BOMBAY, INDIA — Any call in India for sympathy with Mohandas Gandhi's assassin is likely to stir strong emotions. But, after the curtain went down here on the play "I, Nathuram Godse Speaking," even anti-Gandhi hard-liners were shocked.
No public event had gone so far in its hatred of the "father of the nation."
Not only was Mr. Godse, the man who stalked and shot Gandhi in 1948 as he left evening prayers in Delhi, treated as someone whose Hindu nationalist ideas were ahead of their time. The performance made Godse, not Gandhi, a martyr for India.
For an American equivalent, imagine a script lionizing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
Yet in the highly symbolic world of Indian culture and politics, the Godse play's real significance far outweighs its stage life.
It is the latest example, observers say, of a deepening struggle over the meaning of Gandhi's principles - and over the soul of India.
For the nation of 982 million, the question is: Can the universal ideals of tolerance and coexistence that Gandhi introduced survive in the state he helped found?
Or will India spin back into tribal and sectarian feuds - the "million mutinies" described by writer V.S. Naipaul?
Approved by the Ministry of Culture here in Bombay, the play closed after seven performances following widespread protest over playwright Pradeep Dalvi's comment that he hoped audiences would "tear down" statues of Gandhi when they left the theater. The play could still reopen.
Gandhi provided the glue that unified India, a nation formerly divided into more than 500 princely fiefdoms. His social genius and homespun ways, simple truths of love and compassion, marches and fasts against violence fired the people's imagination. His nonviolent opposition to British rule liberated India and helped topple colonial empires the world over.
Ideals still relevant?
Last year India marked its 50th year of independence. But this year marks the 50th anniversary of Gandhi's assassination - and some say the Godse play is a metaphor for what many feel about Gandhi but won't say.
For ordinary Indians, Gandhi is legendary. But his ideals can seem irrelevant to those eking out a living. Recently, figures like the late B.R. Ambedkar, a pragmatic and hard-nosed leader of the untouchable class, have risen in stature and popularity among Indian youths, much as Malcolm X has cut into the popularity of Martin Luther King Jr. among African-American youths.
"We want to respect Gandhi as a deified person in Indian culture, but his larger message and his idea of politics and social justice are lost on a larger and larger number of us," says Arshis Nandy, a leading social historian at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
In politics, the Congress Party Gandhi helped found is out of power and in disarray; members argue over who is most corrupt. The ideal of a unified India has never been weaker. In March the first ruling party with no historic ties to Congress was elected. (It did have ties to the Hindu extremists that planned Gandhi's death.)
Many Indians have lost the tone of Gandhi's life, according to Amrut Modi of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. The ashram is a neatly kept complex of buildings overlooking the Sabarmati River. Gandhi lived there for many years, peeling potatoes and spinning cloth, along with writing 34,000 letters that Dr. Modi now oversees.
A soft-spoken, unhurried man, Modi mentions the involvement the current government in Delhi had with the destruction of a Muslim mosque in Ayodyha that set off violent rioting in the early 1990s.
"We don't see them caring about ends and means," he says. "Gandhi cared greatly about the means he used. Gandhi wanted everything to be about love."
Around the globe, Gandhi is still revered. His "experiments with truth" inspired Albert Einstein and Leo Tolstoy. He influenced civil rights leaders in the American South. His mantle is worn by President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Even in India no politician dares openly challenge the Mahatma, which means "great soul." His face appears on the 10-rupee note, the most common currency in India. Schoolchildren learn Rabindranath Tagore's famous lines that Gandhi "stopped at the thresholds of the huts of the thousands of the dispossessed ... When love came to the door of India, that door was opened wide ... At Gandhi's call India blossomed forth to new greatness."
Yet, say experts, Gandhi's ideas of "truth" and "soul force" seem woolly headed and irrational for a rising professional urban class. For many Hindu nationalists, support of a multiethnic India seems naive. For extremists who sympathize with Godse, Gandhi is not the answer, he is the problem.
"It is getting to the point where if Gandhi were denounced, I doubt that people would really be so shocked," says former Cabinet member Bhabani Sen Gupta of the Center for Studies in Global Change in New Delhi.
Gandhi would not have the "caste, muscle, mafia, and money power" to win even a local election today, says Chimanbhai Mehta, a Cabinet minister in the V.P. Singh government.
Still, Gandhi's name is regularly used to support programs and policies he never would have approved, say observers. Last spring, Gandhi the nonviolent activist was used to justify India's test of nuclear weapons.
In recent years, Hindu nationalists have reshaped Gandhi's message of a moral and religious dimension to politics into a more narrowly pro-Hindu position, equating his famous Salt March (an act of civil disobedience to stop British taxes on salt) with an anti-Muslim procession to Ayodyha.
Gandhi is described as a believer in "Hindutva," the ideology of Hindu values that the reigning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would like to see replace the secular approach the Congress Party has long held to. Gandhi's persona is also being recut to reflect a more aggressive and "manly" figure.
The Godse play, written in the 1980s, is based on Godse's final speech at his trial. The speech, banned in India for many years, has Godse arguing that Gandhi was a demon for allowing India to be partitioned, resulting in the creation of Pakistan. The assassin justifies his act as a form of wadh - the killing of a demon.
Upholding Gandhi values
Yet Gandhi may have the last word. The most effective and organized parts of Indian society today, and the most thriving, are the nongovernmental organizations that have spread out across Indian villages.
Most are consciously patterned on Gandhian views. Volunteer and nonprofit groups that deal with water, birth control, human rights for women and the lower castes, peace groups, child care, wise land use, the environment, remedial education, agricultural training, and programs for work experience and colleagueship - all pick up Gandhian values and are proliferating through the countryside.
"While they are busy assassinating his image as father of the nation," says Dr. Nandy, "Gandhian ideals are what is keeping this country together."