Only some poets have the ability to reach readers and cross the barriers of language. A Dalit Sikh, disillusioned Naxalite, and later a Muslim convert — Lal Singh Dil was one. As a rebellious poet coming from a mehnatkash, or hard-working, environment in Punjab, Dil’s life was punctuated by hardships and zealous efforts to overcome them. In the midst of his radical politics, it was his poetry that struck an emotional chord with readers.
Punjabi poetry is more than Amrita Pritam, Shiv Batalvi, Pash, or Amarjit Chandan. The revolutionary poems of Lal Singh Dil are intellectually capturing in their own ways. “He will be counted as one of the top Punjabi poets of the 20th century,” poet and writer Surjit Patar says. Dil’s poetry spans the themes of working class struggles, social stigma, romance, and much more.
Writer-journalist Nirupama Dutt, who translated Dil’s poems into English, believes that he worked for a revolution to break all shackles and that his literary status in Punjabi literature was undisputed.
Professor Satyapal Sehgal of Panjab University, who translated Lal Singh Dil’s poems from Punjabi to Hindi in Pratinidhi Kavitayen, spoke about the difficulty of translating Dil. “It was not so easy to translate his works because he was a poet who used to write poetry about people who were marginalised in society, are inferior and most neglected,” he had said in an interview. Sehgal compared Dil to Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi, popularly known as ‘Nirala’.
Poetry, farm bills, capitalism
Lal Singh Dil wrote three collections of poetry, which include Setluj Di Hawa, Bahut Saare Suraj, Saathar, and his autobiography titled Dastaan. His entire poetry is available in a collection called Naglok, or the world of the nagas, published in 1998.
As a Dalit Sikh, Dil wrote extensively on the farmers’ plight in rural Punjab of the 1960s, expressed imaginatively through his poems. And Punjab remembers it to this day — when the Narendra Modi government enacted the farm bills in late 2020, Sikh farmers across the borders of Delhi-NCR evoked Lal Singh Dil as one of their icons. A young protester was seen holding up a banner of one of Dil’s poems.
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But the evocation ran deeper into the politics of modern-day agriculture. Dil also documented the history of post-Partition Punjab in the ’70s and the ’80s, especially when India was getting caught under a neo-colonial web of foreign policy. The fallouts of the Green Revolution were apparent — India’s farmers were grappling with production crises, chemical saturation, and poor yields. With biting criticism aimed at capitalist practices, Dil possessed a rare, unusual insight into the economic order of his day. In that regard, author Rajesh Sharma called Dil the “political cartographer” of Punjab.
A turbulent journey
Born on 11 April 1943 in the Ramdasia community in Ghungraali Sikhaan, Ludhiana, Lal Singh Dil mentioned in Dastaan that he faced caste-based discrimination early on due to his Chamar roots. And the same power dynamics were apparent in the Naxalite organisation he joined in 1969, too. After carrying out an unsuccessful attack on a police station in the Chamkaur district that same year, Dil was arrested and sentenced to jail. His imprisonment served to disillusion him with the movement and police brutality, and he spent two years writing and publishing his first collection of radical poetry, Sutlej di Hawa.
“When Sutlej di Hawa was published in 1971, his poems became a symbol of the revolutionary struggle in Punjab as well as the sufferings of the poor and downtrodden,” professor of political science at Panjab University, Ronki Ram said in a conversation with ThePrint.
Nirupama Dutt wrote, “When the radical movement was crushed, everyone returned to their class fold, many with enough influence to get their names removed from the roster of ‘Proclaimed Offender’. Dil had no such privileges.” After his release, he went to Uttar Pradesh, where he worked in the mango orchard of Muzaffarnagar and converted to Islam. Like young Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Dil believed that there was no caste discrimination in Islam. After a few years, however, he realised that Muslims weren’t exempt from caste-based discrimination either.
According to Amarjit Chandan, popular Punjabi writer and poet and a friend of Lal Singh, Dil openly wrote about the domination by upper castes with stark clarity and empathetic spirit. His poetic expanse and emotional bandwidth remain his most remarkable traits as a poet.
Despite his widely acknowledged merits, there are some who claim that the poet was given undue credit. Prof. Chaman Lal, formerly at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that there was no discrimination against Dil, and such accounts were only hearsay.
“People have put Lal Singh Dil and Sant Ram Udasi in the account of Dalit movement due to identity politics. These people have been a part of the radical movement, and one of the big pillars of the literary movement of the ’70s is Lal Singh Dil,” Chaman Lal said. “Even if they were put in the Dalit account, it is fine, but it is not right to say that they were discriminated against.”
Talking about the socio-economic backdrop of Lal Singh Dil, Prof. Ronki Ram said, “Along with extreme poverty, Dil also experienced social exclusion and caste-based oppression during different intervals in his life. He chose to give expression to his experiences and observations through the subtlety of poetry.”
Poverty and extreme labour defined Dil’s everyday struggles before he became prominent as a Dalit poet, Chaman Lal said, adding he had invited Lal Singh Dil in 1997 to speak at a national seminar on ‘Black and Dalit’ at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.
As a last wish, Lal Singh Dil wished to be buried in the Muslim cemetery in Samrala, the birthplace of Saadat Hasan Manto. In a conversation with Dutt, he said that one day, people would come and sing qawwalis under the banyan tree outside his hovel, for in Manto-town, ‘Dil was the true faqir’.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)