Skip to main content

‘Now they don’t put people in jail or black out news. They simply kill'

This about the last day of Safdar Hashmi, the young theatre artiste, who became a victim of political murder in January 1989. Read on excerpts from “Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi” by Sudhanva Deshpande, who is editor with LeftWord Books, actor and director with Jana Natya Manch. The book was been published by LeftWord Books in January 2020: 
***

JANUARY 2, 1989. Safdar’s Death

I was back at the hospital in the morning. Soon enough, the crowd had swelled to well beyond what was there the previous evening. The news of the attack had made it to the front pages of many newspapers. By now we knew that the attackers had been led by Mukesh Sharma, a Congress leader in Sahibabad, and a goon. The Congress party was in power at the Centre, Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, where Jhandapur is located, was Narain Dutt Tiwari, another Congressman. Thus, when Buta Singh, the union home minister, visited the hospital that day, he was confronted by a furious crowd, which didn’t let him visit the ICU and see Safdar. So, he met the doctors, and apparently said that the government would pay for whatever treatment Safdar required, including brain surgery.
Whether it was before or after this, I’m not sure, but looking at newspaper reports now, I see that about three hundred artists and intellectuals held a demonstration at the residence of Buta Singh. The delegation that met him, the papers report, included noted artists such as Bhisham Sahni, Habib Tanvir, Nemichandra Jain, Reotisharan Sharma, M.K. Raina, Bansi Kaul, Manohar Singh, and Sudhish Pachauri. The enraged theatre community had decided to boycott the Sahitya Kala Parishad’s theatre festival that was to commence on that day, and Buta Singh directed Delhi’s Chief Executive Councillor Jag Pravesh Chandra (Delhi didn’t yet have a chief minister) to cancel it. Following long-established ritual, the Home Minister assured the delegation that a high-powered enquiry would be conducted into the causes of the attack. That was the last anybody heard of it.
From there, the protesting artists marched to Rabindra Bhavan, about a kilometre and a half away, and in an impromptu meeting, decided to observe January 9 as a protest day all over the country. Later that afternoon, the press conference that Safdar had called for took place. The room was packed with journalists, activists and artists. I struggled to find place to even stand. The people who addressed it included theatre artists Govind Deshpande, M.K. Raina, and Habib Tanvir. From among the Janam actors, Brijender spoke and described what had happened to him.
Govind Deshpande (or GPD, as he was called; my father) spoke about how the Congress had degenerated even further from the Emergency days. ‘Now they don’t put people in jail or black out news. They simply kill. This is the worst form of censorship.’ He spoke about the incredible talent that Safdar was, and about his political commitment.
M.K. Raina couldn’t contain his fury. ‘We have walked together in processions because of Safdar Hashmi. Because he was a pivotal force in binding artists together. For 13 years, I have seen his plays. These are plays which are relevant, which question all the time the status quo. Communal harmony, national integration. What more do you want from a citizen? That this kind of a poet, artist, intellectual, painter, writer – the kind of work he’s done, the potential – can be hit by a goon, and he is to be dead? Just outside Delhi? Only 14 kilometres distance from here? If it happens to Safdar Hashmi, what is left in this country?’ I remember his blazing eyes.
Habib Tanvir was not given to shouting. Not for the most part, anyway. But his words that day were burning embers. ‘And, if it is so, if this is the situation, one would like to say, arm the whole people. Then we will defend ourselves. Because a hundred goondas against one unarmed man, or a band of artists, performers – they cannot possibly cope with this. It should be then – let’s all be given weapons. We perform; we have our own guns. We kill; or we get killed. Otherwise, we must put an end to this.’
One only read about press conferences in the newspapers those days, so I had no idea what a real one looked like. This was my first, and I was surprised by how trenchant and angry the speakers were. Illogically, it seemed to me that they were breaching some protocol. Yet, it seemed to mirror what I was feeling but was unable to express.
We went back to the hospital after the press conference. Even late on that winter evening, there were many people there, and fresh faces kept turning up. I sat in a corner with Jogi, Brijender, and a couple other Janam friends. Many people sought out Brijender in particular. The poor guy had to recount his ordeal many times. I was thankful for being left alone. Once in a way, I’d see Brijesh emerge from the ICU and speak to Mala and Sohail, Safdar’s brother, who arrived late that evening from Trivandrum.
Later that night, at maybe around 10.30, Brijesh emerged one last time from the ICU. Safdar was dead.
For a few minutes, there was silence. Then someone raised a slogan: ‘Comrade Safdar amar rahe ! (Long live Comrade Safdar!)’ There was muted response to this. Then another: ‘Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge! (We shall avenge blood with blood!)’ Mala shot him a sharp look and raised her hand in admonition. The man withered and slunk away.
I sat numb, staring at nothing.
After a while, Mala came to us. ‘Go get some sleep. Come to the Party office tomorrow morning.’
Brijender had gone home earlier in the evening. Lalit, Jogi, and I went to the DYFI office. None of us spoke. Lalit smoked incessantly.
We sat, the three of us, staring into nothingness. Then Lalit got up, spat out a couple of abuses, and left. Jogi and I got under the one quilt we could find. I slept like a log.

