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OPINION | Those Calling Shabana Azmi anti-BJP Forget the Day She Interrupted a Film Festival to Rebuke Rajiv Gandhi Govt

From taking on the Congress government in 1989 to silencing the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid in 2001, actress-activist Shabana Azmi’s politics has been issue-based, not party-based.

Rasheed Kidwai | @rasheedkidwai

Updated:July 8, 2019, 5:46 PM IST
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OPINION | Those Calling Shabana Azmi anti-BJP Forget the Day She Interrupted a Film Festival to Rebuke Rajiv Gandhi Govt
In this November 13, 1997 photo, Shabana Azmi shouts slogans as she spearheads a demonstration by slum dwellers in Bombay. (Reuters)

BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain’s criticism of actress-activist Shabana Azmi as part of the ‘award-wapsi gang’ is a bit unfair as it does not take into account her courageous stand against the Congress over Safdar Hashmi’s killing and her verbal duel with Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid.

On Sunday, Azmi had alleged that anyone critical of the Narendra Modi government was being branded anti-national. "It is always necessary that we point out flaws for the betterment of our country. If we do not, how can our conditions improve? But the atmosphere is such that if we criticise the government, we are branded as anti-nationals. We should not be afraid, nobody needs their certificate," Azmi had said while speaking in Indore.

Former Union minister Shahnawaz Hussain was quick to retaliate. He said similar allegations were levelled by the ‘award-wapsi gang’ in 2014.

Ab 2019 mein bhi yehi kaha ja raha hai. Aap kisi sarkar ki alochna kar sakte hain, desh ki nahin (Similar things are being said in 2019 as well. You can criticise a government, but not the country),” Hussain said.

Hussain’s move to club Azmi with the ‘award-wapsi gang’ is bit prejudiced as she has a proven track record of taking on the Congress and Muslim clergy in equal measure.

The ‘award-wapsi’ controversy blew up in 2014-15 when around 40 filmmakers, artistes, authors and activists returned the Sahitya Academy and other literary and cultural awards conferred by the government as a mark of protest against intolerance, mob lynching and hate crimes. Some notable names included Arundhati Roy who returned her National Award for Best Screenplay won in 1989 for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, director Kundan Shah who returned his National Award for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, and stretched to other filmmakers like Saeed Mirza, Dibakar Banerjee, Anand Patwardhan, Tapan Bose, Sanjay Kak, Madhusree Dutta and Pradip Krishen.

Azmi had even caused the Congress and then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi acute embarrassment on January 10, 1989 at the prestigious 12th International Film Festival of India held in New Delhi. It was an event attended by several international filmmakers and dignitaries, including then information and broadcasting minister HKL Bhagat who used to fancy himself as ‘the eyes and ears’ of Rajiv Gandhi.

Shabana Azmi interrupted the proceedings and read out a prepared statement, explicitly naming and shaming the Congress party in connection with the murder of noted poet, playwright and theatre personality Safdar Hashmi near Delhi just 10 days earlier. As the rear of the auditorium erupted in slogans, as if in a well-rehearsed move, Azmi went on to voice her outrage. “We register our protest against a system that, on the one hand, claims to promote creativity and, on the other, connives in the murder of cultural activists,” she declared emphatically. The ignominy of the Congress party was complete when the proceedings were shown live on state-controlled national television Doordarshan.

Thirty-four-year-old Hashmi, who was attacked on January 1, 1989 in the town of Sahibabad on the eastern outskirts of New Delhi, would die two days later from his injuries. He had been staging a play critical of the government, Halla Bol, for workers in Jhandapur, a labour colony, to support the CPI(M) in its local election campaign.

Subsequently, Azmi was approached to contest against HKL Bhagat from East Delhi in 1989, but turned down the offer. She told Mrinal Gore, VP Singh and Swami Agnivesh, “I am not interested”.

The actress-activist preferred her independence as a thinking individual, choosing to align herself with issues, rather than political parties. It was also around this time that Azmi would become so steadfastly committed to her political role that she openly disdained her film-industry colleagues who had carefully kept their distance from politics, preferring to restrict their rhetoric to the sets. She would say, “We should have taken this step long ago for we too have a duty towards the nation. Any film star who doesn’t carry out this duty is an offender.”

In 1986, Azmi was scheduled to go to the Cannes Film Festival where her Mrinal Sen-directed film Genesis was being shown. But she stayed back.

She learnt about Nivara Haq and three of its members going on a hunger strike because their homes in a Colaba slum in Mumbai had been destroyed during a demolition drive to make way for an MLA hostel. The Congress government had reportedly made no attempt to rehabilitate them. Azmi joined the strikers along with documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan.

“I just felt it was impossible for me not to go,” she said. “I remember discussing it with Javed, my husband. He told me, ‘You have to be very careful of what this means because people are going to throw a lot of brickbats. You’ll come into lot of criticism because they’ll assign all kinds of motives. But the people you really want to help will get help’,” she said.

Azmi stood by her ‘gut feeling’ and went ahead. Since it was most unusual at the time for a film actress to park herself in the middle of the street in Mumbai, people were shocked. “Some said I was aiming at politics, I was doing it for personal gain, etc.,” she recalled. “But after five days, that land [for building new shelters] was made available to the slum-dwellers; in fact, there was a shift in the government policy about how slums had to be seen.”

Courting controversies has been nothing new for Shabana Azmi. In October 2001, as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the actress found herself in the line of fire when Syed Ahmad Bukhari, the Imam of Jama Masjid in Delhi, vilified her as a nautch girl. ‘Nachne gaane waali tawaif’ were his exact words.

Participating in NDTV’s We the People programme, Azmi had said, “That remark, betraying the Imam’s coarseness and low-mindedness more than anything else, provoked tremendous outrage.”

Urging him to contest her views rather than make offensive personal remarks, Azmi, a recipient of that year’s National Integration Award, countered, “My identity is that I am a woman first followed by an actress and a Parliament member. For me, religion is a part of my life and not vice versa.”

Azmi had responded to the Shahi Imam’s call to Muslims to wage ‘jihad’ against the US for its intervention in Afghanistan. The actress-politician had suggested that the Imam should be air-dropped in Kandahar to wage a ‘jihad’.

(Rasheed Kidwai is a visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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