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The new word is Safdar Hashmi
Safdar Hashmi means waking up
Staying awake, Awakening
– Purnendu Pattrea, A New Word: Safdar Hashmi

1st January, is not just a New Year’s Day for anybody who knows about the legacy of Safdar Hashmi. The first day of every new year is celebrated as the ‘Safdar Hashmi Shahadat Divas’ in remembrance of a man who lived and died among the masses- performing street theatre and hoping for a better world.

 It was the first day of 1989 when Safdar Hashmi, along with other members of ‘Jana Natya Manch’ (JANAM), was brutally attacked during their performance at Jhandapur, an industrial area in Ghaziabad. This attack turned out to be lethal one. It fatally wounded Safdar Hashmi, and he died a day later. He was only 34. Along with him died Ram Bahadur, a migrant worker from Nepal who worked in Jhandapur.

Safdar Hashmi was a young and talented street theatre artist, who was on a mission to educate and organise the working class. What was the fear which his killers had from him? Why was he killed?

Moloyashree Hashmi, his wife and fellow comrade says, “It was the manner in which he was killed that shook everybody. He was murdered for standing up for the weak. And he was killed while doing his job as an artist.”

Who was Safdar Hashmi?

Born on 12th April 1954 in Delhi, Safdar Hashmi grew up in a Marxist household. He completed his Masters in English from St.Stephens college. Associated with the Student’s Federation of India (SFI), Safdar was very much active in student politics. Before co-founding Jana Natya Manch (JANAM) in 1973, he was a part of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). 

Safdar Hashmi performing a street play among the masses

By the age of 34, when he died, Safdar had already made a name as a fiery street theatre actor and director. He was also an actor, writer, political activist, but above all an organiser of people. During and also a little later after the emergency, he even worked as a college lecturer and a Press Information Officer with the Press Trust of India (PTI). In 1984, Safdar became a full time worker of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), of which he was a part of since late 70s.

Theatre for the Working Class

Safdar Hashmi co-founded Jana Natya Manch (JANAM) in 1973, which grew out of IPTA, where he started theatre during his college days. Safdar was the heart and soul of JANAM. He wrote, directed and of course, enacted all its plays. He even wrote songs for the plays. The scripts he wrote dealt with the issues concerning the exploited and marginalised sections of the society. Safdar along with his comrades from JANAM used to perform the plays amidst the people whose issues they wanted to address. He used his theatrical skills to educate the common man and not entertain the elite.

He was on a mission of providing a rich and cultural experience of street theatre to the working classes and the marginalised sections of the society. Safdar wrote, “It (Street theatre) is basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and to mobilise them behind fighting organisations.” 

4th January 1989: JANAM went back to the place where Safdar was attacked to continue their play ‘Halla Bol’

Some of the better known plays of Janam are Machine, Aurat, and, of course, Halla Bol (the play they were performing in Jhandapur on 1st January 1989). Safdar performed Kursi, Kursi, Kursi  before the Emergency to highlight the government’s obsession with, and exploitation of power; ‘Machine’ highlighted the basic demands of factory workers; the play ‘Aurat’ highlighted the challenges faced by women in their everyday living. All his plays and poems were concerned with the working class, their everyday problems and a hope for a better world.

Killed for an Idea?

The attack on Safdar Hashmi was not just an attack on a man, but was on an Idea. The idea of an India, which hears the voices of the marginalised sections of the society.  An India which at least recognises the misery of the working class, who are brutally exploited even today. An India of our dreams. Safdar ultimately had to pay the price for fighting for the idea he believed in.

Safdar’s funeral on 3rd January 1989
Witnessing more than 15000 people standing in solidarity with him

In 1995, Safdar Hashmi’s mother, Qamar Azad Hashmi wrote a tribute to her son which ends with the words, “Comrade, your name, your actions, your commitment will never be forgotten. Your courage brings strength to my arms today. Your love will envelop us, today and in the future. We will not give up hope. Though you no longer walk beside us, your laughter and your songs will rise again from our throats, and when we advance to new revolutionary goals, your example will be there before us, encouraging us to forge further ahead. Farewell, Comrade!”

Even after 31 years of Safdar’s death we live in an India no different. There is a constant attack on art and the freedom of expression. Democratic movements are being looked upon as activities against the nation, while dissent is criminalized with no shame. In such dark times, Safdar Hashmi and his life and ideas inspires and encourages us. His dedication and courage to stand strong in the face of difficulties is what we all need today.

Sahil Kazmi is a student pursuing BBA from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Shaireen Khan

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Sahil Kazmi

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