You are on page 1of 3

Book Reviews


Nirupama Dutt, The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage,

New Delhi, Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Limited, 2016, Paperback,
213 pp., `250.00, ISBN: 9789385288302.

Mohammad Aamir Khan and Nandita Haksar, Framed as a Terrorist:

My 14-Year Struggle to Prove My Innocence, New Delhi, Speaking Tiger
Publishing Pvt Limited, 2016, Paperback, 248 pp., `250.00, ISBN:

Uncommon resilience and resistance in the face of brutal repression is the common
thread that brings the two books together in this review. The first book The Ballad
of Bant Singh is by poet, journalist and writer Nirupama Dutt relating the account
of Bant Singhs struggles for justice. The other is Framed as a Terrorist by
Mohammad Aamir Khan, who has recounted his own experiences of wrongful
arrest and incarceration to the co-author of the booklawyer, activist and writer
Nandita Haksar. The two stories have already received much attention in the
media and civil society prior to their publication. Nevertheless, the books manage
to accomplish the commendable task of providing the readers much more detailed
and richer narratives.
At the time of publication of these books both the protagonists are activists
advocating for equality and dignity for a variety of marginalised communities.
Both come from marginalised and poor backgrounds, and from families where
the seeds of their present political perspective and beliefs were already sown
before the stories of individual oppression begin. While Muhammad Aamir Khan
was a very young person with little experience when he was wrongfully framed
in terrorism-related cases by the Special Crime Branch of Delhi Police, Bant
Singh was already a political activist and had mobilised dalit landless labourers
in rural Punjab when his personal ordeal began with his daughters rape. Bant
Singh worked with the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha but had had brief stints of associa-
tion with political organisations such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist-
Leninist), Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Indian Peoples Front and the Bahujan Samaj
Party, but Aamir gained a critical perspective on criminal and social justice only
during his long period of incarceration. After his eventual acquittal and release,
Muhammad Aamir got an opportunity to work with an NGO and has largely
been working as an urban civil society campaigner on human rights focusing
on responses to communal mobilisation and targetted communal violence.
Both books bring out the embroiling of caste and communal identities with
the criminal justice system that makes citizenship elusive, and justice an almost
impossible thing to attain. These stories of individual struggle play out against the
backdrop of structural discrimination and deep social divisions. The books and
the spoken words of Muhammad Aamir and Bant Singh are a testament as to why
telling of individual stories makes a difference. For the individual concerned, the
telling and recounting the oppressive experience is a way of recognising that one
has lived through them and survived them. But more broadly such retelling is an
important way for making space for subaltern voices of dissent.

