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Safdar Hashmi: Dying to keep ideals alive






17 April, 2005: Idealists like Safdar Hashmi and Satyendra Dubey have kept alive the ideals of a secular, patriotic, developing nation in India. Our country has been able to progress to the extent it has, carrying its many diverse segments along due to the ideals which have served as the binding glue – even if the reality of Indian society has often been far from the professed ideals. 

The constant activism of extraordinary individuals and their remarkable body of work often dying at the altar of their convictions have helped our society stay true to these ideals. 

Satyendra Dubey is a recent entrant to this hall of fame, a martyr to the cause of progress and truth. Before him, like many others of his ilk, Safdar Hashmi was ruthlessly murdered by politicians and their henchmen. He was murdered because his successful political activism using the creative tools of popular culture like the street theatre posed a threat to them. He was killed because he was successful in raising issues and getting a surprisingly energetic response from the usually blasé and immune public. 

India is a democratic, secular, pluralistic society – given its extremely diverse culture, it is the notion of nationhood based on these ideals agreed upon and enshrined in the Constitution that binds the fragile threads together to make a surprisingly strong bond. What is to be seen is whether these individuals are deviants upholding an impossible ideal, a minority fighting for ideas which have no takers or if they are holding up the difficult burden of speaking for a tired, dispirited, helpless mass who are too exhausted fighting for survival but nevertheless believe in these ideals – and are glad to have the few committed individuals leading their fight. 

The Safdar Hashmi Foundation, with its band of committed men and women continues to arouse common consciousness by raising a constant voice against the social inequities in Indian society. The highly motivated individuals holding strong convictions which constitute such institutions and memories of men such as Safdar Hashmi who inspired these structures help our society stay true to its democratic ideals. Our democracy stands for plurality, equality and freedom for all, even if these cherished ideals are more in the realms of theory more often than not. It is these deviants of society, as one might call them, such as Sanjay Ghose, Satyendra Dubey who have kept these ideals alive. 

The death of Safdar Hashmi has been covered briefly but effectively by many journalists in the media, after the conviction of nine men by the Delhi High Court recently, including Mukul Sharma, the primary accused, 14 years after his death. This in itself is one of the few cases, where justice has actually been dispensed with, though the delay in itself is a punishment of another kind for the victims – the martyr and those whom he left behind. 

The judgment brought some pale consolation to those of us who had followed his career, his work or watched his highly effective tool to create public awareness and opinion. Given his socialist leanings, naturally, politics was a significant part of his death as in his life. 

Hashmi was a playwright, actor, teacher, member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, and journalist. He and his troupe Jana Natya Manch (Janam) was performing a play -- Halla Bol -- in Sahibabad, on the outskirts of Delhi. Hashmi had been enacting street plays regularly to raise public consciousness regarding the misrule by the ruling party, to a fairly appreciative and growing applause. The street theatre format had been adopted and used very efficiently by him to raise public awareness to the issues raised by him, so creatively and in an interactive format 

Prominent Delhi Congressman Mukul Sharma and his henchmen who had been aware that he was to enact this play made short work of him, murdering Safdar Hashmi before a crowd of by-standers, repeatedly stoning him and bleeding him to death. A day after his funeral, his wife Moloyshree, a public school teacher, went back to Sahibabad with the troupe and completed the play. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust is now carrying on his legacy.

Recently, Safdar’s mother spoke out in an interview, 14 years after his murder, on the martyr, his childhood and youth. She spoke about his childhood in the middle of poverty, the sterling principles set by his father, and his commitment to truth at the cost of wealth and comfort. An early education in English literature equipped him for a job as a lecturer. However, his love for theatre and possibly the avenue for protest and rebellion that theatre offered brought him to Delhi, where he started a theatre movement with like-minded friends. 

He started his life in Aligarh and Delhi, as the son of Haneef and Qamar Azad Hashmi, with a liberal, Marxist upbringing. His exposure in St Stephen's College in Delhi during his graduation prepared him for a lifetime of causes and political activism – under the Students' Federation of India, youth wing of the CPI-M and then with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPT), where he went on to produce several plays. 

Today of course, belonging to an ideology is either too naïve and too parochial or too clichéd. You now only belong to credit cards (rather than credit cards belonging to you) or have memberships in famous malls or to exclusive closed-door clubs. You don’t belong to schools of thought such as liberal Marxists or liberal capitalist or right of centre – I doubt if today’s average college student knows or bothers about this. 

Much has been written about Hashmi's initiation to street theatre through Janam, the IPT’s theatre group which produced the play called Kursi, Kursi, Kursi (Chair, Chair, Chair). This had a wide and appreciative audience in Delhi at the time just before Emergency. Post-Emergency, (which he spent teaching English literature in universities in Garhwal and Kashmir), he returned to full-scale political activism and theatre. Gaon Se Shahr Tak (From Village To City) addressed issues faced by migrant labourers in the city and his serial on Doordarshan “Khilti Kaliyan” (flowers in bloom) spoke on the rural poor, management of change and lateral thinking to improve lives. 

Safdar Hashmi took up cudgels on behalf of the marginalized sections of Indian society and the dispossessed, using his pen to write stirring prose that immediately made an impact on current consciousness. His success was due to his adaptation of the traditional sensibilities and folk songs, while introducing modern ideas and revolutionary thoughts that challenged the status quo. 

Safdar Hashmi explained the importance of May Day to common people by using the speeches of the four Chicago workers who were jailed in 1886. Most of his plays were performed in slums, working-class neighborhoods, factories and workshops. Hashmi worked for the Press Trust of India and later The Economic Times. He also produced several documentary films. He wrote the theme song, Ek Purdah Nasheen (A Veiled Woman), for the documentary In Secular India, which dealt with the controversial Muslim Women's Bill passed in May 1986.

Safdar Hashmi also worked for communal harmony during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.He was involved in building ties with progressive groups in Pakistan. In 1987 and 1988, he and Badal Sircar, the prominent playwright and director, held a series of workshops for Pakistani political theatre groups in Karachi and Lahore.

Deviants of society like Safdar Hashmi make the civil society sustain its ideals of freedom for all and keep the fragile fabric of democracy alive. Their fight to death for their convictions has kept these ideals alive, and has helped define and keep alive the idea of the Indian nationhood to stand for the ideals of truth, justice, equality and freedom for all, no matter how often these are challenged everyday. 




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