People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 02

January 12, 2014



Safdar’s Red-Hot Life


Sudhanva Deshpande


THE site of Safdar Hashmi’s killing is Jhandapur, a small settlement in the heart of the sprawling Site IV Industrial Area in Sahibabad on the outskirts of Delhi. Over the past decade or so, however, several factories and industrial units in the area have closed down, giving way to malls, cineplexes, hotels, office complexes, luxury car showrooms, educational institutions, and so on. The nearby interstate bus terminal, a new railway station and the Delhi metro have all contributed to this process and accelerated it.


This, by itself, is of course neither remarkable nor unique. A similar process of deindustrialisation and gentrification can be seen in many industrial areas in the country. What was unique, however, was a walk that some 20-odd people undertook on the morning of January 1, 2014 to learn about the changes that are afoot, and to listen to stories and experiences from the people who face them first hand.


The Jhandapur Industrial Heritage Walk was led by Smita Vats of Itihaas, who has been conducting heritage walks in Delhi over the last decade. What makes Itihaas walks special is that Vats focuses not so much on monuments and buildings as on people, and the way history and heritage are articulated through their lives. The Jhandapur Walk is the result of three months’ of research and repeated visits to the area by Vats and her team, who interviewed a number of local residents and trade unionists.


Among them is KM Tiwari, a veteran trade unionist of the area, who speaks to the group about changing land use, malpractices of the factory owners and workers’ struggles. He points to the massive structures that house the furnaces of Bhushan Steel, where at least 10 workers were killed in an explosion in 2004 as they unloaded ‘scrap’ from the war zone in Iraq and a live missile went off. The group stops at the office of the workers’ union at Central Electronics Ltd, a PSU, where they are shown some early documents of the union, from the late 1970s.


Moloyashree Hashmi of Jana Natya Manch (Janam) speaks about Safdar’s killing as she takes the group through the narrow lanes of Jhandapur. She shows the participants photographs from the January 1 event over the past 24 years, in which you can clearly see how the area has changed. She speaks passionately and eloquently about the various initiatives taken jointly by the CITU and Janam to encourage the artistic potential of the residents of the area. She also speaks about the way Janam’s first street play, Machine, came into being in 1978 as a response to a struggle by the workers of Harig India in nearby Mohan Nagar.


In all, the Jhandapur Walk was an extraordinary experience for all those who signed up for it, as a seemingly unremarkable industrial area and basti (residential area) resonated with stories and history. It was an opportunity to learn about the history of a quarter century (and more) of urbanisation, industrialisation, unionisation, de-industrialisation, working class militancy and the role of art in all this. Many participants responded by saying that they found the walk informative, inspiring and deeply moving. For the local CITU as well, the walk provided an opportunity to analyse and articulate their own history in a way they had never done before. Janam plans to repeat this walk in the coming days.


The Jhandapur Walk was only one of the ways that Janam and CITU decided to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom of Safdar Hashmi. It might be useful to remind ourselves of the context of that killing.


Following the success of the massive seven-day strike led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in November 1988, Jana Natya Manch (Janam) performed the play Halla Bol, in support of the workers’ demands, in the industrial areas in and around Delhi. On January 1, 1989, the performance in Jhandapur, Site IV Industrial Area, was attacked by goons patronised by the ruling vested interests. The convener of Janam, Safdar Hashmi suffered fatal injuries and a migrant Nepali worker Ram Bahadur was shot dead. Safdar died in a hospital in Delhi the following night. On January 3, 1989, there was a massive outpouring of grief and anger at his funeral, attended by well over 15,000 people. On the morning of January 4, Janam, led by Moloyashree, returned to the site of the killing to complete the interrupted play. This was a stirring moment, galvanising thousands across the country to join protests.


To date, the first day of January is observed across the country as a day of reaffirming the solidarity of working people and artists.


For the last forty years, Janam has been performing among the people, on social and democratic issues. Safdar Hashmi said, “Janam not only provides healthy and robust entertainment, but must also bring its audiences into the fighting organisations.”  Today Safdar has become synonymous with street theatre and the progressive cultural movement in India.


Janam and CITU, in the 25th year of Safdar’s martyrdom have been organising a variety of cultural programmes in various parts of Jhandapur, Sahibabad and Ghaziabad. The first in this series was a seminar, on the Role of Culture and the Arts in the Working-class Movement (‘Mazdoor Andolan Mein Sanskriti ki Bhumika’) held on  October 26, 2013 in Ghaziabad.  More such seminars will be held in the coming months in Sahibabad and Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh.


In November and December, there were a number of collaborative and interactive programmes – plays performed by children in schools, an afternoon of protest songs as part of a mela, interactive puppet games, magic show, street plays, collaborative cloth painting, storytelling workshops in the local schools, a Public Art Project and the annual Kala Karyashala for children. A group of young artists came together to pay homage to Safdar with graffiti across Jhandapur, as well as a poetic, lyrical and moving short film (6 minutes), shot in Jhandapur and entitled, simply, Safdar Lives. While the full film will soon be uploaded, two teasers from the film are available on YouTube (search for “Safdar’s red-hot life” on the site).


On January 1, 2014, the 25th Safdar Shahadat Divas, the cultural programme included singing, plays and performances by local school children that were a result of the workshops conducted by Janam.  Janam’s latest street play was Samjho to Jaano – the story of a mass murderer who, backed by corporate fat cats and media running dogs, aspires to become the ruler of a country. There were no prizes for guessing who the central character represented! The public meeting was addressed by Sitaram Yechury, who knew Safdar well and worked closely with him in the SFI. Yechury spoke about his association with Safdar, and about the danger that communal politics represents for the working class.


In February 2014, in Jhandapur, a unique three-day festival ‘Halla Bol’ will present a range of performances by working class artists. This festival is the first of its kind.


Safdar was a remarkable man, whose incredibly promising life was cut short by goons. As the theatre legend Habib Tanvir put it: “Safdar was an extremely broad-minded man, in a political sense. He wanted to open a broad cultural front. He could write poetry and plays, paint, act and sing. His idea of a cultural front was not confined to theatre. He visualized painters, musicians, singers, dancers, writers and critics—all to be drawn into a movement out of common interest. (He was) a creative genius, endorsed with the zeal, energy and determination of a far-sighted organiser and theatre visionary.” 


Safdar became a communist because he was fired by revolutionary ideas. Twenty-five years after it was brutally snuffed out, that luminous, red-hot life continues to inspire. It is a life that reminds us of the promise a communist makes to history. The promise to fight for the noblest ideas of humanity, and to never give up.