Thought Box



by Vinta Nanda March 21 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 54 secs

Here, Vinta Nanda tells the story of Shabnam Hashmi, one among the millions of people who have, over the last 75 years, built a secular, democratic and plural nation through their sheer hard work, and love for the country to which they were born.

This interview I’ve worked upon with Shabnam Hashmi is, primarily, for those who have entered young adulthood in the last one decade, and are under the influence of a hyper mainstream media, which has given their generation to believe that all the development in India has taken place only in the last nine years.

Shabnam Hashmi is an Indian social activist and human rights campaigner. She is the sister of Safdar Hashmi, playwright and director, best known for his work with street theatre in India.

She started her social activism and campaigning about adult literacy in 1981. Since 1989 she has spent most of her time in combating communal and fundamentalist forces in India. After the Gujarat riots 2002, Hashmi changed her focus to grassroots work. In 2003 she was one of the founders of Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), which she runs. She has campaigned against communalism and violation of human rights. Shabnam Hashmi was amongst ninety-one women from India who figured in the list of the 1,000 women who have been nominated globally for the Nobel Peace Prize-2005.

Hashmi has focused on issues of women's political participation, adoption, gender justice, democracy and secularism. She was awarded the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia (ACHA) Star Award for Communal Harmony in 2005, Aamil Smriti Samman in 2005 and the National Minority Rights Award 2008 by the National Minority Commission.

Here, I talk to her about her life, work and future plans. So, let’s go over to Shabnam…

Tell us about ANHAD, its beginnings, your work in the organization over the years.

We formed Anhad in response to what we witnessed in Gujarat during the 2002 carnage. Apart from working in the relief camps in the initial months and listening to hundreds of stories of violence and mayhem, I had also travelled across the districts and met many gang rape survivors. The way women’s bodies were violated totally numbed the senses. The hatred and the ways of creating hatred was shocking. Anhad was formed one year later in March 2003.

We started with residential camps for youth to inculcate the values of citizenship, democracy, communal harmony, gender equality, we produced huge amounts of material-books, posters, exhibitions, videos, leaflets as part of advocacy work. We have organized over 100 residential camps across India, organized national and state level conventions, workshops, consultations, film and discussion clubs in colleges, organized national level campaigns for peace and harmony, organized cultural events celebrating our diversity and pluralism, and intervened at policy level during the UPA government. Anhad has also done a huge amount of community level work providing skill training, sensitizing large numbers of women and men on gender equality, responded to natural and man-made calamities like Tsunami, earthquakes, floods, riots and helped families with livelihood support. We have organized fact findings and organized tribunals. Anhad works actively on questions of communal harmony, democracy and secularism, freedom of expression, gender, skill development and mental health.

It’s important to talk about at least one campaign to understand the scale at which we work. Baatein Aman Ki (peace conversations) was organized as 5 caravans of 20 women each travelling from five corners (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kashmir, Delhi) of India, and it culminated in Delhi. Each group had women from at least 7-8 different states, different castes, religions and different economic strata. In 30 days, we covered 200 cities, towns, and villages and organized 500 programs including huge public meetings, rallies, press conferences, and performances reaching out to lakhs of ordinary Indians. Anhad had reached out to over 2500 groups and networks for this campaign and it was done as a joint program. We did this in response to the atmosphere of fear and violence when the lynching of innocent Muslims started all over the country. NFIW was the biggest women network, which was the co-organizer.

Where did you grow up? How will you describe the India of those times?

I was born to very progressive parents. My father was a youth leader, a freedom fighter, and had spent 4 years in the British jail. My mother came from a literary family. Her father was a poet. We lived in abject poverty as my father’s big furniture business in Delhi was totally ruined during the partition. Though we never had decent clothes to wear or good food to eat, we had books and good music at home. My father used to always recite Faiz and Sahir when he was doing any chore at home - cooking, washing, cleaning. There was total gender equality within the house as both my parents did everything at home, and jobs outside, and taught all the five siblings to be good human beings. None of us was ever pressurized to run after plush jobs or money. We studied in ordinary government schools and they were very good in our childhood because by then the privatization and commercialization of education had not started.

The initial years, when we were children, were full of hope. As children we walked down to the Rajpath every year with food and something to spread on the ground and witnessed the Republic Day parade. There were no passes, no security. There was a genuineness in building a new society, expanding education, scientific temper, providing opportunities for women and other marginalized sections. Leaders were accessible to ordinary people, there was no surveillance and no fear. Yes we were a poor country after having been plundered by the British but there was hope of building a nation on the principles of the constitutional values.

What are your thoughts about India, the country that we inhabit today?

According to political scientist Dr Lawrence Britt, who studied the fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, Spain, Indonesia, and Chile, there are 14 identifying characteristics of fascism: powerful and continuing nationalism, disdain for the recognition of human rights, identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause, supremacy of the military, rampant sexism, controlled mass media, obsession with national security, religion and government are intertwined, corporate power is protected, labour power is suppressed, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, obsession with crime and punishment, rampant cronyism and corruption, and fraudulent elections.

In my opinion at present, in India, we have crossed 50-60% mark across these characteristics. Things started deteriorating when the emergency was declared but a major difference between the emergency and now is that it was declared then, and now we have an undeclared emergency. During the emergency the people of India were united and Indira Gandhi was defeated. In present India, influenced by disinformation campaigns, fake news on social media and by a totally controlled news media, a large number of ordinary Indians have been influenced in favour of hate, violent and divisive politics. There is an atmosphere of fear and because of that, while the majority of Indians still do not support hate ideology they have been silenced to avoid vindictive actions. The secular opposition is in disarray and refusing to rise above their egos and personal interests and as a result it is pushing the citizens into a more vulnerable position.

