The first thing that strikes you about the Bharat Jodo Yatra is its size!
Because of the sparse press coverage it has received in the mainstream media, it is easy to visualise it as a motley crew making its way across the country, joined occasionally by a crowd. It is only when one sees firsthand the caravan of container homes, the size of the yatris’ campgrounds, and the huge number of people waiting to catch a glimpse of the rally, that one starts to get a feel of its magnitude.
The second thing that strikes you about the Yatra is the desperation of the people who have come to see it or take part in it. For example, Abdul Majid, a farmer who has come to catch a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi in Firozpur Jhirka on December 21, tells me that the farmers in the area are still not getting minimum support price (MSP) for their crops. He says that in the 66 years he has been alive, he has never seen a time like this.
“Mehengai aasmaan chhoo rahi hai, aur desh daraar pe hai. (The prices of everything have skyrocketed and the country is seriously divided.)”
Majid speaks passionately for a while about all the many ways in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP have broken their promises and let them down. Finally, having said what he wanted to say, his eyes look off into the distance and his voice trails off.
The Yatra entered Haryana from Rajasthan that very morning. After being frisked by a policeman, I enter the campground in Firozpur Jhirka, where the Yatris are taking their mid-day break. About a hundred people are having lunch in a very large tent.
Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh is also sitting at a table finishing up his meal. I request an interview. “Don’t ask me for a meeting with Rahul Gandhi, though!” he tells me. I smile and assure him that I won’t. He invites me to sit down, and I ask him if he has had many memorable moments at the Yatra thus far.
Jairam Ramesh says that although he has visited all the places that the Yatra has passed through previously as a cabinet minister, walking through them again as a padayatri is helping him to see these places and their problems in a new light. He also tells me that he has learned he can walk much more than he ever thought he could.
“It’s all in the mind,” he says.
I ask him, “Speaking of walking, what do you have to say to the ‘armchair liberals’ in metropolitan cities who are wondering what difference the Yatra will make?”
The former minister for environment practically holds his head and exclaims, “Nothing irritates me more than this armchair commentariat! We have a very large population of them, and I read their writings about the Bharat Jodo Yatra all the time! I responded to one such commentator just yesterday by saying, ‘It is amazing that you produced an article without having come to the Bharat Jodo yatra for even a minute, and that you can pontificate so extensively on what the Yatra is doing or not doing, and who Rahul Gandhi is meeting or not meeting!’”
The question has hit a nerve, but the man has a point.
“But it’s an occupational hazard,” he goes on to say a bit more conciliatorily. “They are well-meaning guys, but frankly, the Congress has more to fear from liberals and the centre-left. We know we must fight the right-wingers but it’s the so-called liberal commentariat for whom Congress-bashing has become a favourite daily pastime.”
I then ask him if he has a message for PM Modi. He does. “Start telling the truth for a change! There is an old American saying, ‘Fake it till you make it’. But Mr Modi didn’t just fake it till he made it, he is continuing to fake it even after he’s made it!”
I finally ask him, “Are you hopeful about the results of the Yatra?” He says, “I wouldn’t be walking if I wasn’t. Whether the blessings of the people will turn into votes (vardaan to matadaan ) remains to be seen, but one’s gotta do what one’s gotta do!”
Outside the tent, I talk to retired servicemen, medals pinned to their uniforms, who have come to meet Rahul Gandhi to request him to raise the request with the prime minister for ‘One Rank, One Pension‘.
I also speak with a civil engineer who has joined the yatra and who tells me that he too wants to “open a shop of love in the market of hate”.
I tell him that in a country overrun with hate, that will not be an easy task. He says, “Yes, that’s what the RSS in pre-independent India also felt, that India would never become independent, but Mahatma Gandhi led us to freedom, didn’t he?”
I speak with many other Yatris, some of whom show me their blistered feet. Others talk about the varied problems they have endured on their journey, from food poisoning to inclement weather. But their sense of deep pride in the Yatra and what it stands for is unmistakable. (I also take a good, close look at their mobile containers. By no stretch of the imagination are these “luxury vehicles”.)
I start on the long drive back to Delhi. Thousands of people have lined the sides of the highway to catch a glimpse of the Yatra, perhaps even walk with it. As my taxi stops to let a truck pass, I see a group of laughing Muslim children running out of a bright yellow mustard field, carrying a flag.
Stepping out of the cab to take a picture of this very photo-worthy sight, I start talking to these kids. Just then, a couple of youngsters come up on a scooter and say roughly to the child holding the flag, “Abey mulle, jhanda de.” (Give me that flag, you mullah!)
Almost without thinking, I snap at him, “Is that how you talk to people, especially to children!?”
The young men look slightly taken aback, and after a moment’s hesitation, drive off. I tell the children to go and have fun, realising full well that I will drive off, but they will still have to co-exist with those who think nothing of calling them names. This unpleasant little encounter has underscored one of the deep problems the Bharat Jodo Yatra is seeking to address.
For the sake of the children I have just met, and for millions of others like them, I pray it succeeds.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He can be reached at [email protected]
This article was first published on The Wire.