THEATRE: Godse play in India
Far Eastern Economic Review
Aug 6, 1998

Playing Politics:
 A drama about Gandhi's assassin sparks debate
  * By Salil Tripathi and Sadanand Dhume
    577 Words

The banning of a play in Bombay that is sympathetic to the assassin of
Mohandas Gandhi has sparked a bitter debate and raised critical
questions about the kind of nation India wants to be -- secular,
democratic and liberal, or nationalist and Hindu.
   The play, Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy (This is Nathuram Godse Speaking),
casts a favourable light on Godse, who killed Gandhi in 1948. "This is
so unfortunate; those who have sought the ban have not even seen it,"
director Vinay Apte lamented to the REVIEW. "No artistic form is meant
to hurt anybody's feelings, and it was not our intention to denigrate
Gandhi," he says.
 But the play's critics charge its producers with just such an aim,
and angry parliamentarians forced the ruling Hindu nationalist coalition
to ban the play in mid-July. In interviews, playwright Pradip Dalvi has
said he admires Godse's guts and conviction to act for India's good.
Neither Godse nor Gandhi has a moral edge over the other in his play, he
said. That moral ambivalence, which treats the two as equals, troubles
many Indians who venerate Gandhi as one of the nation's founding fathers
and an apostle of nonviolence.
   The controversy over the play has produced some strange bedfellows.
Gandhians who back freedom of expression are uncomfortably perched with
unruly Congress Party workers who sought the ban. And incongruously
ranged against them are artists and writers committed to free speech --
and the Shiv Sena party, which has become a free-speech champion
   That is an unexpected transformation for a party whose thugs
ransacked the home of renowned painter M.F. Husain -- who some art
critics call the Indian Picasso. Hindu nationalists were incensed by
Husain's paintings of Hindu goddesses in the nude. "Artists will now
think twice before exploring sensitive issues," says Jatin Das, a
Delhi-based painter who was beaten up by an anti-Husain mob when he
tried to defend his fellow artists.
   The controversy over the play reflects a greater drama being played
out on the nation's political stage. On one side are those who believe
in the 50-year-old liberal democratic model, represented by the
leftists, the centrists and the socialists. On the other are those who
seek a nationalist, Hindu model, championed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and other
pro-Hindu nationalist parties like the Shiv Sena.
   Godse's monologues use the death of a national icon to articulate the
latter group's views at a time when the old consensus is fading and a
new one is yet to emerge. The Dalvi play is not alone in exploring such
issues. One play running to packed houses in various languages in Indian
cities is Mahatma vs. Gandhi, which shows Gandhi's failure as a father.
Award-winning film maker Shyam Benegal made the same point more subtly
in his 1995 film, The Making of the Mahatma, which shows Gandhi's
evolution into a political leader in South Africa -- testing his ideas
and creating the philosophy of nonviolence.
   Benegal is deeply troubled by the ban. "Nothing should be banned,
everything should be debated," he says. That's hard when people seeking
bans come armed with stones, not arguments. And faced with public
protests, the state takes the easier option of banning the work.
   But as Delhi-based author Khushwant Singh notes: "The main threat
doesn't come from the government, but from the intolerant public, which
seems to get more thin-skinned by the day. We have too many sacred cows."