“Safdar’s killing had touched a raw nerve in the country”—revisiting the murder of a playwright and activist

01 January 2020
Courtesy Leftword Books
Courtesy Leftword Books

The activist and playwright Safdar Hashmi was 34 years old when he was brutally injured, on 1 January 1989, while performing a street play in Delhi with Jana Natya Manch, often referred to as Janam, the theatre group he led. The troupe had gathered to perform in the neighbourhood of Jhandapur, Sahibabad, and was attacked, allegedly by a group led by Mukesh Sharma, an independent Congress-backed candidate contesting municipal elections at the time. A labourer named Ram Bahadur, who was a resident of the area, died on the spot. Hashmi succumbed to serious injuries the following night. Around fifteen thousand people attended his funeral procession.

In his new book, Halla Bol: The death and life of Safdar Hashmi, his colleague and friend Sudhanva Deshpande, who is a Delhi-based theatre director and actor, as well as the managing editor of LeftWord Books, chronicles the moments leading up to the attack and the aftermath, in which Hashmi’s death galvanised widespread protest around the country. This excerpt focusses on Janam’s electrifying performance of the play Halla Bol, led by Moloyashree—Hashmi’s partner—on 4 January 1989.

2 January 1989: Mala

Early in the morning on 2 January, 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. 

Keywords: theatre protest Safdar Hashmi poetry Congress