Downloaded from by Manoranjan Mohanty on September 7, 2016

470 Book Reviews

It must be pointed out in this context that the role of the person who facilitates
the recounting of oppressive experience and a narrative of living through them
is very important. They play this facilitative role by actually causing or making
articulation possibleinterviewing the narrator, writing the narrative, giving it
a formal textual form and getting it published. Their role also includes the very
important task of putting the narratives in a historical and structural perspective.
It can be done in a way the questions are framed so that the narrative by the subject
itself is reflective of these factors, as Haksar does in the case of Muhammad
Aamir. Or, it can be done through writing a concomitant or layered analytical com-
mentary to the narrative of the subjects as done by Dutt in her book on Bant Singh.
Haksar and Dutt, co-author and author, respectively, of the two books have
played these roles beautifully by initiating the conversations that brought the
books into being. Their respective and distinct approaches to facilitating this
articulation leave a deep mark on the story itself which they unravel in the books.
Haksar, a lawyer and an activist, with Muhammad Aamir dexterously makes
available a stunning ethnography of legal processes and institutions being inex-
tricably embroiled in and subverted by communal discrimination. The book also
provides ample technical details of the case itself for the readers to make their own
deductions. The mode of bringing the book into being is a series of interviews/
conversations between Haksar and Muhammad Aamir, retold by Haksar in
Muhammad Aamirs words. This has meant that although there are other impor-
tant characters in the story such as Muhammad Aamirs father, some of the
lawyers who defended him in courts and civil society activists who played an
important part in his life once he was released, he is firmly established as the main
protagonist of the story.
On the other hand, Dutt spoke to and has presented in her book many other
characters in the story of Bant Singh who had an important influence on his politi-
cal perspective or had important role to play in his life. Sant Ram Udasi, and his
poetry and its place in Bant Singhs life is only one of these. Bant Singhs daugh-
ter Baljit Kaur, his other children, wife, friends and activists who helped him
all are brought to the reader on a deeply nuanced, well-described topography of
rural Punjab divided by caste. Haksar and Muhammad Aamir tell the story with
quite a bit of emotional restraint but Dutts narrative occasionally slips into soppy
emotional clichs.
Apart from the question of form and style, it is important to note that in the
context of these stories the significance of listening/reading as an emancipatory
tool. By listening to the protagonists, the co-author, facilitator (and eventually
the reader) amplifies the voices of the powerless who are often deemed to also
be voiceless. This has emancipatory potential because availability of a listener
or a reader inspires and brings forth reflection by the narrator on the causes of
their oppression. This, in turn, may strengthen or trigger their engagement in the
struggle or quest for justice and equality. Not only this but this speech act also
makes available to the larger society the language or resources to confront forms
of oppression that are either hidden or have become too routinised and norma-
tive to be remarkable to the average citizen who is a mainstream reader. It is also
significant in this regard that these books display a rare quality of being written in
an accessible form and language.

Downloaded from by Manoranjan Mohanty on September 7, 2016

Book Reviews 471

The books also reveal in their subject matter one of the most critical debates
about contemporary citizenshiparound the conception of citizenship as merely
a political status or citizenship as a practice. Increasingly members of political
communities across the globe are finding that (neo-liberal) states are failing in
upholding their end of the social contract or the promise of citizenship. This
results in situations where citizens deprived of the rightful share in the politi-
cal community have to figure out (and often innovate) ways in which they can
exercise citizenship. Evidently, the indignation heaped on the citizens who find
themselves to be in the position of lesser citizens forces them to recognise that
the exercise of citizenship requires what Freire calls a fundamental competency
(2004: 7). This skill or competence may manifest itself in many forms given the
particular contexts of an individual and/or group. In case of caste and communal
oppression in India, it is interestingand the two books under review exemplify
thisthat the oppressed choose to place their faith in the letter and promise of the
Constitution, and the independence of the judiciary. The practice of citizenship,
demonstrated by Bant Singh and Muhammad Aamir in their optimistic engage-
ment with the law and judicial institutions in face of severe trials and tribulations
may provide a key to discerning the nature of the modern state that holds the faith
of its subjects despite its all too evident shortcomings.
A note of scepticism is perhaps unavoidable here. Should we not question
whether the utopian promises of justice and quality held by the states that profess
democratic ideals but are normatively neo-liberal, are promises that are destined
to be broken? Whether the idea of active, optimistic citizenship is merely a
populist and ideological neo-liberal rhetoric, or an act of positive agency by the
oppressed? Is the resilience displayed by the oppressed classes merely an indica-
tor of their redundancy and acute powerless in the neo-liberal, globalised world
(Davis, 2004), which has left them no recourse but to be patient? Will political
awareness and insight gained by individuals necessarily lead to collective action
and empowerment?
These questions, of course cannot be answered only on the basis of these two
narratives, but we must nevertheless concede that the movement from the impos-
sibility of speech to acquiring a vocabulary of hope can only mean that several
momentous steps have been taken by individuals. The stories of Bant Singh and
Muhammad Aamir are undeniably extraordinary but their full worth to our society
can be realised only if they are read as parables of structural oppression.

Davis, Mike (2004). The urbanization of empire: Megacities and the law of chaos. Social
Text 81, 22(4), 915.
Freire, Paulo (2004). Pedagogy of indignation. Boulder: Paradigm.

Ghazala Jamil
Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and
Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Downloaded from by Manoranjan Mohanty on September 7, 2016