New Delhi: Three months after Safdar Hashmi, playwright and director, was beaten to death in January of 1989, the artiste community of India got together for the Safdar Hashmi Samaroh. Street theatre performances were held across the country and art was created to commemorate Hashmi’s life and work while artistes debated freedom and fear. And just like Hashmi’s funeral, this too was a melting pot with people from all walks of life turning up. A 1989 India Today report quoted lyricist Javed Akhtar as saying, “people are here not because it’s happened for the first time. But because it’s happened too often."

It’s a sentiment that over the years since Hashmi’s death could have been relevant to different moments across India’s political landscape resulting in people, not normally associated with politics, taking to the streets. It happened when a model/bartender was shot dead by a politician’s son who was then acquitted. It happened when a young girl boarded a bus to return home one night after a movie and ended up brutally gang raped and dumped by the roadside with injuries that proved fatal. It happened when corruption scandals became the norm rather than the exception during the United Progressive Alliance’s second term and it is happening now with the arrest of a student leader. Each of these uprisings have centered around one central figure, most of them thrust into that position not by choice but by circumstances.

“Every protest needs a face or a symbol. It can’t really be planned but there comes a time during a movement when something or someone becomes a rallying point for the restless energy of people," says Anant Mariganti, director of the Hyderabad Urban Lab, which works in the area of contemporary urbanization. According to Mariganti, the symbol, which could be a person or an inanimate object like a building, becomes the focal point “for our aspirations, anger, and hope. Everything congeals around it." So with Safdar Hashmi, it was about art and its attempt to fight for the rights of the marginalized; with the 23-year-old physiotherapy student raped and killed on a bus in Delhi in 2012, it was about the sexual violence women encounter in public spaces. And now with Jawaharlal Nehru University students union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, it is about fears of majoritarianism and a narrow definition of patriotism.

Guerrillero Heroico (heroic guerrilla fighter)—Che Guevara’s iconic picture clicked by Alberto Korda—is recognizable anywhere in the world as a symbol of the struggle for freedom. Putting a face to a movement helps it come alive for the people, it helps capture the imagination.

“We saw it happen with Bhagat Singh also though both Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru too were equally committed to the freedom cause," explains Sohail Hashmi, writer and documentary film-maker. He is also the brother of Safdar Hashmi.

“Safdar and his group were essential to the development of street theatre. He was known equally among workers and intellectuals. He had organized walks for minimum wage and staged street plays across the country on the issue. He had friends everywhere and it is they who came out," he says referring to Hashmi’s funeral.

On 18 February. JNU students took out a march in central Delhi demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, arrested on charges of sedition. Students from Delhi University, Jamia Milia Islamia and even private universities joined in as did people from all walks of life—media, law, politics. Some of them wore T-shirts bearing a representation of Kanhaiya’s face and the legend Mera Yaar Kanhaiya (My friend Kanhaiya) while other carried placards in support of Rohith Vemula, a Hyderabad University who committed suicide.

“I am not political but I am here because I worry about the larger trend of intolerance. Increasingly space for debate and different opinion seems to be shrinking," said 23-year-old Sakshi Khatri, a graphic designer. For her the biggest motivating factor was that soon this shrinking of space would turn on women.

People who constitute a popular uprising can have different political and religious beliefs but the symbol serves as the glue. “Kanhaiya’s speech in which he chants that he seeks azadi from casteism, from manusmriti touched a chord as the list of things he is rallying against don’t find favour with many people," says Mariganti. Fear that it could be ‘me next,’ as exemplified by Khatri, is another rallying point.

Years ago there was another student whose image, that of his body on fire, caught the imagination of India. This was Rajiv Goswami, a Delhi University commerce student who went onto become the symbol of the anti-Mandal movement. However Goswami’s cause, seen as an elitist, upper caste push back, would be hard pressed to find the kind of resonance that Kanhaiya or even the Delhi rape victim found.