IT was on January 1, 1989, that the Delhi-based theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam) was performing its play HallaBol just outside Delhi, in Jhandapur, Site IV Industrial Area, Ghaziabad. The play was attacked by local goons with the patronage of the Congress party. In this brutal attack, in broad daylight, Safdar Hashmi, the convernor of Janam, and Ram Bahadur, a young migrant worker from Nepal, were killed. While Ram Bahadur died on the spot; Safdar Hashmi died in hospital the following day, January 2.
Thousands of artists, workers and common people walked during the funeral of Safdar Hashmi on January 3 on the streets of Delhi. The city, and indeed the country, had never seen anything quite like this. Even more remarkably, Janam returned to the site of the attack the very next day in less than 48 hours after Safdar’s death – to complete the interrupted play. It was a stirring moment, a gesture powerful in its simplicity. Led by Moloyashree, long time Janam actor, the group captured the country’s imagination. You can kill a person, the performance seemed to say, but you cannot kill ideas.
Safdar’s killing became a key moment in the history of people’s cultural movement. The martyrdom, and the continued work of Janam, has inspired thousands of cultural and political activists across the country in last threes decades. Every year, both January 1, the day of the attack, and April 12, Safdar’s birthday, are observed by cultural groups all over the country with performances and other events.
January 1, 2019, marked thirty years of Safdar Hashmi’s martyrdom. Like every year, to observe his martyrdom day Janam and CITU co-organised a cultural programme at the very spot of the attack, for the local working class audiences living in the vicinity of Ambedkar Park, Jhandapur, in Site IV Industrial Area, Sahibabad.
The programme began with Ratan Gambhir, a revolutionary singer from Bulandshehar (U.P.). He sang songs about the conditions of struggling farmers and workers in the country. Through his self-written lyrics set to the tune of well known folk and film songs, he ridiculed the current right-wing government for its anti-people policies and communal agenda. It was a perfect opening act that warmed up the audience for what was to come.
The programme was formally opened with Sania Hashmi, secretary of Janam, briefly recalling the 1989 incident and talking about the importance of the day in today’s political context. Her introduction was followed with songs sung by Janam members and singer and composer KajalGhosh– “Lal jhanda leke, Comrade, aage badhte jayenge”, “Tu zinda hai” and “Sanghrash ki raah par aaj”– to remember Safdar.
This year Janam performed three of its street plays in the shahdat divas programme. The first play performed was Girgit. Adapting a short story by Anton Chekov, Safdar wrote Girgit for children in the mid eighties. The play uses humour to expose the chameleon-like local cop and his toadying up to power. This play was included in Safdar’s works that were published after his death. Subsequently, it has become a favourite play in the school and college dramatic’s circuits. Janam had never done this play before. Directed by PriyankaMonga, Janam’s production has been performed in several schools and working areas in Delhi since early this year. The play was thoroughly enjoyed by the audiences at Jhandapur.
Girgit was followed by songs sung by a young Delhi based theatre practitioner and singer Poojan Sahil. His songs used parody and humour to highlight hardships faced by ordinary people under the Modi regime.
Janam performed its latest street play, Tathagat, written and directed by Abhishek Majumdar. Bangalore-based Abhishek is one of the most vital voices in Indian theatre today. He wrote the play on Janam’s request. Different from Janam’s other plays in terms of its form and structure, Tathagat, is set in an imaginary Buddhist kingdom in ancient India. It explores the ideas of caste and gender, rebellion and nationalism, freedom and courage. Expanding on the idea of tark (reason) in Buddhist philosophy, this play through the story of a vain king, a defiant queen, the rebellious sculptor, a courageous dasi, and a conniving courtier, examines the difference between a ‘traitorous’ and a ‘rebellious’ act. M D Pallavi, a renowned musician from Bangalore, has created the music for the play. Over the last five months, Janam has done over 50 performances of this play in schools, universities, bastis, and industrial areas. Everywhere, audiences have noted its innovative craft and nuanced politics.
The play was followed by a public meeting, where the main speaker was Rakesh Singha, CPI (M) leader and MLA from Theog, Himachal Pradesh. Local CITU leader G S Tiwari and Anurag Saxena, secretary of CITU (Delhi) also addressed the meeting.
While recalling the attack on Janam and paying homage to Safdar, Rakesh Singha emphasised the role of culture and how plays can help in revealing the ‘truth’ about the establishment and in creating a better society for all. He said he first saw a Janam play when he was a student in the university. At the time, he wasn’t firmly political in his outlook. The play had a deep impact on him, and helped in his own politicisation. Safdar Hashmi and his young comrades were inspirational.
He said that the last four years have been the darkest in the history of post-Independence India. He spoke about the horror of lynchings that the country has witnessed recently, all with the hateful ideology of Hindutva at their core. He said that government machinery failed to bring justice for Akhlaq (the victim of the Dadri lynching).
Rakesh Singha highlighted the importance of putting forth a united fight. He appealed to the workers to take part in the upcoming strike of January 8-9 in large numbers. Just as farmers’ struggles have succeeded in garnering the sympathy of large sections of the people, workers’ struggles will also receive larger support.
The meeting was followed by M D Pallavi’s beautiful renditions of Kabir’s JhiniChadariya and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, along with a Kannada protest song. Her singing left the audience spellbound.
The programme ended with Janam’s first street play Machine. Jointly penned by Safdar and Rakesh Saxena in 1978, Machine completed its fortieth year in October 2018. A short, pithy, and powerful play; it helps workers see the workings of capitalism. Ratan Gambhir’s folksy singing brought the programme to a close. The programme was well attended by local men and women workers, children and other residents of Jhandapur.
Every year, on January 2, Janam has a smaller, intimate meeting where we recall Safdar and draw inspiration from his life and work. This year Safdar ki Yaad Mein meeting had trade unionist Amitava Guha as the main speaker. He spoke about his interactions with Safdar, and the importance of cultural activities for the working class.
Safdar was very fond of poetry, and Janam organises a poetry reading session every year on January 3.This year, the focus was on the works of women poets.
In January 1989, when the attack took place, the Congress party was in government at the centre and in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Led by Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress had received an unprecedented – and unsurpassed – mandate in the Lok Sabha in the elections that had followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Four and a half years later though, in early 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government had frittered away its mandate. The Bofors deal had mired the party in serious corruption charges (though the amount of money involved in the alleged kickbacks was chickenfeed compared to scams of more recent vintage), and Rajiv Gandhi’s economic policy was laying the ground for full-scale liberalisation and privatisation that was to come two years later. The working class of Delhi had recently concluded a historic seven-day strike.
Safdar Hashmi’s martyrdom took place in these circumstances. It is good to recall that later that year, the Indian people voted out the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government. Thirty years later, the call that went out from Ambedkar Park, Jhandapur, Sahibabad, was to vote out another government (this time BJP) which has used its massive mandate to line the pockets of the rich while milking the poor.