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Safdar’s death can’t be undone, heavens don't give salvific dignity to a 'gruesome' killing

By Yanis Iqbal* 

On January 2, 1989, a 34-year old Safdar Hashmi, while performing the street play “Halla Bol” in a labour colony at Jhandapur, was beaten to death allegedly by Congress goons. Thrashed at least twenty times on his head with iron rods, he was brought to the hospital with brain fluid leaking out of his nose.
Less than 48 hours after his death, Mala, his wife, and the other actors returned to the place where the daylight murder had taken place and performed the interrupted play. One of the songs that the song squad “Parcham” sang that day was “Tu zinda hai”:
"Tu zinda hai, tu zindagi ki jeet mein yaqeen kar
Agar kahin hai swarg to utar la zamin par."
(You are alive, so trust in the triumph of life
If there’s a heaven somewhere, then bring it to earth)

As a remembrance of Hashmi’s death, these lyrics strongly affirm the mortality of human life. The total earthliness proclaimed in the above lines emphasizes that Hashmi is absolutely lost with the loss of his material life and that is why we are mourning him.
Whereas a religious worldview would diminish the importance of death by making the believer find consolation in the heavenly glory of eternity, secular reason points to the abruptness of death, the irrevocable absence opened by the loss of an irreplaceable finite life. Whereas religion considers death to be a transitional stage in the union towards god, secular reason considers death to be a closure.
If one truly believed in the moral superiority of afterlife, the death of a finite individual won’t invite mourning. Secular reason, by conceding the density of death, allows us to come to terms with its emotional weight.
To use the words of the Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund, the comradely love for Hashmi would mean "that I ought to be utterly bereaved in the face of… [his] death. This sense of responsibility is intelligible only from the standpoint of secular faith, since it is devoted to a life that is recognized as mortal and places demands on us precisely because it is mortal.”
By registering the death of Hashmi without taking any recourse to theological abstractions, we maintain that he ought to live on in our memory and that we ought to suffer the pain of mourning his death. Such pain is possible only when we acknowledge that the dead person is an existentially unrepeatable singularity who can be honored not through theological immortalization but through worldly fidelity. This fidelity reminds us that the value of the dead depends upon the active efforts of the living, not upon the automatic guarantees of eternality pronounced by God.
When we consign Hashmi to a faraway religious abode, we implicitly refuse to be responsible for the normative ideal that he embodied. Believing in the existence of eternity, we don’t truly mourn his experiences. Instead of commemorating his particular existence, we make him just another abstract soul journeying towards a God. Furthermore, we delude ourselves into believing that God is taking care of him, that his death has been redeemed by the promise of eternity.
Secular reason asks us to own our responsibility for the kind of service we are rendering to the dead
“A secular consolation,” writes Hagglund, “does not have to redeem death. On the contrary, it can admit that there is an irredeemable loss at the heart of what happened. A secular consolation can thus focus on the social commitments that sustain our mourning, recognizing the love that is intrinsic to grief, extending it to care for others, and motivating us to try to prevent similar tragedies from taking place”.
When we come to realize that Hashmi’s death can’t be undone, that there is no heaven that has given some salvific dignity to his gruesome killing, the task of dignifying his death through political remembrance comes down to us. Rather than delegating this task to divine or karmic laws, secular reason asks us to own our responsibility for the kind of service we are rendering to the dead.
Indeed, eternal life is an immobilizing force. In such a theological vision, nothing happens since everything is decided by God-given permanency. An eternal heaven is completely sealed from unpredictability and vulnerability, which means that we don’t have any necessity and/or motivation to pursue any course of action.
When the memory of the dead, as we have seen, is proclaimed to be etched in the dwelling of God, the living don’t feel any need to mourn the deceased person. Since everything is eternal, impervious to the vagaries of temporality, the actions of human beings don’t carry any rationale – what counts is the divine power of God. Thus, immortality is death.
In opposition to this, secular reason foregrounds how any existential project has to be precarious: “That it not be given as a fact but must be upheld by conviction and fidelity. You have to believe in the value of the project, but you also have to believe that the project may cease to be and needs to be sustained.”
Whereas religion uses the banner of immortality to declare that death doesn’t matter, secular reason says that death does matter, that the finitude and fragility of life is what provides the urgency for taking actions. What motivates “me to keep faith with a person, a project, or a principle is my apprehension that it can be lost or compromised and thereby requires my fidelity.”
Hence, confident in the “triumph of life,” secular reason does not glorify immortality. On the contrary, “if there’s a heaven somewhere,” it wants to “bring it to earth”.
---
*Studying at Aligarh Muslim University

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