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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 18, 19, April 29 & May 6, 2023 (Double issue)

From Rath Yatra to Bharat Jodo Yatra: Recovery of India’s Soul | Ram Puniyani

Saturday 29 April 2023, by Ram Puniyani


by Ram Puniyani


Bharat Jodo yatra of Indian National Congress led by Rahul Gandhi and supported by many civil society groups and others started on 7th September 2022 from Kanyakumari and will culminate in Srinagar on 30th January 2023. The yatra is getting tremendous response from most sections of people. It began in the backdrop of worsening social scenario where on one side the intercommunity relations took a nosedive and on the other economic plight of average people worsened. Employment among youth dwindled, the condition of farmers, Dalits, Adivasis worsened and insecurity of women increased. The Yatra contrary to predictions got humongous response and has led to a sort of churning in the country. What does it portend for the future of the country and what are its challenges are dominating the thinking in sections of society. This paper deals with the backdrop in which the social scenario worsened; the response and challenges to the yatra to restore communal amity along with the values of Indian Constitution.


India’s independence was marked by the tragic partition of the country with Muslim majority Pakistan coming into being. The communal forces which assisted the British policy of ‘divide and rule’ did not disappear. The Muslim communal elements dominated Pakistan while Hindu communal elements gradually started becoming strong over a period of time. The communal discourse took a dangerous leap from the BJP’s Rath Yatra by Advani, which aimed to build the Ram Temple. Its goal was to demolish Babri Mosque, an archeologically protected structure, built in sixteenth Century and in the process create a wedge between different religious communities. Let’s see the major incidents which deepened the divide between different communities and weakened the fraternity inherent in the values of our republic.

Backdrop to Bharat Jodo Yatra

Babri Demolition and Mumbai Violence

Advani’s Rath Yatra was taken out in a Toyta Car converted in to a chariot and as it travelled from Ahmadabad towards Ayodhya, it was intercepted in Bihar. It left a trail of violence and blood on the way. “The March’s imagery was ‘religious, allusive, militant, masculine and ‘anti-Muslim’. This was reinforced by speeches of made by Advani which accused the government of ‘appeasing the Muslims’ minority and practicing pseudo secularism.’” (i). The yatra created an anti minority hate and intensified the prevalent propaganda that Muslim Kings destroyed Hindu temples and did atrocities against Hindus, including forcible conversions.

The hate created by this led to repeated violence in city after city where the yatra passed. Anand Patwardhan, the noted documentary film maker commented “where ever rath yatra went, violence followed”

(”). The sustained work of BJP-RSS Company led to the demolition of the mosque as the authorities in the Center and UP state deliberately failed in their duty to protect the mosque. “In five hours of Kar Seva all three domes (of mosque) were razed to the ground. The idols of ‘Ram Lalla’ were taken out…(and) bhajan Kirtan started around 7 PM” (ii). All this when the BJP leaders sitting on stage gave the slogans, Yeh to Keval Jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura Baki hai, (This is just a prelude, Kashi Mathura will follow). This triggered the anti Muslim violence in Mumbai, Surat and Bhopal. Also Ayodhya witnessed the attack on photographers, and the local Muslim residents.

Liberahan commission appointed in the aftermath of demolition concluded, “…the events of and leading up to the 6th December in the birthplace of the virtuous Lord Ram considered an incarnation of God and the ideal king, were tainted by a joint conspiratorial enterprise.” (iii)

This unleashed massive violence and Mumbai which was unprecedented. In this anti-Muslim violence nearly 1000 people were killed out of which 750 were Muslims. Loss of property primarily of Muslims was close to 10000 crores. Shrikrishna Commission nailed the culprits but no punishment was given to the culprits. The slogans, ‘Muslims have only two places to go: Graveyard or Pakistan’ were thick in the air. This led to the massive ghettoization of Muslims in areas like Mumbra, Bhendi Bazar, and Jogeshwari. This gave an electoral boost to BJP and it succeeded to come to power in 1996. The communalization of society got a big boost.

