She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
Shabnam Hashmi (born 1957 in Aligarh, a small town about 80 miles from Delhi) has worked for more than 20 years to combat communalism in India. She was associated with the creation and running of Sahmat, formed by artists and intellectuals in memory of her activist brother, who was murdered while performing a street play in 1989. After the Gujarat carnage, she understood the need for an outfit to systematically counter fascist propaganda, and the NGO Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (Anhad) was born in March 2003. Working voluntarily and without fees and with limited funds, Shabnam has emerged as a single-person pressure group. She was the youngest of five children. Although her family belonged to Delhi, Partition reduced her grandfather’s business to ruin.
She says: “The fascist forces are very organized and gaining ground. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people”.
Shabnam Hashmi – India
She works for Act Now for Harmony and Democracy ANHAD.
While some relatives decided to move to Pakistan, her father, Haneef Hashmi, decided to stay put: he had much at stake, having spent years as a student leader, as well as four years in British jails during the freedom movement. Faced with a deep financial crisis, the family decided to relocate to Aligarh.
While Haneef joined the university, her mother, Qamar, who came from a highly-educated family of writers and poets, soon found life in Aligarh claustrophobic. The Muslim clerics in the area had started objecting to the fact of her oldest daughter walking around in frocks and skirts. Disgusted, Qamar shifted to Delhi and took up a job as a school principal.
In 1964, she brought her children to Delhi. The family had just about enough wherewithal for three meals a day; all the children went to government schools. In 1969, Haneef also found a job in Delhi as editor of a magazine.
Shabnam was brought up on the stories of the freedom struggle and of World War II and classical literature. The first book that made a deep impression on her, when she was 13 years old, was The Diary of Anne Frank. By the time she finished school, she had read most Soviet, Russian, and English classical literature.
Down the years, Shabnam has been through her share of ups and downs. As a child and an adult, her parents’ life choices and, later, her own did not exactly ensure financial stability. In 1976, her father died of cancer at the age of 54, and the family again looked into the abyss of an economic crisis. With most of her siblings finishing their studies, Shabnam applied for various scholarships to complete her studies.
She went to the (former) USSR on a cultural exchange scholarship for six years. In 1981, when she came to India during a vacation from her university, she got so deeply involved in teaching young Muslim girls and women in a Muslim basti that she decided not to go back to complete her course.
It was here that she met Gauhar Raza, a young engineer who came to help with the work. Shabnam married Gauhar in 1985: they have a son, Sahir, 17, and a daughter, Seher, 8, adopted when she was a year old.
All through her two-decade-long, entirely voluntary work, Shabnam’s focus has been on peace and communal harmony. She has also been actively engaged with other concerns, like disaster management, women’s literacy, environmental issues, children’s education, violence against women, adoption, Dalits’ rights, and the development of a scientific temper.
The creative energy which she symbolizes manifested itself when her theatre artiste brother, Safdar, was murdered in 1989 while performing a street play. The anger and pain was channeled to create SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), a collation of a large number of India’s prominent artists and intellectuals. For 15 years, Shabnam was the motivating force behind the activities, ideas, and projects collectively generated by this like-minded community.
Almost exactly a year after the 2002 Gujarat carnage, along with a few other intellectuals and activists, Shabnam formed Anhad (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy). She had just returned from two years of working with the pogrom’s victims, and was shocked at the level of hatred and prejudice. She realized that unless this hatred was countered as an ideology and at an intellectual level, there was no way to excise it. Fascist propaganda had invaded the streets.
The main objective of Anhad (literally, limitless), which was established “to wage this battle of the minds”, was to prepare a secular cadre all over the country and equip social and political activists, grassroots workers, students, and youth to counter the ideology of hatred. She conceived of Anhad as an open platform where those who work for peace and harmony could come together.
In those years, both the state government of Gujarat and the Central government were right-wing, and working in Gujarat involved personal physical aggravation. She traveled to remote villages to provide help to rape victims. She and Gauhar produced a documentary, Evil Stalks the Land, on the rise of Fascism that culminated in the Gujarat pogrom. She coordinated riot relief and rehabilitation in some parts of Gujarat and mobilized funds through friends and organizations, especially in Panchmahal district.
