal to be a victim. Back in 2002, Bant Singh's eldest daughter Baljeet Kaur was raped. In rural Punjab, as in India, Dalit women who are raped by men from the dominant castes have little chance of securing justice; their families are pressured to accept cash as compensation and threatened with violence if they refuse to do so. Exactly these pressures were brought to bear on Baljeet Kaur's family.

However, Bant Singh, who had been helping organise landless labourers for the left-wing mazdoor Mukti Morcha, was not one to be cowed down. He told Frontline, 'I was determined to get justice, but initially I was stopped by the village panchayat [leadership]. They kept telling me not to go to the police because nobody would marry my daughter. They offered money instead - first Rupees 2 lakhs [1 lakh = 100,000], then Rupess 4 lakhs, and even Rupess 10 lakhs. They offered my daughter gold ornaments and a scooter. But I refused to put a price on my daughter's honour. We went to the police, and in 2004 the district court convicted three people - one a Jat, Mandheer Singh, one a Scheduled Caste man called Tarsem, who had set up a doctor's practice nearby, and a woman, Gurmail Kaur, who had lured my daughter to these men.' The victory came at an enormous price: Bant Singh's elder brother, Hansa Singh, was even forced to flee the village because of threats issued by upper-caste people.

The 2004 legal victory was just the beginning of a new battle. This was the first time that a Dalit from the region who had complained against upper-caste violence had managed to secure a conviction. In 2005, individuals associated with the rapists assaulted Bant Singh on two occasions. These assaults were reported to the local police in the town of Joga and charges were filed. On both occasions, however, the accused were let off on bail. On January 7, they struck again. This time, they had armed themselves with a gun. Bant Singh recalls that he was carrying a gandasa, a crude axe villagers use to chop wood, and was willing to fight. 'But they had a gun,' he said. 'I got scared and I tried to run, but they were pointing the gun at me, so I threw away my axe. I said 'do what you want.' Then they beat me up, using iron hand-pump handles, laathis [staffs] and axes.'

After the attack, former sarpanch Beant Singh received a call from the son of Amreek Singh, the owner of a ration store that had lost its licence after Beant Singh had campaigned against hoarding and other irregularities. Amreek's son, Appy, called me up saying 'your man's been beaten up and is lying here. Come and save him if you want to,' Beant Singh says. 'I rushed to the spot; some of us took him to the civil hospital in Mansa. The doctor refused to touch the poor man unless he was paid Rupees 1,000 in advance. We collected some money and paid up. But soon his wounds got infected.'

Seven people have been arrested for the attack on Bant Singh. Two of them are the sons of the current sarpanch, Jaswant Singh. Another two are the sons of Amreek Singh. Amreek Singh is also related to Mandheer Singh, one of the men convicted in 2004 for the rape of Baljeet Kaur. Local police officials have said on record that there is no connection between the rape case and this assault on Bant Singh. They say that the attack was owing to a 'personal enmity,' but did not specify just what this feud was.

However, it is clear that the rape case and the attack are in fact closely related. Ever since Mandheer Singh filed an appeal against his conviction in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Baljeet Kaur has been placed under intense pressure to retract her initial statements. She was a minor at the time of the rape, studying in the 9th standard. After the rape, she was sent to live in another village for two years with a sympathetic family. Her hosts were also offered money to pressure Baljeet Kaur to withdraw her statement.

Now married and the mother of a three-month-old baby, Baljeet Kaur is determined to fight back. She told Frontline: 'Very recently, after my father lost his limbs, I was buying some medicine from a shop. The sarpanch and his men were standing nearby. As I walked by, they told me I would not be able to afford the money needed for my father's treatment, so I might as well take their money and drop the case.' Baljeet Kaur, however, says she has no intention of buckling in. 'If I compromised,' she says, 'that would be like selling my father's imaan [faith].'