JANUARY 2, 1989. Mala

Early in the morning on January 2, Mala went home. She was back at the hospital by nine. She knew Safdar was not going to survive. This was confirmed by the senior doctor, probably the head of neurology, who spoke to her. She remembers him being a calm and balanced person. He said the chances of survival were extremely slim, but they were trying to do everything they could. Given the nature and extent of the injuries, surgery was ruled out. If the family wanted to employ any other treatment, he said, he would cooperate fully. Mala said no.
Through the day, a large number of people came to the hospital, some of whom met Mala. She remembers Buta Singh being driven away. She also remembers that many Doordarshan employees visited the hospital. Safdar had befriended them when he had worked on a number of short documentaries a few years ago. Artists kept streaming in. She remembers Bhisham Sahni, as well as Ebrahim Alkazi, who came in the evening. Sohail arrived from Trivandrum late in the evening, with CPI (M) Delhi Secretary Jogendra Sharma.
The day was spent waiting. Shabnam and Shehla, Safdar’s sisters, arranged for food. At one point, Ammaji and Mala were allowed inside the ICU, and they saw Safdar from a distance. He was on a ventilator. The previous day, since Janam was to do three performances spread through the day, Mala was carrying the manuscript of a school textbook she was writing, hoping to find some time between the shows to work on it. Now she wondered if she’d ever get it back. She did, later that day, when she went to the Party office.
After Safdar was pronounced dead, Mala waited for the eye donation procedure to be completed before going home. She had wanted the organs donated and the body given for medical research, but there were legal hurdles.
The post-mortem report noted what we saw when we carried him to the hospital, that there was bleeding from his ears, nose, and throat. It said that he had sustained ‘deep lacerated wounds’ on the scalp and forehead. He had been ‘beaten on the head at least 20 times with iron rods’.

Comments

TRENDING

When phone tapping rumours were afloat in Gujarat among BJP leaders, IAS babus

Gordhan Zadaphia By Rajiv Shah While alerts were coming in over the last few days about a series of articles on how phones of “journalists, ministers, activists” may have been used to spy on them with the help of an Israeli project, Pegasus, finally, when I got up on Monday morning, I saw a Times of India story quoting (imagine!, we never used to do this, did just a followup in case we missed a story) the Wire, a top news portal on this providing some details, along with government reaction.

Gandhi Ashram 'redevelopment': Whither well-known Gandhi experts, Gandhians?

Sudarshan Iyengar, Ramchandra Guha By Rajiv Shah Rehabilitating about 200 families, mostly Dalits, living in the Gandhi Ashram premises by offering them Rs 60 lakh in order to implement a Rs 1,200 crore project called Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project reportedly to bring the Ashram into its "original shape" as Gandhi established appears to me strange, to say the least.

Gandhi Ashram eviction: Finally historian Guha speaks out; but ageing trustees are silent

By Rajiv Shah Finally, at least one expert, top historian Ramachandra Guha, has spoken out on eviction of 200 families living in the Gandhi Ashram premises. Last week, I received an email alert from a veteran academic, Ashoke Chatterjee, former director, National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, which happens to be one of the most prestigious academic institutes of India based, informing me about it. NID is one of the several top institutes founded when Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s Prime Minister.

