Remembering Safdar Hashmi in the Times of Censorship
Theatre activist  Safdar Hashmi.
Theatre activist Safdar Hashmi. (Photo Courtesy: SAHMAT)

Remembering Safdar Hashmi in the Times of Censorship

(This article was originally published on 13 April 2016 and is being republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of Safdar Hashmi.)

“We didn’t imagine that the human body could be that expressive, especially off stage.”

This time last year, a family friend from Pakistan began talking about Safdar Hashmi’s visit to his country in the 80s. Jan Natya Manch (JANAM), the street theatre group which Safdar was a key member of, was in Pakistan to perform and hold workshops. They performed Machine, a street play conceived in the backdrop of the Emergency and my friend was awed by the way just six people created a world, a factory and the workers that suffered in it.

Street theatre was the perfect medium to use drama as a tool not just of personal creativity, but also a political education.

And given that Safdar’s theatre was an extension of his politics, it is likely that he would have been censored, if not labelled ‘anti-national’.

Killed for an Idea

Safdar was active in student politics, an academic and later, a full-time communist. On 1 January 1989, Safdar was attacked by Congress goons while he was performing Halla Bol as part of the CPI(M) campaign for the Ghaziabad Municipal elections. Congress goons, led by their candidate Mukesh Sharma attacked the JANAM troupe. Ram Bahadur, a factory worker was killed on the spot. The goons followed an injured Safdar to the CPI(M)‘s trade union office, where they attacked him again, fatally.

Safdar Hashmi performing with other JANAM members. 
Safdar Hashmi performing with other JANAM members. 
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Halla Bol, like most of Safdar’s work, was a call to action against inequality, corruption, feudalism and capitalism. It could certainly be considered anti-government, and at a stretch even against what Communists call against the “bourgeoise state”.

Many, if not most Indians may disagree with the ideology. But to kill someone for a play, even a political one, shocked and angered people. Safdar Hashmi became a symbol for freedom of expression.

Congress leader Mukesh Sharma was convicted of the murder by a Ghaziabad court in 2003.

Would Safdar be Censored, Branded ‘Anti-National’?

A photo of artist MF Hussain’s ‘Tribute to Safdar’. 
A photo of artist MF Hussain’s ‘Tribute to Safdar’. 
(Photo: Aakash Joshi)

Most communists, at least theoretically, are internationalists. The political revolution they hope for is not bound by national borders. Even when it comes to separatist movements and movements for statehood, communist parties within India have differing views.

Safdar Hashmi was a communist.

Pahlaj Nahlani, the notorious former chairman of the Censor Board, wouldn’t have liked Safdar Hashmi. And the voluble brigade, out to label people ‘anti-national’ would have a field day.

Safdar was against global capitalism, and his work reflected that. He would have fought for the rights of tribals and would certainly have stood up for Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. He may have used his art to express his views on AFSPA and human rights violations.

Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ‘World Culture Festival’ held in March 2016 wouldn’t have gone down well too.

Safdar paid the ultimate price for fighting for what he believed in. Is the India of today better than the one that killed him? We hope it is.

(The Quint is now on WhatsApp. To receive handpicked stories on topics you care about, subscribe to our WhatsApp services. Just go to TheQuint.com/WhatsApp and hit the Subscribe button.)

Follow our Opinion section for more stories.

    Also Watch