Years after a theatrical representation of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi from the point of view of the assassin, Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, created a controversy across India, another play on the topic is in the eye of the storm.
For close to two decades, Sharad Pokse played the title role in the controversial Marathi play Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy (I’m Nathuram Godse Speaking), first staged in 1997. After playing Godse on stage about 800 times, Pokse felt the man’s story needed to be told with a little more perspective. In October, Pokse premiered He Ram...Nathuram in Mumbai and the play has been staged 31 times so far, in several states.
However, the Marathi play has run into trouble ahead of its screening in Pune on December 25, with hardline Maratha organisation Sambhaji Brigade and some student outfits demanding a ban on it. Claiming that the controversial play glorifies Gandhi’s assassination and tries to spread the philosophy of Hindu Rashtra, these organisations are also planning protests ahead of the staging.
The All India Students Federation, the All India Youth Federation and other organisations had also tried to stall the play’s performance in Kolhapur on December 19. The play could be staged only after protestors were arrested and cleared from the venue, according to reports.
“Mahatma Gandhi was killed by Nathuram Godse to finish the ideology of Gandhi,” said Sagar Duryodh, secretary of the AISF’s Maharashtra wing. “It was not the murder of the leader but it was the murder of thoughts. Nathuram Godse was a pracharak of the Rashtiya Swayamsevak Sangh and murder of Gandhi was the plan of RSS, which always wanted to convert India into a Hindu nation. The play tries to spread the thought of constructing Hindu Rashtra.”
Santosh Shinde, president, Sambhaji Brigade, Pune, said that the play glorified Godse’s killing of Gandhi. “It tries to establish that act by Godse is in the interest of the nation and Gandhi has been shown as anti-national,” he said. “The play tries to create enmity between Hindu and Muslims. We have asked the government that the play should be banned and people associated with the play should be tried on charges of sedition. We will not allow the play to be staged anywhere across Maharashtra.”
The protestors said they would take the law into their own hands if the BJP-led state government does not ban the show.
Ponkshe, on his part, insists that the characterisation of Godse is less controversial and more insightful than that in Mauli production’s Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy, which was last staged in 2014. “After 800 shows [of Mee Nathuram...], I thought the play requires corrections and additions,” he said. “Hence I have written He Ram...Nathuram. The play is based on facts and not fiction as is being portrayed.”
“In the earlier production, Nathuram’s act was glorified and he was being made into a superhero”, Ponkshe told the Pune Mirror. “I cannot change history and facts, but I have revisited its treatment and have made it into a more realistic, courtroom drama and toned down Nathuram’s aggression a little.”
Ponkshe questioned why the students’ groups and Sambhaji Brigade were protesting now, after 30 shows had been staged across the country. The play had been screened once before in Pune too, at the Balgandharva Theatre.
The AISF’s Duryodh had an answer. “Earlier 30 shows were staged at Hindu programmes [seminars organised by Hindu outfits],” he said. “The Kohlapur show was the first to be staged in a public place. Hence we opposed it.”
Godse’s motivations have been the subject of much debate over the years. He is said to have held Gandhi in high regard during his school days. After he dropped out of school, he was affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha, though it is unclear whether he was formally attached to either of the two at the time of the murder. Not much is known about the life of Godse, who ran a Marathi newspaper Agrani and described himself as a patriot, outside of the assassination.
On why Ponkshe was intrigued by Godse’s story, he said, “During his trial, Godse asked for permission to defend against all the accusations, except the punishment. For the next eight days, he addressed all the accusations. He explained why he killed Gandhi. But the government made sure that his defence does not reach the common man and tried to destroy the newspapers that had carried it.”
Ponkshe said that he would like his play to reach a wide audience and would welcome inputs from people who have a problem with it. “They can even write a play defending their thoughts after we stage the play,” he said. “Nobody denies that Gandhi was a great leader. The play is not going to undo the hanging of Godse.”