Within this scenario there is also hope. India is too diverse and very different from countries where fascism took total control. Students and young people across campuses are raising their voices and farmers, ordinary workers and women are resisting this assault on the constitution. 

What does democracy mean to you and how dependent are we Indians on it?  

Democracy as compared to other forms like monarchy or autocracy is a more humane form of governance based on equality. It is a political system where all citizens have an equal right to intervene in society and hold their elected representatives accountable. Democracy to me means freedom not only to choose representatives but to choose them in a free and fair election process. In a democracy citizens should be able to enjoy their freedom of speech, freedom to live the way they want to , to eat, to dress, to work, to fall in love with whom they want to. Democracy must provide a life of dignity and respect to all its citizens.

India is home to thousands of socio-cultural communities. According to a survey conducted by Dr Ganesh Devi there are approximately 850 languages. It is a stupendous task to ensure their wellbeing and equal participation in the society. Only a vibrant democratic system can ensure that Indian citizens can live with dignity and equal rights, i.e. if democracy survives in India and the values of the Indian constitution are respected and implemented.

As a social activist, defender of human rights, where do you think we as a nation have done well, and what needs to be done in the present and future?

The freedom struggle against British imperialism was not only to free India from foreign rule but to build a free nation having socio-economic equality, respect and equal opportunities for all its citizens.

The biggest achievement of free India according to me is the Constitution of India, which took almost three years of intensive debates and discussions before it was finally written under the chairmanship of Dr BR Ambedkar. To write a constitution, which gives equal rights to all citizens irrespective of caste, class, gender, religion in a highly divided society was no mean task.

The British reduced India’s share of the world economy from 23% when they colonised India to less than 4% at the time of the Independence. India was a world famous exporter of finished cloth with a share of 27% of world trade. It became an importer as the weaving industry was totally destroyed by the British. An Independent India in 1947 had a 12% literacy rate.

It was an important achievement to set up the Planning Commission of India in March 1950 and monitor the growth every 5 years. Setting up of new schools, colleges, universities, IITs and IIMs, BARC, Atomic Energy Commission, TIFR, setting up of 17 national laboratories, setting up of Council of Scientific & Industrial Research were big achievements. The Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958 was a major achievement. Setting up of Lalit Kala Akademi in 1954, National School of Drama in 1959 were major achievements. Bringing in the Special Marriage Act in 1954 was a highly progressive step. All these and many more steps were responsible for building a nation with a very progressive vision.

During the past two decades India brought in very important new laws to empower the most marginalised sections including the Forest Rights Act of 2006, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence in 2005. Many schemes like MNREGA were brought in to provide livelihood support to the poor sections. 

According to the latest Inequality report by Oxfam, the richest one percent in India now own more than 40 percent of the country's total wealth, while the bottom half of the population together share just 3 percent of wealth. There is an urgent need to look at the model of economy and uplift the condition of the poor.  

It is also very important to safeguard the Constitution and democracy. To combat the divisive forces, which have dismantled all our democratic structures. To fight hatred and spread love and harmony. It is very important to raise our voices without fear, as fascism when it overpowers a society does not leave anyone, not even those who did not speak out when it was required.

You have worked extensively in Kashmir – what are your thoughts about the situation there now?

Anhad went to Kashmir in 2005 immediately after the earthquake and ended up working there till 2012 very actively, providing relief and rehabilitating to families who had lost everything. Anhad worked in 30 villages, opened skill development centres for rural women. The centres became safe spaces for women to deal with various issues they faced including domestic violence. Anhad opened the first computer centres in remote areas of Tangdar and Uri and negotiated with the government to expedite the process of rebuilding schools, roads etc. Anhad organised film festivals, theatre festivals and theatre workshops in Srinagar and provided a platform for young students from various universities and schools. We worked mainly on humanitarian issues. Anhad worked extensively during the floods in 2014.

Anhad now runs only one community centre in Khumriyal village in Kupwara, where we have a library, hold computer classes and a few skill training courses for women. A lot of our work has collapsed due to non-availability of resources. 

Democratic spaces in Kashmir are shrinking at a fast speed and the media has no freedom so the news does not come out easily. Kashmir has become a lot more conservative.

I know the times are difficult for NGOs and frontline organisations like yours, but what keeps you going?

A large number of civil society organisations, like artists, intellectuals, journalists and activists, are facing serious issues. Over 26000 have lost their FCRA. We were among the first ones to lose with one line explanation - ‘your work is not in the interest of the people’! 

Anhad has survived because everyone works on very small honorariums of rupees 15,000-20,000. Anhad activists are passionate and dedicated and strongly believe in the idea of a plural, diverse and democratic India. We deeply understand the threat to democracy and the urgent need to intervene and safeguard it and do that without fear and pessimism. We have to defeat hate and violence for the sake of the new generation.

What are your plans in the coming days? 

Anhad turned 20 years on March 6 2023, so we have planned a series of monthly conversations.  We are a very small team now and a lot of our time goes into supporting domestic violence survivors. Anhad also regularly works on mental health issues, we organise free therapy sessions for young people. So we do have our hands full. We are working on a few ideas, which hopefully result in some interesting campaigns. Anhad has been surviving on personal donations for 8 years, so we are able to deliver what we can in meagre resources. But we will keep telling everyone that: We are alive and will keep fighting. Hum Zinda Hain!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.