Jhandapur pays a fitting tribute to a communist artist

The first of January is a very special day for the residents of Jhandapur. This is the day that they come out in large numbers, in a festive spirit, to remember and celebrate the legacy of Safdar Hashmi, the actor-playwright who was killed as a result of an attack on Jana Natya Manch on 1 January 1989. Also killed in that attack was Ram Bahadur, a Nepali migrant worker, who worked in a factory near-by.

Jhandapur itself is about 14 km from the centre of Delhi. If you go east across the river Yamuna, past Laxmi Nagar and Patparganj Depot, you come to Anand Vihar, which has the Inter-State Bus Terminal, a new railway station meant for east-bound trains, as well as metro connectivity. Right next to this is the Maharajpur border, one of the many points of passage between Delhi and Ghaziabad. Jhandapur is an urban village near Maharajpur, housing mainly industrial workers. There are a large number of industrial establishments here, in what is called the Site IV, Sahibabad Industrial Area. Many are relatively small units, but some are large, like bicycle manufacturers, iron smelters, pharmaceutical units, machine tools manufacturers, employing a thousand workers or more.

Given its proximity to Delhi, and especially because of its proximity to Anand Vihar which is becoming a major transport hub, the area itself is changing quite rapidly. Over the past 5-7 years, many industrial establishments have shut down. On both sides of the Maharajpur border stand imposing shopping malls, and there is another big mall down the road near the Dabur factory. As you turn left to go towards Jhandapur past Maharajpur, you can see a huge ‘business park’ on the right and a Ford Endevour showroom on the left. Both stand at sites that housed factories earlier. Indeed, many factories in the area have shut down, because the owners find it more profitable to sell or rent out the premises. While the industrial area is still pretty large, the signs of de-industrialisation are also unmistakable.

As you go into Jhandapur (or anywhere in the Site IV Industrial Area, for that matter), you can sense a feeling of anxiety and anger among the workers. There is an overall sense of something smoldering below the surface. In the second week of November, a manager of a brake-shoe manufacturing unit in the area was killed following an altercation with workers. 27 workers have been accused of beating him to death, including two senior trade union leaders, neither of whom was present at the site of the incident. A further 350 unidentified workers are named in the FIR.

Upendra Jha, a CITU leader and one of the speakers at the rally of workers on the 1st of January following the performance of Jana Natya Manch’s play, did not refer to this particular incident in his speech – but he did not need to. When he spoke about the conditions under which workers today have to work, the audience of several thousand understood exactly what he was referring to, because the conditions at the brake-shoe factory are in no way unique. The two major issues facing workers today, he said, are (1) while the workday is supposed to be 8 hours, everywhere 12 hours is becoming the norm, and (2) a large majority of workers are kept on contract and not regularized, even though they may have worked at a factory for as long as a decade.

Consider the case of the brake-shoe factory where the incident took place. Frontline magazine reports that this company ‘employed workers on contract basis and it is said that even workers who had put in over 10 years of service had not been regularized. The company has 375 workers on its permanent rolls and 900 on contract; of the 900, around 700 are employed in direct production work, which is of a permanent nature.’ In other words, workers who are doing non-seasonal, steady, stable production work for years are not given the security of employment. Naturally, one of the major demands in this company (as elsewhere) is that workers on regular, production-related work be given regular employment.

Jha made the observation that increasingly, the type of people that the management was employing as ‘managers’ was changing – in the past managers had no compunctions in turning to goons to intimidate workers, but now increasingly, goons themselves were being employed as managers. When Jha said that today ‘personnel manager’ means a person with a pistol, a murmur of recognition ran through the workers, who knew this to be all too true. Again, though Jha did not take names, the case of the brake-shoe factory should be noted. A few weeks before the incident in mid-November, the management had sacked 8 workers without notice. A number of other provocative steps were also taken by the management. The workers had remained peaceful, and wanted to sort out the issue through negotiation. On the day of the incident, the management arbitrarily moved two union leaders to different departments without even informing them. When the workers protested, the manager opened fire. This led to the altercation that resulted in his death. Jha said that the workers were not going to take the strong arm tactics of the management lying down, and warned of impending struggles if the employers did not mend their ways. The meeting to celebrate the legacy of the communist artist Safdar Hashmi became, quite fittingly, an occasion to assert workers’ rights and solidarity.

The other speakers at the meeting included Vasudev, the Rajasthan State Secretary of the CPI (M), and Amra Ram, leader of the legislative group of the CPI (M) in the Rajasthan Assembly. Vasudev paid glowing tributes to Safdar Hashmi. He recalled that barely a week before the fatal attack in Jhandapur, Safdar had come to Sadarshahar in Rajasthan with Jana Natya Manch. Janam had performed Halla Bol (the play which was to be attacked in a week’s time) and Aurat. Watching Halla Bol, Vasudev, said, was a moving and inspiring experience, because the play was connected to the struggles of the Delhi working class. Vasudev recalled that after the play, he said to Safdar that Janam must prepare a similar play on the peasant situation. He said that his connection with Safdar was very personal, since his wife also acted in plays, and in fact the very first meeting he attended, just a day after his wedding, was to protest Safdar’s killing.

The programme on 1 January this year began with Janam singing songs in memory of Safdar and performing its new play, Jab Chale Khap Ka Latth, on the infamous khap panchayats. After the play, there was a performance of a play by Jana Natya Manch, Kurukshetra, based on Munshi Premchand’s classic story, Sadgati. The group also sang a number of melodious songs.

The attack took place on 1 January 1989, and Safdar died in hospital on the 2nd. Accordingly, every year on that day, Janam organises a small intimate meeting where friends and comrades remember Safdar and share his memories. This is also a wonderful way of acquainting younger comrades with the many facets of his personality. This year, the main speaker at the meeting was Murli Manohar Prasad Singh, who used to be a leader of the teachers’ movement in Delhi University and is now connected with the Janwadi Lekhak Sangh. He recalled that he first met Safdar in the early 1970s, when Safdar was still a teenager and Singh himself was a Naxal. Safdar posed some sharp questions to him. Later, during the Emergency, when Singh was arrested, he recalled that the police also questioned him about how he knew Safdar. After his release, and his disenchantment with Naxal adventurism and their refusal to take part in mass politics, Singh came over to the CPI (M) and had occasion to work closely with Safdar over several years.

The other speakers at the meeting were Sania Hashmi and Brijesh. Sania, a Janam actor who is also Safdar’s niece, was four when he was killed, and came into Janam later because she wanted to connect with Safdar’s work. Brijesh, Janam actor and writer, came in contact with Safdar because he was part of a group of young doctors who were in the 1980s quite interested in cultural activities. He recalled how Safdar gradually started bringing him closer to the movement without his even realising it. He was appreciative of the fact that Safdar had a way of communicating his politics without thrusting it upon people.

Janam also organises a poetry reading session in memory of Safdar, since he himself was very fond of poetry. Last year, poems by Faiz and Majaz were read, and this year, the focus was on three more centenarian poets: Nagarjun, Shamsher, and Kedar Nath Agarwal.