In 2000, Bant Singh’s eldest daughter, Baljeet Kaur, then a minor studying in the ninth standard, was raped. Their family was pressured to accept cash to keep the incident quiet, and threatened with violent repercussions if they didn’t. The Village Panchayat told them not to go to the police – no one would marry Baljeet if the assault became public. They were offered 10 lakhs, gold ornaments and a scooter to make up for a brutal gang rape. Bant Singh, however, refused to stop short of anything but justice.
In 2002, District Court ruling sentenced Mandheer Singh, Tarsem and Gurmail Kaur to life imprisonment. This was the first time a Dalit had secured a conviction against a member of the upper caste.
Mandheer Singh filed an appeal in the
Bant Singh was assaulted on two occasions; both times the police in Joga released the accused on bail. On
Bant Singh was rushed to Mansa Civil Hospital, but the doctor, Purushottam Goel refused to touch him without a Rs.1000 bribe. Singh lay in the hospital for thirty six hours and was finally bandaged on January 7th. On January 8th, the hospital authorities informed the family that they did not have adequate facilities to treat him, and he was shifted to
Significantly, the Jats of the village do not deny the assault took place, or that it was intended to silence Baljeet Kaur and serve as a warning to any other Dalit who dared assert himself/herself against the upper castes. Witnesses say they heard the Sarpanch ordering the men to break Singh’s arms and legs. It is believed that the attack was orchestrated by Sarpanch Jaswant Singh and former Sarpanch Niranjan Singh. Nothing has been done about these suspicions so far.
Of the seven convicted for the attack, two are the sons of Jaswant Singh, and two of Amreek Singh, a ration shop owner, who Bant Singh closed down on account of his hoarding goods. Amreek Singh is also a relative of Mandheer Singh who was sentenced in Baljeet Kaur’s rape. The police, however, maintain there is no connection whatsoever between the assault and the rape, that the two are separate incidents and the assault was the result of an unspecified “personal enmity”.
Dr. Pramod Kumar, Director of The Institute of Development and Communication says, “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.”
Jeeta Kaur, the state organizer of
The number of cases reported under The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has increased over the years. From 4 rapes and 7 murders in 1992 out of 18 cases, the figures have gone up to 3 murders and 10 rapes out of 66 in 2000; and 13 rapes and 1 murder out of 94 in 2004. However there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that most crimes against members of the lower castes are not legally dealt with. Bant Singh’s wife, Harbans Singh, spoke of a minor beggar girl who had been raped at a gurudwara a month before her husband’s ordeal, which had gone unreported and ignored. Another minor was gang raped at Nayagaon, near
Bant Singh has now been heralded by the media as a symbol of Dalit defiance and refusal to relent in the face of oppression. His message of hope and his unbreakable spirit have found their way into a photo-essay by Raghu Rai, the images of which have been displayed here. Sanjay Kak’s documentary on him, titled “Bant Singh can Still Sing”, is available on the video bar.
By Sukanya Basu Ray Chaudhuri