The embers of the score continue to simmer. With the rise of the Hindu right, Islamophobia, hatred and intolerance have colored socio-political discourse, favoring people who thrive on discord and conflict. The “otherness” of Muslims is actively encouraged in every possible way. Relentless hate campaigns by fringe groups have created an atmosphere of fear. All symbols of Muslim excesses – imaginary and real – are targets to be demolished. Stirring the communal cauldron is not enough to sustain Hindu consolidation; hence the recourse to hyper-nationalism. There is little room for dialogue as the rivals fiercely cling to their position.
In this environment, what will happen to the nation if the 200 million Indian Muslims disappear overnight? Veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi attempts to answer this surreal question through his piece The Muslim Vanishes. This hard-hitting and provocative tragi-comedy, bordering on farce, reflects the anguish, alienation, sense of betrayal and suffering of Muslims. Naqvi takes the reader on a journey through a millennium of syncretic culture and fantasy. Peppered with ironic humour, it is a scathing critique of contemporary India.
The play begins in a well-lit television studio, where the latest news speaks of the sudden disappearance of 200 million Muslims. They also took with them their cultural heritage, their language, their literature, their songs, their cuisine, the Qutub Minar and even their dead from the tombs. The narrative becomes complicated as many of them seem to have moved to Kashmir. The stunned anchors as well as the politicians trying to deal with the new situation realize that the outcome is not something they negotiated. An India without Muslims is proving to be a nightmare for the ruling class.
Dalits and others in the lower rungs of society are the first to occupy the properties left behind by Muslims. Anita, the politician’s daughter-in-law, finds a shortcut to socialism through the distribution of these assets. It appears to the powerful that in the new situation they will have to fight the numerically superior lower castes in the elections. Fearing the inevitable domination of the lower castes, they envisage postponing the elections.
Anti-Muslim politicians suddenly want Muslims back. The Hindutva project needs Muslims. Caste supremacists need the “other” to manage the caste triangle. They realize that Muslims are needed for Hindu consolidation. ”You want them to come back so you can communitarise the elections. You don’t seem to have any other problem. They were the problem, and now they’re gone,’ a character says. “Our politicians taught us to hate Muslims. Now that the Muslims are gone, there is no one to hate,’ another said.
“You lynched Muslims, you confined them to jobless ghettos, you filled the prisons with them, you accused them of being terrorists or siding with Pakistan,” says a character in the play.
An imaginary special tribunal with an 11-member jury is tasked with examining why the Muslims disappeared. This lawsuit draws heavily on Naqvi’s adulation of India’s composite culture. The jury members are all proponents of medieval multiculturalism, including Kabir, Tulsidas and Mahatma Phule. The spokesperson for the jury is Amir Khusrau. There are Hindu and Muslim representatives. The cross-interrogator intervenes: “… The easiest thing to consolidate the Hindus was to find an enemy – and the enemy was the Muslim community. The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi movement provided just the opportunity.”
Amir Khusrau refers to “the disruption of a thousand years of cultural commerce, civilizational sharing and a way of life in which all communities participated. We, who come from another world, find the current situation infused with hatred quite incomprehensible.
As we wade through history, we are reminded of contemporary reality; there are references to the report of the Sachar Committee on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims, the lynchings of Mohammad Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan by vigilantes, the hunting down of MF Husain, the flogging of Dalit men in Una and the hanging by Afzal Guru.
Naqvi draws the reader’s attention to two interlocking triangles that must be dealt with if the climate of hatred is to subside. One is composed of three parts: Indo-Pakistani relations, the question of Kashmir and Hindu-Muslim relations.
The other is the deeply rooted caste pyramid. The disturbing play is an outpouring of angst over the widespread poison of communal hatred that has created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity among minorities. With a human worldview, Naqvi pleads for a return to reason.
The Muslim Vanishes is a play in three acts with 13 scenes. Given the complexity of the subject matter, Naqvi consciously chose the play structure. But as a play, it falls flat. With its rather convoluted logic, some sections are lengthy, with political narratives, cultural history, and fulminations. There’s little room for character development because too many of them take the stage to make a point and disappear.