Most residents of Jhabbar agree that the attack had a special intent: to terrorise, not kill. One shocked villager, Sukhdev Singh, said, 'This is the first time we have heard of a Dalit being beaten up this way. When people in Punjab get angry, or are seeking revenge, they sometimes do kill. But this assault was meant to be a warning to everyone else too.'

Significantly, the Jats of the village do not deny that the assault took place, or that it was intended to silence Baljeet Kaur. While the sarpanch was not available, his family members simply claimed that of the seven accused men, three were innocent and had been falsely implicated. Some other villagers, though, allege that they were witness to the sarpanch telling them to break Bant Singh's limbs.

Whatever course the case against Bant Singh's family now takes, the brutal attack points to the persistence of caste violence in Punjab, which is in turn the consequence of growing Dalit assertiveness. This is not the first time that Punjab has witnessed caste violence in recent years. The Talhan caste riots of 2003 have yet to fade from the state's memory, as has the case of a Dalit minor girl who was gang-raped in Nayagaon, near Chandigarh, about three years ago. Her father, a constable, had been subjected to similar threats and pressure by the upper-caste rapists.

According to Dr. Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication, Chandigarh, this case is representative of a long-term, subtle social change - the resurgence and gradual organisation of Dalits in Punjab.

'Although Punjab has the largest proportion of Dalits in the country - at least 31 per cent - they have never been properly mobilised. They are also politically deprived, so they are not articulate. While researching atrocities on women, we found rape cases were often brought before the panchayat rather than the police and the courts. If the rapist is a Jat, it is not even considered a crime and the victim's father is told to keep his daughter in check. But if a Dalit is accused of rape, they let the law take its course. This case is significant in that a Dalit is refusing to accept the panchayat's verdict and is challenging the Jats instead.' He added that Punjab has already seen waves of class and religious conflict and that it was not improbable that the next phase of turbulence could be set off by caste.

Interestingly, the only reason Bant Singh's family had been able to take the decision to fight back was that they were not directly dependent on the Jats of the village for their economic survival. With eight children and an aged father to support, Bant Singh has reared pigs, cows and poultry, peddled toys, and dealt in junk to make ends meet. He refused to work as an agricultural labourer like his father and elder brothers, because he felt it would enslave him. His work as an activist with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or C.P.I. (M.L.) also helped empower him to make these decisions.

Apart from politicians of the Left, no one has stood by him during this crisis. Since the attack, not one major political leader has visited Bant Singh in hospital. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is believed to have visited the hospital recently on other business, but did not stop by to meet with the victim of Punjab's most gruesome caste atrocity. Although laws entitle Bant Singh to compensation, the state government has not made any available so far. His supporters are demanding a government job for his wife or five acres (2 hectares) of land, since there are no other earning members in the family.

The response of the media has been equally disappointing, according to Jeeta Kaur, the state organiser of the C.P.I. (M.L.). 'After the attack, we contacted the media but even the local papers did not report the beating up of a Dalit. It was only when his limbs were amputated that journalists seemed to find the incident newsworthy.'

According to state government data, Punjab's Dalits are increasingly asserting their right to seek justice through the legal system. The number of cases reported under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has steadily increased. For instance, four rapes and seven murders were reported in 1992 amongst a total of 18 cases. Sixty-six cases were registered in 2000, of which three were murders and 10 were rapes. In 2004, as many as 94 cases were reported, including 13 of rape and one of murder.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that the vast bulk of atrocities against Dalits are not reported. Bant Singh's wife, Harbans Kaur, told Frontline that just a few months ago a minor beggar-girl who had gone to a local gurdwara in Mansa looking for food at the langar (community kitchen) was raped. However, the case was never reported to the police.

All these troubles notwithstanding, Bant Singh's spirit is far from broken. When Frontline asked him if he was going to continue his quest for legal justice and his activism, he said, 'Of course! Now, I'm not going to be able to do much else, so I'll campaign full-time.'