Com­mit­ted to cul­tural re­sis­tance

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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.”


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.

SAF­DAR HASHMI(1955-1989)

SAHMAT cel­e­brated 150 years of Ma­hatma Gandhi’s birth with a set of post­cards cre­ated by In­dia’s con­tem­po­rary artists.

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