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The Untimely Death of Playwright Activist Safdar Hashmi

An excerpt from Sudhanva Deshpande’s upcoming book 'Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi'.

Note: This article, originally published on December 22, 2019, is being republished on April 22, 2020, on the occasion of Safdar Hashmi’s birth anniversary.

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.

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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.

Sudhanva Deshpande
Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi
LeftWord Books, January 2020

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.

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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.

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

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.

Also read: India Has a Long and Robust Tradition of Liberal Muslim Movements

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’.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an editor with LeftWord Books and an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch.