Delayed justice

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

The 14-year delay in convicting and sentencing Safdar Hashmi's killers by the trial court underscores the hurdles faced in checking criminalisation of politics.

in New Delhi

THEATRE activist Safdar Hashmi was brutally attacked while performing a street play, Halla Bol, at Jhandapur village in Sahibabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, on January 1, 1989. Safdar and his team were staging the play as part of their campaign for Ramanand Jha, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)-supported candidate in the Ghaziabad municipal elections. Mukesh Sharma, the Congress(I)-backed "independent" candidate, apparently unnerved by the impact the play was making on the workers of the area, went with a horde of armed goons and attacked Safdar's group. Safdar suffered multiple fractures in the skull and there was brain haemorrhage. He died the next day. Ram Bahadur, a labourer and CITU activist, was also killed in the incident.

The trial of the accused dragged on for 14 years, and concluded only recently. In his verdict, delivered on November 4, Additional Sessions Judge, Ghaziabad, C.D. Rai convicted 10 of the accused. The trial of two, Lakhiram and Surjeet Singh Nagar, had abated because of their death. Those convicted, besides Mukesh Sharma, are Devi Sharan, Tahir, Yunus Ali, Jitendra, Ram Autar, Vinod, Ramesh, Karan Singh and Suresh. The Judge sentenced all of them to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs.25,000 each on the charges of murder and unlawful assembly. On realisation of the fine, the nearest heirs of Safdar Hashmi and Ram Bahadur shall be paid a compensation of Rs.50,000 each, the court ruled. In his judgment, Rai said he believed that the accused persons should be allowed an opportunity to introspect the loss caused by them in the commission of the crime.

Safdar's murder was a textbook case of the consequence of the use of crime to settle political scores. An election for the office-bearers of the Ghaziabad City Board was scheduled for January 10, 1989. Jha and Mukesh Sharma were rival candidates for the post of chairperson from Ward No.4. On the invitation of the CITU, Safdar, then 36, organised the play Halla Bol under the auspices of the Jan Natya Manch near Ambedkar Park in Jhandapur village. A large crowd had gathered, blocking the way, and was enjoying the satire on political corruption when Mukesh Sharma arrived on the scene to canvass votes and insisted on a right of way.

Jha and Safdar requested Sharma and his companions with folded hands to wait for sometime, until the drama was over, or take an alternative route. They retreated, but when the drama resumed they began to assault the artists and viewers indiscriminately. The attackers were armed with lathis, iron rods and firearms. The artists and viewers ran for safety. Sharma and his companions first chased Jha and then caught hold of Ram Bahadur. After giving him some lathi blows they dragged him out on the street and shot him dead.

Safdar, along with some other artists, had taken shelter at the local CITU office. Sharma and his companions forced open the door of the office and beat him up, injuring him seriously. He died the next day in a hospital in Delhi. There was nation-wide indignation over the incident, which brought to light the blatant attempt by mainstream political parties to silence opposition even at the grassroots level by using muscle and money power.

On January 4, 1989, in a show of defiance, the Jan Natya Manch performed Halla Bol amidst thousands of people at the spot where Safdar was murdered. Safdar's widow, Moloyashree Hashmi's courageous performance conveyed the message that the Jan Natya Manch would defy intimidation by forces opposed to democracy and progressive cultural values.

The trial court found that the incident was apparently an outcome of political vendetta. It observed that the accused could not take the benefit of delayed delivery of justice. It said that both the prosecution and the defence had made all possible efforts to delay the trial on one pretext or the other.

Commenting on the verdict, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet said that though the judgment was belated, it was a welcome one. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said the judgment confirmed what Safdar Hashmi had fought for and it was a victory of genuine, well-intended politics. Rajendra Prasad, spokesperson of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), said the judgment would strengthen SAHMAT's move forward in the direction set by Safdar: in defence of the freedom of expression and to uphold the pluralistic and composite culture of India.

Safdar Hashmi's murder is not the first or the last of such incidents, which are a result of the criminalisation of politics. It is apparent that Mukesh Sharma and his companions used violence to settle political scores in the belief that they could do so with impunity. Delayed delivery of justice in such cases would only strengthen this belief and lead to similar incidents in future. The judgment would have served its ends better had the political class taken effective steps not only to quicken the justice delivery system, but also to stem criminalisation of politics.

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