Delhi communal violence: Modi’s Nero moment?


by Nilantha Ilangamuwa 4 March 2020

The infamous phrase, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” is, to some degree, indicative of the political leadership of any age. While the story itself is almost certainly a myth, as the fiddle wasn’t invented until the 11th Century, the creation and continued popularity of the phrase speaks to his lack of leadership during his reign, and his lack of popularity with Roman citizens.

For centuries, though, this phrase has been regularly repeated to criticize political figures and unpopular policies, and is tragically appropriate in India, in the aftermath of the Anti-Muslim riots in Delhi. While Delhi burned and 46 people were killed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged in two days of pomp and pageantry for his guest, Donald Trump, President of the United States. Isn’t it fair to say both leaders fiddled while Delhi was burning? Mahatma Gandhi’s fundamental question of whether hatred is essential for nationalism is echoing in daily life in India today. 

Hundreds of thousands of people were waving and performing traditional dances for President Trump, who travelled to “the largest democracy in the world” to emphasize his “true friendship” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all while thousands of protestors were gathered in New Delhi to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. 

It was Trump’s first time in India. Dozens of people, including a policeman, have been killed and many more wounded on the day Trump was mesmerized by the crowd at the Motera Stadium in Ahmadabad, India. In one instance, an intelligence officer was beaten to death, and pieces of his dead body floated near the drain. Once the land of non-violence, the land which gave birth to the fathers of non-violence, Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, is now in turned into a land of inevitable violence and hatred. 

Home Minister Amit Shah, the man who is in the headlines for multiple controversies, found his comfortable seat at Motera Stadium, while another corner of the country is burning due to violent outrage. Delhi is suffering the worst communal violence since the early 80s. 

While Congress has urged the President to demand his immediate resignation, Amit Shah, Modi’s confidante, will hardly be accountable or take responsibility for the carnage. 

Interestingly; the judge who criticized the way the Delhi Police handled the outrage received a transfer order from the Union Law and Justice ministry. Though transfers are part of a rotating system in the Indian judiciary, the nature of Justice S. Muralidhar’s transfer came under severe criticism. Some of the key level bar members did not hesitate to identify this order as an act of mala fide, a punitive measure to whitewash BJP leaders who allegedly cultivated racial remarks to instigate violence. “We should never allow another 1984…especially under the watch of the court and under your (Delhi Police) watch… We have to be very, very alert,” the bench of Justice Murlidhar and Anup Bhambhani observed during a midnight hearing on a night at his residence. However, Justice Murlidhar will be leaving behind communal flames in Delhi as a newly appointed judge of the Punjab and Haryana high court. 

What an irony of democracy; on the one hand, hundreds of thousands of people are cheering for the achievements of the Modi administration and his “true friendship” with the man on the top in a so-called super power. On the other hand, thousands of unarmed innocents are struggling to find justice for the violations of their very rights, guaranteed and ensured by the Constitution of the Republic. The government decided to close several parts of Delhi by imposing section 144 in the Indian Penal Code to prevent further escalation of violence; however, political and social uncertainly due to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has continued. Consequently, social order in Delhi has yet to be fully restored.   

It is a daily experience in many places in India to see gigantic images of Trump and Modi as “true friends of democracies”. What you can see is that triumphs of ruling parties are on the façade while fire underneath is deteriorating the social order in the system. 

In a democracy, as long as the opposition parties play a vacuous role, the ruling elements will get stronger while evaporating the opportunity to have accountability and transparency. The beauty of democracy is always lying on the balance of power in the legislature. If it loses that balance, then we will have nothing but a distorted version of democracy. 

Indian democracy has taught the world the beauty and competitiveness of its governing system for a prolonged period. But Modi’s administration is redrawing the Indian political map, which some called the rise of nationalism, while others called it the rise of patriotism in this era of populism. Whatever you name it, the impulses of the prevailing ruling style in India is not providing cause for optimism. If the Congress and other parties do not redesign and reengineer their political strategies, at least the way Arvind Kejriwal exhibits, the BJP will have a dangerous ultimatum and last laugh. 

Democracy in India is suffering from malnutrition, not because of Modi’s way of administration but the internal disunity within and among the opposition parties, and their inability to understand the true sentiments of the general public. Modi addressed the emotions of the general public to romanticize them and legitimize them, and in so doing ensured his own legitimacy. 

What is the most important political lesson to be learnt from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi? He knew where to hit, how to hit, and when to hit. Modi, the man, who ‘remains the only person ever to be banned to travel to the United States of America under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) provision of US Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)’ due to his alleged involvements in crimes against humanity over the shameful events during the retaliation in Gujarat known as Gujarat riot, is now recognized as a true friend of USA.   

Modi’s life is one of the wonders of India. Decades ago, a boy walked, barefoot, a hundred miles from his village, and worked as a tea boy (chaiwala) while helping his father to make tea at Vadnagar railway station in Gujarat, sensing nothing but grim poverty. Like many others, this boy was humiliated and sidelined many times in a society where caste and wealth are the decisive factors of designing and deciding the fate of a person. But he took every opportunity to overcome all challenges, made his way, and climbed to become the strongest leader of the largest democracy of the world. 

Prime Minister Modi is re-shaping not only Indian politics, but the South-Asian sub-continent for good or ill. He is reviving the ideology which has allowed him to gain power. He is the man on the street. Hence, he knows the feelings on the street better than anyone in Indian politics today. He has proved his political capacity just a few days ago. A strong hug and enthusiastic body language tell the world they were looking for years to meet each other and finally, they have got an opportunity to cross the planet together. 

Trump organized “Howdy Modi” and Modi organized “Namaste Trump”. Both events have nothing to do with diplomacy but the notable events in the rise of populism. If Trump wins his second bid to the White House this true friendship will deliver more to reshape the political map in South Asia. But, in that project, it is unclear where basic human rights, including individual liberty and equal rights for all guaranteed by the constitutions of each sovereign nation in the region, are going to be placed and respected. The agony and nightmare during the communal violence in Delhi could be an early warning of future danger. 

Is India, the largest democracy in the world, reaping the harvest of shortsighted nationality as nationalism? As the late B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution noted, “There is difference between nationality and nationalism. They are two different psychological states of the human mind… Nationality does not in all cases produce nationalism.” Do the ruling elements in Delhi misunderstand nationalism, which Ambedkhar distinguished? Is India is passing Modi’s Nero moment? These recent events in India present an opportunity to understand the ground reality and the future of the largest democracy on the planet. 

(Version of this article originally published in Daily Financial Times in Colombo. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other organization or employer he is affiliated to)