This Wednesday marked the 31st Shahaadat Divas (martyrdom day) of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi, and the crowd gathered at Jhandapur in the Sahibabad Industrial Area to celebrate his memory, as on every January 1, showed that neither the theatre world nor those politically affiliated to the Communist Party of India and the workers’ organisation CITU have forgotten him.
January days in the Delhi-NCR offer a brief spell of sunlight soon to be snuffed out by the early onset of evening. But more than sunlight was snuffed out on January 1, 1989, the day Safdar Hashmi came with his group Jana Natya Manch (JANAM) to perform the street play “Halla Bol” in Jhandapur village, as part of their efforts to educate the factory workers and make them aware of their rights and powers. The group was attacked by goons owing allegiance to the Congress party (of the 10 attackers later convicted of the murder, one was the party’s mayoral candidate), and Hashmi succumbed to his injuries the following day. A factory worker Ram Bahadur was shot dead.
Stunned as Hashmi’s supporters were by his tragic end, the flame he ignited refused to go out. Not only did JANAM, led by Safdar’s wife Moloyashree, return to complete “Halla Bol” at the very same spot two days after his death, they also turned it into a pilgrimage of sorts. Every January 1, it is here in Jhandapur that artists and workers come together to celebrate the sacrifice and the unbreakable pledge made by Safdar Hashmi.
This year, apart from artists of JANAM, those gathered at the site included other theatre practitioners, young people from different walks of life, factory workers and their families, plus three special guests: Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar, known for their pro-people activism that is as strong as their art practice, and CPI (M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechuri.
The noon air was festive with the “circus” as the crowds referred it, watching the seasoned nat performing acrobatic skills on a tightrope rigged up on a precarious looking set of poles dug into the ground. Crossing the rope on foot and while balancing on a steel wheel (with no protective net or mattress on the ground), and jumping through a flaming hoop, the nat and his two young companions, a tiny boy and girl, earned the applause of the onlookers. The audience then turned to the other side of the courtyard where a stage was set up.
The JANAM group led by stalwarts like Kajal Ghosh and Sudhanva Deshpande sang rousing songs including the poignant “Lal jhanda leke comrade aage badhte jayenge” which contains the line “Tum nahin rahe, iska gham hai par aage badhte jaayenge (Though it saddens us that you are no longer with us, still we will carry on)”.
Aside from JANAM’s play on the plight of workers burdened by a lack of freedom to protest and denied just working conditions, it was in the eloquent address of Javed Akhtar that the torch of poetic anguish met the fire of the commoner’s anger at circumstances. Injustice is like the climate, said the celebrated poet and lyricist, drawing attention to the prevailing situation where workers and the poor have never had it easy, regardless of the ruling dispensation. But sometimes, he added, it’s colder than at others. These days, he said, it’s very cold.
Like other speakers, he drew parallels between the daily fight for justice waged by the oppressed and the current countrywide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). He pointed out that these moves were not against the minority but against the poor of every community, and that the move was but a stepping stone to controlling the majority. He also recited two of his more recent pieces of poetry, including the ghazal “Likh”. The ghazal exhorts poets to write the words that others are afraid to utter, to throw away the pen they used for sycophancy, and fearlessly write the truth, for never before has the night been as dark as this night.
His impassioned words brought out the truth of Yechuri’s statement that artists give inspiration to the foot soldiers of a movement.
Shabana, speaking fondly of the days when her father, poet Kaifi Azmi, used to take her to such meetings of workers, and reciting lines from both Azmi’s and Akhtar’s inspirational poetry, also released an important publication on the occasion. This was Sudhanva Deshpande’s “Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi” (LeftWord). The book has been published in both English and Hindi versions.
It seemed just the right time for this biography. While Hashmi has always been a symbol of non-violent resistance and resilience in the face of heavy odds, the outpouring of public wrath through non-violent protests across India this winter has brought his example even more into the limelight. The book will be a reminder that art and politics are indeed inseparable, that culture is of the people and by them.