Sunday, January 29, 2006

'Medical help and compensation highest priority'

Statement issued by a team of journalists, filmmakers, academicians and human rights activists who visited Chandigarh and Mansa from 22 to 24 January 2006 to express solidarity with Bant Singh and his family:

The barbaric assault on Bant Singh, a Dalit agricultural worker and activist from Burj Jhabbar in Mansa District of Punjab on 5th January 2006 by upper caste youth represents a grave violation of human rights and all norms of civilized behaviour in our country. The seriousness of the attack can be gauged form the fact that as a result three of Bant Singh’s limbs- both his hands and a leg- have had to be amputated and the remaining limb still remains in danger. Bant Singh’s own survival so far has been nothing short of a miracle.

Based on our interaction with Bant Singh’s family, fellow villagers, district level police officials and social activists we would like to make the following observations:

A) The highest priority needs to be accorded by the Punjab government to the medical treatment and rehabilitation of Bant Singh, in particular provision of artificial limbs to him at an appropriate stage. This has to be undertaken irrespective of the costs or efforts involved. Further, the rehabilitation will have to consider also the living conditions, livelihood and insurance against future ailments arising from Bant Singh’s current disabilities.
B) Due compensation for Bant Singh and his family must immediately be organized by the government in order to alleviate the great suffering caused by the assault again keeping in mind all future needs.
C) While police authorities have, under great public pressure, arrested seven youths who have been allegedly involved in the assault on Bant Singh no efforts must be spared to bring the real masterminds behind the scene to justice. An independent inquiry into the incident needs to be constituted to avoid suspicion that the Punjab government is shielding prominent people involved in planning the attack due to their affiliation with the ruling Congress Party.
D) We are deeply concerned about attempts being made by senior police officials to dismiss any link between the attack on Bant Singh with his courageous struggle against those responsible for the rape of his minor daughter in 2002. The successful conviction of those involved in the rape to life imprisonment by a Sessions Court in 2004 is a very strong motivation for the repeated assaults by upper caste youth on Bant Singh over the past year and should not be swept aside as irrelevant to the case.
E) The Bant Singh incident in our view represents the tip of the proverbial iceberg as far as atrocities on Dalits in Punjab are concerned. Apart from the severe economic exploitation of Dalits, who form a very large percentage of all agricultural labour in the state, there seems to be a systematic sexual exploitation of Dalit women prevalent in the state. This a matter for immediate inquiry by the SC/ST Commission, the National Human Rights Commission as well as the National Women’s Commission. In the absence of any such inquiry at the national level this matter should be taken to international forums such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

Friday, January 20, 2006

"I’ve still got my voice – I can still sing!’

A savage and barbaric assault by powerful Congress-backed Jat landlords has left Bant Singh, Dalit leader of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha (AIALA) in Mansa, Punjab, with both arms and one leg amputated. Remaining leg is also in danger. On January 5, Sarpanch Jaswant Singh and former Sarpanch Niranjan Singh of Jhabbar village conspired a attack on Bant Singh. Critically injured, Bant Singh lay for 36 hours in the Mansa Civil Hospital , while the Hospital authorities, influenced by the Congress leaders, refused him any treatment. Eventually, he was taken to the PGI at Chandigarh , where his limbs had to be amputated since gangrene had set in, and his kidneys collapsed due to blood loss.

We were told 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. But 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. 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. A sympathizer of the CPI(ML) movement for many years, he became active in 2000, in the course of a struggle against the rape of his then minor daughter by the goons who are close to Jaswant Singh and Niranjan Singh. The rapists were awarded a life sentence in 2002 after a legal and political battle waged by the agrarian labour organization and the CPI(ML). The attack on Bant Singh was probably an act of retribution for daring to achieve this bit of justice, and for continuing to be a leading organiser of agrarian labourers. Before January 5, Bant Singh was engaged in mobilising labourers as part of preparations for the National Conference of the All India Agrarian Labour Association (AIALA), at which he was one of the delegates from Punjab .

Hindu mythology tells the story of Ekalavya – the tribal youth who cut off his thumb on the demand of Dronacharya so that Ekalavya would not be a better archer than the kshatriya boys. Ekalavya, being a tribal, must have been a natural archer – but he was mutilated and robbed of his traditional skill and his right to self-defence and survival. Today, one gets the feeling that the story of Ekalavya is being played out again and again. In order to rob tribals of their only means of survival in Orissa – their rights over land, forests, rivers, they are not only shot dead for resisting, their hands, genitals and women’s breasts are chopped off in police custody. In Punjab , upper caste landlords chop off Bant Singh’s limbs. The graphic, horrific act of mutilation continues to be a weapon to ‘teach’ Dalits and tribals ‘their place’ – to warn them not to aspire for social dignity and rights.

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.

Source: ML Update

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bant Singh: Dalit, Defiant, Decapitated

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, 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 armed upper caste men around a fortnight ago.

Apart from his activities organizing poor, agricultural workers Bant Singh’s greatest ’sin’, in the eyes of his tormentors, was the long running battle for justice against the men who raped his minor daughter five years ago. The court case he launched, braving both threats of violence and attempted bribes, resulted in life sentences for three of the culprits in 2002.

On the evening of January 5, 2006 as Bant Singh returned home after campaigning for a national agricultural labour assembly to be held in Andhra Pradesh later during the month the upper castes wrought their revenge.

Walking through the wheat fields Bant Singh was waylaid by a gang of seven men, suspected to be sent by Jaswant and Niranjan Singh, the current and former headmen of his 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 headman 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 7 th 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.

Even now as he lies in a hospital fighting for survival influential upper caste families in his village are threatening all those who are helping him out in his grave crisis. While there are conflicting reports of the Mansa police arresting some of the men who attacked him there is no certainty that they will be ever punished.

Following are the demands that have been raised by Bant Singh’s colleagues and comrades from the agricultural labour rights and other movements in Punjab demanding justice for him and his family:

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 Rupees10,00,000 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.