Committed to cultural resistance
In three decades, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) has established itself as an enduring platform that resists all forces threatening the right to freedom of creative expression in India.
ON January 1, 1989, Safdar Hashmi, a political activist, actor, playwright and poet who espoused the principles of secularism and egalitarianism, was attacked brutally while performing a street play along with his theatre group, Jan Natya Manch, in Sahibabad, an industrial area on the outskirts of Delhi. Hashmi, 34, succumbed to his injuries the next day, but his ideas survived. Artists, writers, scholars, film-makers and cultural activists, enraged at the brazen fashion in which Hashmi’s politically motivated murderers had sought to stifle the dissent he offered, came together to found the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) in February 1989 as a collective of, and platform for, individuals with broadly shared ideas and objectives. In the last three decades, SAHMAT has sought to negate the influences of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism in sociopolitical life through inspiring works of art, exhibitions, public events and performances.
SAHMAT has established itself as an enduring platform that resists all forces threatening the right to freedom of creative expression in India. It celebrates and promotes the pluralist traditions of India, the congruence of cultures, and the corresponding
need and duty to sensitise people to respect and accommodate the plurality of ideas. Equally, it makes all-out efforts to resist communal mobilisation that often wears the cloak of cultural nationalism to spur intolerance. Through concerts, seminars, workshops and exhibitions in different parts of the country, it has heralded protest actions against right-wing forces and their divisive agendas time and again.
SAHMAT has published and sold around two lakh books, including books for children, two volumes of poetry and an anthology of short stories in Hindi that emphasise the virtues of democratic and secular values. It has also published a series of academic volumes on secularism, culture and economy in English and Hindi. All its books are in an affordable price bracket. It has also printed lakhs of posters that celebrate and raise awareness of Sufi traditions and contemporary paintings in Hindi, English, Urdu, Malayalam and Bengali. The group has, over the years, released several audio and video cassettes of contemporary and classical poetry and music that underline its commitment to cultural plurality. M.K. Raina, senior theatre
person and founding member of SAHMAT, feels that these are “not comfortable times” for Indian politics as well as the economy, and that there is an increased attempt to silence the intelligentsia of the country, in particular the artist fraternity. He said that SAHMAT had always stood up for artists across regions and languages, and that it was committed to keeping the cultural community informed. Its organisation does not have a hierarchy; there is no designated chairman or other portfolio holders, and no one is paid for his/her work. “But we are proud to do the work we are doing,” asserted Raina, while talking to Frontline.
He cited SAHMAT’S initiative in Ayodhya, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, as one of its high points. “We brought 3,000 Indian artists to Ayodhya on August 15, 1993,” he recalled. “We organised a concert and all of us vowed to keep the flame of secularism alive in the country.”
INITIATIVE IN AYODHYA
But the event was not a smooth affair as the Shiv Sena attempted to scare them away and disrupt their activities. “We faced harassment by the Shiv Sena, which, on August 12, 1993, vandalised our exhibition in Faizabad (now Ayodhya). That exhibition was the brainchild of historians chronicling Ayodhya. They had pioneered it with the message that this city belongs to all communities and the pluralist traditions found there are evidence of the same.” The exhibition was launched in 17 cities.
However, the people of Ayodhya, said Raina, were remarkable in their hospitality. “We were beautifully received by the people of Ayodhya. They threw open their homes and their dharam shalas for us,” he said.
When asked to share his views on the ongoing onslaught on the cultural fraternity in India, perceptible more widely after the ascent of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in May 2014, Raina said that he did not find much of a difference between the Congress-led governments of the past and the present regime. “As far as the cultural community is concerned, and the policies impacting the freedom of speech and expression are concerned, I would say that neither is well disposed towards us. One may be subtle in its approach, the other one violent, but we continued to suffer during the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] era, too,” claimed Raina. Safdar Hashmi was murdered during the Congress regime and it was the Congress that banned a book [Satanic Verses] authored by Salman Rushdie, he said.
Sohail Hashmi, Safdar’s brother and one of the founding members of SAHMAT, thinks differently. He said that under the current regime, the elements that are intimidating and attacking the artists and other members of the cultural fraternity find support and endorsement from the state apparatus, unlike in the past. “We have seen Ministers, Members of Parliament speak for the assaulters rather than send a signal of reassurance to those who are being hounded,” Sohail Hashmi told Frontline. “That is the biggest difference,” he stressed, before pointing to the recent killing of the police officer Subodh Kumar in Uttar Pradesh over cow slaughter, “which was followed by an appalling statement that the inquiry into the murder could wait but one has to find out who killed the cow.” Sohail Hashmi described it as overt solidarity with the mob lynchers.
Explaining further the difference between the Congress and the BJP regimes, he said that while SAHMAT had opposed the earlier government as well, that had not stopped it from approaching Central agencies created to foster culture. “Now the message is clear: Toe the line or else you would be denied support or funding from the government.... Funds are being diverted to individuals and associations that had no presence in the cultural arena.”
Sohail Hashmi feels that an attack on an artist is not an isolated event, for it represents an attack on the very idea of democracy. “There can be no democracy without the space for dissent, plurality of opinion,” he pointed out. When asked whether the continuing attempts to stifle dissenting voices, such as arresting students for writing social media posts critical of the government, indicate our slide towards a “police state”, Sohail Hashmi said: “We aren’t heading towards a police state; we are in a police state.”
He described the basic objective of SAHMAT as offering resistance to the majoritarian discourse building up in the country, which he called “the most potent threat to democracy”. SAHMAT’S website describes its guiding force Safdar Hashmi as someone “deeply committed to secularism and egalitarianism—principles that drove the nation’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule”. It further states that “after completing graduate work in literature he [Safdar] began an academic career, but soon his interest in theatre merged with his growing political commitment and he became a full-time political activist. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Hashmi moved close to the Left, eventually becoming a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).”
Since the gruesome attack on Safdar Hashmi on January 1, 1989, the day has been observed in such a way as to invoke his memory and, more significantly, the principles he espoused, with different themes being envisaged to uphold inclusive practices.
Some of the themes are Artists Against Communalism (1991), 125th Birth Anniversary of Gandhi (1995), Against War (2002), Moment of Modernity in Indian Cultural Tradition (2008), 100th Birth Anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (2011), 125th Birth Anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru (2015) and Centenary of October Revolution (2016), among other landmark events.
As SAHMAT completes 30 years this January, a grand cultural event is planned that will see the coming together of Safdar Hashmi’s close associates. Exhibitions of art works to commemorate the 150th birth year of Mahatma Gandhi will be on display. A calendar to commemorate 100 years of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is also being issued.
“We aren’t heading towards a police state; we are in a police state.” Sohail Hashmi, SAHMAT.
COMMEMORATING Safdar Hashmi on Safdar memorial day.
SAHMAT celebrated 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth with a set of postcards created by India’s contemporary artists.