In January, a schedule for a theatre festival was circulated on social media, which mentioned that a play named “Godse” would be performed on 30 January 2021, in Varanasi, the prime minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh. The festival, called “Benaras Rang Mohatsav,” is organised by the National School of Drama, Varanasi, and Sanskar Bharti, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate. Nathuram Godse was a Hindu-supremacist fanatic who killed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on 30 January 1948. The inclusion of the “Godse” play in the program invited backlash from civil society in Varanasi.
Critics of the play believed that it would glorify Godse because there have been efforts to portray him in a positive light in recent years and due to Sanskar Bharti’s involvement in the festival. In The Caravan’s January 2020 cover story on “The Apostle of Hate: Historical records expose the lie that Nathuram Godse left the RSS,” the writer Dhirendra N Jha wrote,
“Godse has continued to hold pride of place in the imagination of Hindutva followers, despite the RSS’s attempts to distance itself from him. Prominent office-bearers with affiliations to the Sangh and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have often expressed appreciation for Godse. With a former RSS pracharak—full-time worker—Narendra Modi, as the prime minister since 2014, the BJP’s leaders are embracing Godse more openly. The BJP MPs Sakshi Maharaj and Pragya Singh Thakur, the latter an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts, have praised Godse multiple times. The BJP government of Uttar Pradesh has proposed renaming Meerut district to ‘Pandit Nathuram Godse Nagar.’”
The play incident is the second controversy surrounding Godse in January 2021. Earlier this month, the Indian Express reported that the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist organisation, had opened a library dedicated to Godse at its Gwalior office in the second week of January. Godse was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha. The Gwalior authorities shut it down on 12 January, the report mentioned. “Apart from offering literature on the life and views of Godse, the library was to also hold lectures on Godse’s journey and Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘failure’ to stop the Partition,” the report added.
The Benaras Rang Mohatsav theatre festival has to stage five plays between 27 January and 31 January. Sanskar Bharti being one of the organisers of the festival is one of the reasons that the “Godse” play faced opposition. Jagriti Rahi is a member of the Sanjha Sanskriti Manch, a civil-society organisation. Rahi said that while the organisers said that the Godse play was cancelled, it was suspicious that a play by the same writer and director was still being staged on 30 January. “When this drama is being conducted by an institution like Sanskar Bharati, which is itself the wing of the RSS, you need to understand what all they can they do,” she said. “Our younger generation which is not as familiar with history—they are showing a new history to it, to mislead it.” Rahi told me she is a Gandhian activist. “While the whole world was once being told, ‘We are celebrating Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary [in 2019], on the day he was murdered, the person who killed him is being glorified,” she said.
Ram Ji Bali, the director of the National School of Drama, Varanasi, told me that the “Godse” play was never supposed to feature in the schedule. “See, this play never had to be held,” he said. “When we were designing this program, we had many plays, including that play—due to this, there was some miscommunication with the designer. So he thought that this drama is happening, and that pamphlet reached social media. We dismissed this on 24 January itself.” Another play written by Utkarsh Upendra Sahasrabuddhe, the writer of the “Godse” play, is now being scheduled for 30 January. When I asked him for details about the “Godse” play, Sahasrabuddhe said, “We will not give the details and script to anyone.” He added that the script of the play was incomplete.