How is one to remember Lal Singh Dil? The literary status of Dil in the world of Punjabi literature was never disputed, and he is often described as a poets’ poet. However, there was more to Dil’s life. It was a life of immense struggle, and his story stands witness to the deep-rooted human discrimination in the name of caste (a creation of the Hindu way of life) which is still found in all major religions that have been based on conversion from Hinduism. Sadly enough, it has also been a part of the Left group cadres which, ideologically, do not recognize religion, caste or creed. So Dil’s various attempts to transcend the caste barrier by joining the Naxalite (communism inspired armed struggle that started from a village called Naxalbari in Bengal) movement of the late sixties in Punjab, or later by converting to Islam with the new name of Mohammad Bushra, met with a frustration that his simple poetic heart opposed.
Born to a low-caste Chamar (tanner) family, Dil was the first of his clan to pass Class X and go to college, while doing his daily labour. He was training to be a basic school teacher when Naxalbari intervened. Dil’s poetry was true to his life and that of those around him, and the experience of poverty, injustice and oppression was so real and so well-told that he was hailed as the bard of the Naxalite movement in Punjab. In the dream of a society free of caste and class, Dil saw a new dawn for the oppressed. However, when the movement was crushed, the torture meted out to the Dalits by the upper-caste police was far worse. Dil went underground and moved to Muzaffar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, where he came in contact with Muslim culture. Once again, he saw escape from caste oppression and converted to Islam.

Years later, Dil was to tell me, “Caste prejudice exists among the Muslims too.” And this was a scathing comment on the “Manu-made” evil that exists among the Muslims, Christians and Sikhs of the subcontinent, because it is so deeply rooted in the Hindu way of life that it is difficult to get rid of even after conversion.
Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007) was a legend in his lifetime and now, after him, his poetry lives and so does his struggle and protest.

(Excerpts from “Poet of the flaming Sutlej” by Nirupma Dutt)

Portrait of Lal Singh Dil ( from a photgraph by Ajay Bhardwaj) Oil on Canvas, 36"X48"- 2012