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Safdar Hashmi: Fighting for justice till the end

Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi | November 05, 2003 10:48 IST

On the afternoon of January 1, 1989, Safdar Hashmi's troupe Jana Natya Manch (Janam) was performing a play -- Halla Bol -- in Sahibabad, on the outskirts of Delhi.

People poured in to see the thought provoking play, which was about factory workers in Sahibabad who were on strike to protest against their employers and the government.

Also see: Nine convicted for murdering Safdar Hashmi

In the crowd were henchmen of the 'ruling elite', who were targeted in the play.

They dragged Hashmi out and beat him in front of the crowd, repeatedly hitting his head with a stone. He bled profusely and died on his way to the hospital. Hashmi was 34 then.

Fourteen years after the incident, a Delhi court on Tuesday convicted nine people, including Congress member Mukesh Sharma, for killing Hashmi.

The activist was campaigning in favour of one Ramnath Jha, against whom Sharma was contesting the parliamentary election.

Hashmi was an activist, playwright, actor, teacher, member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, and a columnist for a national daily.

He made street play an important tool of mass communication and expression of political ideology.

A day after his funeral, his wife Moloyshree went to Sahibabad with the troupe and completed the play.

The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust is now carrying on his legacy.

Hashmi, son of Haneef and Qamar Azad Hashmi, grew up in Aligarh and Delhi.

After completing his school, Hashmi went to St Stephen's College in Delhi. He joined the Students' Federation of India, youth wing of the CPI-M, and worked with its cultural unit.

He then joined the Indian People's Theatre Association, where he went on to produce several plays.

Hashmi's initiation to street theatre came when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was accused of rigging elections, refused to resign.

Janam came up with a short skit called Kursi, Kursi, Kursi (Chair, Chair, Chair) about a king who is in power when his replacement is elected. He gets up from his chair but the chair rises with him. Despite trying, it is impossible to separate the two. The troupe performed this skit outside on the Boat Club lawns in New Delhi every day for about a week. Each day thousands of people came.

In 1975, Gandhi imposed Emergency and banned all political activities. During these years Hashmi taught English literature in universities in Garhwal and Kashmir.

He returned to Delhi in 1978 and started doing plays for Janam. He was also in the forefront of CPI-M activities.

One of his famous plays, Gaon Se Shahr Tak (From Village To City), focused on the problems of migrant labourers. Other subjects included communal riots, oppression of women, mismanagement and corruption.

He 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 the plays were performed in slums, working class neighbourhoods, factories and workshops.

Hashmi developed a kind of political theatre that effectively expressed the concerns of the working class and peasantry. He had a melodious voice and used traditional folk songs in his plays.

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.

He also worked for communal harmony during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.

Hashmi 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.

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