Thursday, Nov 13, 2003
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NEARLY 15 YEARS after a radical theatre activist was cut down in his prime simply because his views and action did not suit the interests of the local political mafia, many of the issues underlying that tragedy are still with us. The murder of Safdar Hashmi on New Year's day in 1989, when he was staging a political street play near Ghaziabad in the run-up to the local municipal elections, made even cynics sit up. This was not just another political murder but as the judge who sentenced Hashmi's nine killers to life imprisonment recently noted, it "symbolised criminalisation of politics." If anything, this trend has become more pronounced and widespread in recent years. This has been compounded by a new climate of intolerance and communal violence as we have seen in Gujarat and elsewhere so recently. Hashmi paid with his life for his belief in free speech in a democracy and for asserting his constitutional right to propagate his views, even if some found them unpalatable. "Halla Bol," the play he staged with the Jana Natya Manch, was part of a legitimate democratic campaign in support of a CPI(M) candidate but it was greeted with murderous mob violence let loose by a rival candidate linked to a powerful local political lobby.
It is a measure of the law's delays that it took 15 years for the culprits to be brought to book, and that too in a lower court. During this period, two of the suspects died, and one is still absconding. Yet there is satisfaction that at last justice has been done and, in the words of a spokesman of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), "it might have been delayed but not denied." Optimists hope that the convictions will have a deterrent effect, but they are under no illusion that it is a mere hope in the prevailing political culture driven by intimidation and intolerance. There are two aspects of the Hashmi episode. One, as the judge pointed out, is the scourge of criminalisation that is keeping decent and socially committed people out of mainstream politics. It has also made ordinary voters cynical about politicians in general and caused them to lose faith in political processes. The other aspect relates to the wider issue of freedom of speech. For Hashmi was as much a victim of criminals masquerading as politicians as of forces that have little patience with democratic freedoms.
It is worrying that on both counts the situation has worsened. The tendencies that claimed Hashmi's life have multiplied in these 15 years, but few lessons appear to have been learnt. While concerns over the unstoppable nexus between crime and politics have deepened, the threat to basic democratic freedoms has become more palpable with the rise of the so-called "nationalist" forces that are determined to impose their highly disintegrative worldview on the country. A virulent form of intolerance is abroad, putting unprecedented pressure on film-makers, writers, artists and anyone with a `different' viewpoint. The most disturbing element in all of this is that what was once regarded as the looney fringe is now a part of the ruling establishment in many places. And that makes them more dangerous. So where do we go from here? SAHMAT, the organisation and movement through which Safdar's indomitable spirit lives on, has done commendable work in an environment that is much more difficult and challenging than the one he knew. India needs many more voices to do "Halla Bol" that unites rather than divides people.
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