Will Vaishnaw, close to Modi since Vajpayee days, ever be turnaround man for Railways?

By Rajiv Shah Ever since Ashwini Vaishnaw was appointed as railway minister, I was curious to know who he was and how did he come closer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, most important, when. Hence, I decided to talk with some Sachivalaya officials in Gujarat in order to find out if there was, if any, Gujarat (or Modi) connection.

Non-entity 6 yrs ago, Indian state turned Fr Stan into world class human rights defender

Jharkhand's Adivasi women  By Rajiv Shah A lot is being written on Father Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest who is known more for his work for tribal rights in Jharkhand. His death at the age of 84, even when he was an under trial prisoner for his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence three years go, has, not without reason, evoked sharp reaction, not just in India but across the world.

Home Ministry data vs Health Ministry data! Gujarat's poor sex ratio at birth data

Home minister Amit Shah, health minister Harsh Vardhan By Rajiv Shah Don’t India’s top ministries – of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) and of Home Affairs (MoHA) – tally data before releasing them? It would seem so… A few days back, I did a story in Counterview , based on an MoHA report, stating that Gujarat has the lowest sex rate at birth (SRB) at 901 girls as against 1000 births, followed by Assam (903), Madhya Pradesh (905) and Jammu & Kashmir (909), raising valid apprehensions that widescale female foeticide may be prevalent in India’s “model” State.

July 1: Observing communal harmony day in Ahmedabad, a highly segregated city

Activists at Vasant-Rajab memorial on July 1 By Rajiv Shah Celebrated as Communal Harmony Day in Ahmedabad, July 1, 2021 is remembered for the sacrifice of two friends, Vasant Rao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani, laid down their lives for the cause of communal harmony on the July 1, 1946 in the city. A memorial stands in their memory in Khandni Sheri, Jamalpur, Ahmedabad.

Periyar opposed imposition of alien culture on Dravidian people, but wasn't anti-Hindi

By  Vidya Bhushan Rawat* Thiru K Veeramani is the ideological disciple of EVR Periyar and one of the senior most leaders of the Dravidian movement at the moment. He started working under his mentor EVR Periyar at the age of 10 years when he delivered his first speech in Salem. Veeramani is President of Dravidar Kazhagam and editor of Modern Rationalist, a monthly journal devoted to Periyar’s ideas. That apart, he is editor of many other magazines and journals in Tamil. This interview was conducted by Vidya Bhushan Rawat at the Periyar Thidal on November 1st, 2019. These are some of the excerpts and the entire interview can be viewed at the youtube link being provided at the end of the article. Dravidian movement internationally Thiru Veeramani said that “It is high time that Periyar must be globalised now. He said that it was easier in relation to Dr Ambedkar since he has written in English and almost all the western audience read him through his work. But the southern part of India

Positive side of Vaishnaw? Ex-official insists: Give him loss making BSNL, Air India

By Rajiv Shah A senior chartered accountant, whom I have known intimately (I am not naming him, as I don’t have his permission), has forwarded me an Indian Express (IE) story (July 18), “Ashwini Vaishnaw: The man in the chair”, which, he says, “contradicts” the blog (July 17), "Will Vaishnaw, close to Modi since Vajpayee days, ever be turnaround man for Railways?" I had written a day earlier and forwarded it to many of my friends.

Gujarat cadre woman IAS official who objected to Modi remark on sleeveless blouse

By Rajiv Shah Two days back, a veteran journalist based in Patna, previously with the Times of India, Ahmedabad, phoned me up to inform me that he had a sad news: Swarnakanta Varma, a retired Gujarat cadre IAS bureaucrat, who was acting chief secretary on the dastardly Godhra train burning day, February 27, 2002, which triggered one of the worst ever communal riots in Gujarat, has passed away due to Covid. “I have been informed about this from a friend in Jaipur, where she breathed her last”, Law Kumar Mishra said.