11/11/2015 12:00 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 7:06 PM IST

An Appeal to Modi: Don't Fiddle While India Burns

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Yuji Sakai via Getty Images
image of flame

The Roman Emperor Nero was accused of fiddling while Rome burnt. Nero, whose rule is often associated with extravagance and tyranny, focused a lot of his energy on foreign diplomacy. He blamed Christians -- a minority community in Rome at the time -- for starting the great fire of 64AD, and presided over their wholesale torture and execution.

The events of Nero's Rome are nearly two millennia old, but a lot of these misadventures resonate in modern day India.

India feels like it is burning. Religious intolerance is rising to alarming levels. Following the murder in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq, a middle-aged village blacksmith, for the presumed crime of eating a calf, instances of beef-related extremism have become commonplace. There have been outbursts in regional parliaments about the consumption of beef. Police in Delhi, acting on a complaint by a Hindu Sena member, recently conducted a "beef raid" on the Kerala Government's state house. The consumption of beef may well be a sensitive issue, but it is never right to incite mob violence or to invade the sanctity of anyone's home or state property on the strength of a suspicion.

"He promised to be a dynamic leader, and not one who looked the other way as disaster struck."

Modi, India's tech-savvy Prime Minister, has been conspicuously silent over the beef controversy. This is a man who appeared to millions of would-be voters by hologram when canvassing for votes for the 2014 elections. He is a prolific user of Twitter, and has started a weekly radio show to reach the masses. This is a man who knows how to communicate. And yet he didn't condemn the Dadri lynching for days, and even as his apparatchiks excused away the tragedy, he didn't intervene. He was in America at the time, courting Silicon Valley. He didn't deem it necessary to express his shock over the violence, nor did he condole with Akhlaq's grieving family.

In the meantime, several prominent Indians -- writers, artists, scientists, journalists and actors -- have come forward to condemn what they see as a growing rise in intolerance. About 40 writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in October in protest, and now their patriotism is being called into question. On social media, trolls offer to buy dissenting intellectuals tickets to Pakistan. They are called anti-national for disagreeing with the government.

Shah Rukh Khan, one of Bollywood's biggest stars, waded into the battle by airing his opinions on news channel NDTV. He articulately bemoaned the rise of anti-Muslim feeling, and leaders of the BJP party followed suit by accusing Khan of pro-Pakistani leanings.

And now, as Modi prepares to travel again, to the UK this time, it is clear that the shine has rubbed off. The UK will not officially express much disapprobation. They are keen to cinch $15 billion worth of trade and investment deals. However, newspapers are noting Modi's diminishing popularity. "But his next foreign visit to the UK this week to meet David Cameron and the Queen and to address a crowd of 60,000 British Indians at Wembley Stadium will for the first time be overshadowed by deepening troubles at home," ran an article in the Financial Times.

And free of official channels, criticism is growing louder. On 8 November, Awaaz, a group of British Indians projected the sign "Modi not welcome" onto the Houses of Parliament. The group accuses him of "unleashing a violent authoritarian agenda that seeks to undermine India's democratic and secular fabric."

As if that weren't enough, the BJP's resounding defeat in the recent Bihar state elections gives truth to the fact that Indian politics is not the politics of hate.

Communalism will not win you votes. Isolating vast swathes of a diverse population won't, either. Progress will. That is the mandate India gave to Modi. He promised us progress and a change from the stultifying corruption of the UPA, not a Hindu Rashtra. He promised to be a dynamic leader, and not one who looked the other way as disaster struck.

"There is still time to get back on track. If he doesn't, Modi might find that ignoring India's fires is tantamount to political suicide."

What we voted for was responsiveness. And what we need is not another foreign jolly. We don't need a repeat of Madison Square Garden. We don't need Modi to sell out Wembley Stadium. He's India's elected representative. He's our ambassador to the world, and not some fleeting starlet.

We need him to take stock of the India that has voted him into power. To recognise that intolerance will not work. To recognise that we want development and accountability. To recognise that the fires that burn in India today need to be put out.

And as for Rome's Nero? He spent the last year of his rule fighting rebellions and suffering defections. Upon hearing a rumour that the Senate had declared him a public enemy -- the equivalent of losing a no-confidence motion -- Nero committed suicide.

There is still time to get back on track. If he doesn't, Modi might find that ignoring India's fires is tantamount to political suicide.

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