30 yrs after Safdar Hashmi’s death, his legacy lives on
Something extraordinary happened on January 4, 1989, in Jhandapur, a village in the industrial town of Sahibabad adjoining Delhi. People in the village were familiar with Jan Natya Manch, popularly known by the acronym, Janam, as it often held street plays in Ambedkar Park in the village.
Much before it began performing in the village, Janam —founded in 1973 by a group of youngsters including actor, writer and activist Safdar Hashmi — became popular for its plays on inflation, the public distribution system, workers’ rights, women’s empowerment, communalism and corruption. Its plays travelled to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The plays in Jhandapur, organised by the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) and Kisan Sabha, highlighted lack of labour laws and minimum wages in multiple factories in Delhi, Sahibabad and Ghaziabad.
But that forenoon was unusual.
“On January 4 (1989), the start of the play Halla Bol was sombre. However, 3-4 minutes into the play, all of us were performing as if nothing had happened. Based on how we completed the play, no one would have known the tragedy that had struck us two days ago,” recalls Brijesh Sharma, actor and writer with Janam.
Two days before, on January 1, when the play Halla Bol was in progress at Ambedkar Park, Janam members and people in the audience were brutally attacked. A Nepali worker, Ram Bahadur, died on the spot. Safdar Hashmi was seriously injured.
The attack was led by Mukesh Sharma, an independent candidate (backed by the Congress) who was contesting the municipal election against Ramanand Jha, a trade union leader from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A majority of the Janam members were affiliated to the CPI (M).
Safdar was first admitted in a hospital in Ghaziabad and later shifted to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Delhi. The news of the attack on Janam members made headlines in all major newspapers. Safdar’s friends, sympathisers and Janam members stayed overnight at the hospital and in parks and bus stops in nearby colonies. “It was an unparallelled vigil. The then Home minister Buta Singh tried to visit Safdar. He was booed away from the hospital,” says Moloyashree, Safdar’s wife and Janam member.
Safdar had gravitated towards the creative arts during his college years. While studying English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, he joined the Students Federation of India, the Indian People’s Theatre Association and co-founded Janam.
In 1976, he became a member of the CPI (M).
Janam’s early plays — including Aurat, Hatyare and Machine — became immensely popular for how they dealt with issues of the marginalised communities. Safdar used to write scripts and songs of these plays. He was against the idea of a particular class having hegemony over art or any creative fields. He wanted to take it to the working-class.
Safdar’s brother Sohail Hashmi says that Safdar could understand and address the massive unrest among workers and people-at-large. “Back then, we were influenced by Fidel Castro. Closer home, the poetry of resistance by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhiyanvi inspired us. In its plays, Janam combined that ideology with language which could resonate with the masses,” says Sohail.
After short stints as a lecturer in Delhi, Srinagar, and working at the Delhi office of West Bengal Information Centre, Safdar became a full-time theatre activist in 1983.
That’s how he was in Ambedkar on the 1st January morning, performing the play Halla Bol, when he was viciously attacked.
On the night of January 2, 1989, Safdar succumbed to his injuries. Moloyashree wanted to donate his organs. “I could only donate his cornea, that too, with great difficulty. That was because it was a medico-legal case,” she says.
The following afternoon, thousands of artistes, academics and intellectuals joined Safdar’s ninemile long funeral procession from the CPI (M) office at Vithal Bhai Patel House to the electric crematorium at Nigambodh ghat, Kashmere Gate.
“All of us were at the funeral. There, led by Mala (Moloyashree), we decided to perform in Jhandapur the next morning. It was our spontaneous response,” says Brijesh Sharma.
On the morning of January 4, Janam members met at 6, Talkatora Road (CITU office) for a quick rehearsal before boarding buses to Jhandapur, 35 kilometers from Delhi. “Around 15 buses were hired. A lot of people went from Delhi, apart from Jan Natya Manch members,” says Sudhanva Deshpande, actor and director with Janam, who participated in both the January performances. “I was in a state of shock. The news of Safdar’s death was still sinking in when we returned to Jhandapur. Like everyone else, I agreed to participate in the play, but I wasn’t sure how it would happen,” recalls Deshpande.
Loudspeakers were put in the market to relay the performance. A crowd of more than 500 people, holding placards and pictures of Safdar hung around their necks, held a silent march through the streets of Jhandapur village before the play. “The attackers wanted to stifle the workers’ movement by terrorising us. The opposite happened. Many workers had skipped their work to join us,” remembers KM Tiwari, central committee member, CPI (M) who witnessed the play.
Anger overpowered by a steely resolve was the underlying feeling. “Many of us including myself were on the verge of an emotional breakdown. We stopped ourselves because we could not let Safdar down,” says Deshpande.
“To repeat the performance at the same spot is what Safdar would have done. That was precisely the kind of response Janam believes in and propagates,” says Moloyashree. Janam continues to hold more than 200 street plays every year. The collective Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) carries forward Safdar’s legacy of equality, cultural inclusiveness and religious tolerance.
January 1 is celebrated as Safdar Hashmi Memorial Day.