Shabnam’s office is a kind of melting pot of ideas, where anyone can walk in and be treated equitably. Ideation takes place over conversation and endless cups of tea. In a day, Shabnam handles a range of varied concerns–from getting a child admitted to school, someone else a job, giving media interviews, contacting politicians or the police on some issue, getting celebrities to sign statements–most of it multitasking.
Shabnam’s persistent and strident criticism of the communalization of politics has won her many enemies, to the extent that she has been physically attacked several times. The most recent incidents were on April 11 and 17, 2004. Before the general elections in 2004, Shabnam, along with 40 students, traveled across India by road, covering about 9,500 miles and 40 cities. In every city, the students addressed press conferences and appealed to the young voter to defeat the communal forces.
During this major all-India campaign, organized by Anhad, the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad attacked her twice, on April 11 and 17. In the second attack, she received nine stitches on her face and head. She continued with the campaign.
Working as she does – voluntarily and without fee, and with limited funds – Shabnam has emerged as a single-person pressure group.
A synoptic look at some of Shabnam’s work:
- - She has documented the accounts of rape victims, compiled in Break the Silence. Although not yet published, the book has been used extensively by Amnesty International and V-Day;
- - Anhad has published primers in easily understandable language to equip activists to deal with the ideology of hate;
- - Shabnam invited some school students to go with her to Gujarat and help with rehabilitation work. After several days of discussion and debate, she got together a group of 50 students floated Youth for Peace. Almost 4,000 students attended the launch of the outfit in Gujarat, and more than 6,000 students turned up for the Delhi launch;
- - When everyone was convinced that the right-wing would win the Maharashtra elections, Shabnam packed her bags with some essentials and camped in Mumbai for 20 days. For 10 days, she produced a pamphlet a day, printed them on cheap paper, and outreached them to a few hundred thousand homes every day. She made contacts with 50 local groups, who helped her deliver the pamphlets;
- - Shabnam’s use of technology such as the Internet in the cause of peace is innovative. She also uses the SMS to raise funds very effectively.
It was the public murder of her brother, Safdar, that solidified Shabnam Hashmi’s determination to bring justice to her country. Safdar, a nationally famous street-theater activist, had been performing in support of a laborers’ strike when he was set upon by a vicious mob. Safdar’s murder set off a wave of protests, and in 1989, Shabnam, along with prominent artists and writers, created SAHMAT – the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. SAHMAT uses arts and culture to promote freedom and ease tensions between India’s ethnic and religious groups … (full text).
I Am A Terrorit: Come shoot Me, June 26, 2004.
… What about the Indian Muslims themselves? “I don’t see this as a Hindu-Muslim fight. Gujarat is the manifestation of an extreme fascist attack on secularism and the only way to fight the fascists is to galvanize support by the minorities and secular Hindus to fight them. It has to have a political backing.” Shabnam Hashmi is an agnostic. “My parents were non-believers and they raised us as non-believers. My grandparents were Muslims and all I have is a Muslim name…nothing more…I don’t relate to any religion.” She acknowledges that she’s fighting a losing battle, “because the Hindu-Muslim hatred has seeped in too deep and will take centuries before it dries out.” Shabnam is back in New Delhi, but her son Sahir Raza, the 15-year old schoolboy from Delhi and amateur photographer who traveled to the riot-hit areas of Ahmedabad, Gomtipur and Mahendrapur in April 2002 and returned with a grim 96-frame slideshow capturing the barbarism, destruction and agony of Gujarat is in America to show his film: “And They Killed Him Again” which refers to the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi who, ironically, was a native of Gujarat. His own countrymen have succeeded in killing Gandhi again and again, as tensions between religious groups have led to large-scale violence, burying his message of amity and peaceful co-existence … (full text).
I Owe This To Mukhtar, January 8, 2006.
… Speakers at the seminar, ‘Secular democracy at risk’, asserted that in contrast to the perceived progress Gujarat has made, issues like minority-bashing and farmers’ suicides were disturbing the state’s social fabric. Shabnam Hashmi, member of the National Integration Council, spoke about the internally displaced in Gujarat, saying minorities in that state were being “systematically reduced” to second-class citizens … (full text).
An Open Letter To Narendra Modi, 28 November 2007.
Docu-lectures [by ANHAD] a new weapon to combat communalism, August 06, 2004.