Nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, Pradip Dalvi’s Marathi play Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy opened to a maelstrom of controversy in Maharashtra. The two-act play told the story of Mohandas Gandhi’s assassination from the perspective of his killer, Nathuram Godse, resulting in an outcry and a ban on its performance for the next four years. That piece of theatre is making a comeback, after the appearance of a new play that has also been accused of glorifying Godse.

The new play, titled Hey Ram...Nathuram, was first staged on October 2, on Gandhi’s birth anniversary. It has much in common with Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy, beginning with actor Sharad Ponkshe, who has played the titular character of Godse in both plays. Ponkshe wrote and directed Hey Ram...Nathuram, following disagreements with the producers of Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy.

Since the first staging of his new play, Ponkshe has been at the receiving end of attacks from two sides.

On the one hand, Uday Dhurat, the producer of the older Godse play, has accused Ponkshe of copying the premise of the original – Dhurat now intends to revive Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy with new actors. On the other hand, in the week running up to Gandhi’s death anniversary on January 30, Ponkshe’s Hey Ram...Nathuram faced angry protests outside theatres in Sangli, Aurangabad, Thane, Nagpur and Pune, by local representatives of the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and the Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha vigilante group affiliated with NCP. On January 24, in Nagpur, some protesters were detained by the police, as a show of Hey Ram...Nathuram was cancelled.

According to the protesters, the play glorifies Gandhi’s assassin and ought to be banned. While critics don’t endorse a ban, they do believe that Ponkshe’s play is an obvious and worrying reiteration of the Hindutva ideology that led to Gandhi’s death in 1948.

Sharad Ponkshe. Credit: YouTube

‘Non-violence not the only way’

Ponkshe has refuted the allegation that his play – which Sambhaji Brigade calls “seditious” – glorifies Godse. was unable to reach Ponkshe, but in an interview with Marathi news channel TV9 in October, the actor-director claimed that his purpose of revisiting and revising the original Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy was to showcase the “truth” of Godse’s character without any glorification.

In the same interview, however, Ponkshe – the vice president of the Shiv Sena’s cinema wing – expressed an attraction towards some of Godse’s thinking. “He [Godse] was trying to say that non-violence is not the only successful way forward,” Ponkshe had said. “In these 70 years of being a non-violent country, even a nation like Pakistan has been able to attack us so many times. But recently when we responded with just one violent attack, the situation changed almost immediately.”

‘Assassination as vadh’

For many liberal critics, this line of thinking is not surprising, just as it wasn’t surprising when Ponkshe essayed the role of Godse in Pradip Dalvi’s older play for 14 years. “These plays bring out the fact that the Hindutva of old is no different from Hindutva today, which still persists in our midst and is in power,” said Anand Patwardhan, a documentary filmmaker whose 2002 film War and Peace closely looked at the impact of plays like Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy.

Right-wing Hindutva history, according to theatre critic Shanta Gokhale, has always seen Godse as a hero and Gandhi as someone who deserved to be assassinated. “They refer to the assassination as vadh,” said Gokhale. “In our myths, when heroes kill villains, the deed is called vadh.”

Playwright Ramu Ramanathan believes this glorification of Godse has grown more intense in the past two decades. “The BJP top leadership pays lip service to Gandhi and [Bhimrao] Ambedkar,” said Ramanathan. “But if you pay heed to the ideologues and their founders in the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], the message is clear.”

Godse, a Brahmin from Maharashtra, was a member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha that also spawned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. As Gokhale points out, Ponkshe was a member of the RSS until some years ago, when he quit and joined the Shiv Sena. While the Shiv Sena and the BJP lead a coalition government in Maharashtra, the Sena has announced a split with the BJP in the run-up to the Mumbai’s civic corporation polls. This, according to Gokhale, explains the Shiv Sena’s rousing support for Ponkshe’s play across Maharashtra.

“Although reconstructing/distorting history is not one of the Sena’s known objectives, it would be perfectly happy to go along with Ponkshe’s version of it, since he is now one of them,” said Gokhale. “Even more significantly, in today’s politics in Maharashtra, Ponkshe is against the organisation [RSS] that supports the BJP, which is Sena’s rival.”

A new Godse will rise?

Ponkshe’s new Godse play is currently touring parts of Maharashtra and is expected to be staged in Mumbai in the first week of February. Meanwhile, Uday Dhurat, the producer of the original Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy, is preparing to revive the old play, which hasn’t been staged since 2011.

“After playing a character for 14 years, it is sad that Ponkshe has chosen to trample on the work of the original playwright and do another play on the same subject,” said Dhurat. “But we are auditioning new actors and directors to bring our play back. A new Nathuram will rise again. We all love and respect Gandhi, but people need to know the other side of the story.”

While Patwardhan is convinced that the renewed presence of the Godse character on stage will be damaging to the social fabric, he believes the world of secular artistes has not responded adequately to counter this right-wing narrative of history. “But it is good if all of these attitudes come out in the open,” he said. “People should know that right-wing parties even today are in favour of those who killed Gandhi. Hopefully it will lead to some cultural resistance.”