Anti Christian Violence: Pastor Stains-Kandhamal

The propaganda that Christian missionaries are converting by force, fraud and allurement has been very prevalent from last many decades. This was the base on which anti-Christian violence was launched, initially few spectacular incidents followed by sub-radar anti-Christian violence.

The burning of Pastor Stains by Bajrang Dal’s, Rajendra Pal, aka Darasingh Dal came as a big shock to the whole country. The Pastor was sleeping in an open jeep when Dara Singh and many others burnt them alive. The then President of India K.R. Narayanan described it as "a monumental aberration of time-tested tolerance and harmony. The killings belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds" (1) Wadhva Commission was appointed by Home Minster L.K.Advani in the aftermath of this brutal act gave its report as per which, “…the pastor was not involved in any conversion activities and that the percentage of Christian population in the area has remained static despite the Pastor working in the area.” (2)

The anti-Christian violence picked up since then and in Dangs (Gujarat) Jhabua (MP) and Kandhaml in particular. Most of this took place around Christmas time. At the same time Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (affiliate of RSS) set up its activities in Adivasi areas and Hinduisation of Adivasis went on large scale. Organizing of Shabri Kumbh (Congregations), and promoting Lord Hanuman and Shabri as the major icons for Adivasis was initiated at large scale. In these areas the Ashrams set up by Swami Aseemanand (Dangs) activities of followers of Asaram Bapu (Jhabua) and Swami Laxmannand (Kandhamal, Orissa) began spreading anti-Christian propaganda and violence was the consequence. This violence peaked in Kandhamal in August 2008 in which nearly 100 Christians were killed and many Churches were attacked. John Dayal Writes “The violence began when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad vice president Lakshmananda Saraswati, who had moved to Kandhamal forty years earlier to combat, as he said, the Christian influence in the Tribal and Dalit district, was shot dead in his ashram. Local Maoists took the credit for the murder. But people such as Praveen Togadia roused the local people by taking his body in a motorcade along 270 kilometers of a tortuous journey through major villages. As the body went past, local thugs and Sangh cadres launched an attack on the Christian population.”(3)

Since then many scattered acts of violence have been taking place against this community. The prayer meetings are attacked, Pastors are arrested on the charge of conversion and an atmosphere against Christians has been created, which led Julio Reibero, the respectable police officer to comment “Today, in my 86th year, I feel threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger in my own country. The same category of citizens who had put their trust in me to rescue them from a force they could not comprehend have now come out of the woodwork to condemn me for practicing a religion that is different from theirs. I am not an Indian anymore, at least in the eyes of the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra.” (4) This reflected the sentiments of large section of Christians.

Gujarat Carnage 2002

On the pretext of the burning of Sabarmati Coach (S 6) violence was launched against the Muslim community in Gujarat, in which nearly 2000 lives were lost, 80% of those being Muslims. “Senior Gujarat police officer Sanjeev Bhatt has told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that chief minister Narendra Modi had asked police officials to "let Hindus vent out their anger against Muslims following the Sabarmati Express train burning incident in Godhra on February 27, 2002"(5)

Babu Bajrangi, in a Tehelka sting by Ashish Khetan had stated that it was like a one-day match and he was feeling like Maharana Pratap while doing the killings. He was given life imprisonment and is currently on bail (6). Similarly another guilty Maya Kodnanni was given life imprisonment and is currently on bail. The attitude of Government and handling of situation became clear when General Zamiruddin Shah said that his battalion, which had been sent to Gujarat to quell violence, had to wait for three days before being brought into action. As per him “… after about 3,000 troops landed at an Ahmadabad airfield at 7 am on March 1 - the day after the riots broke out - they waited for transport and other logistical support from the state government, which was delayed.” (7)

The Gujarat carnage led to massive ghettoization of Muslim community. Juhapura, bereft of most civic facilities is the live testimony to the plight of minority. This trend of ghettoization is on the upswing and different areas of the country face similar issues.

Muzzafarnagar Violence: Love Jihad

The communal forces have been spreading the misconception about love jihad. This campaign is totally a construct to target Muslim youth and to increase the patriarchal control over Hindu girls. Charu Gupta writes, “False claim that there is ‘love jihad’ organization which is forcing Hindu women to convert to Islam, through false expression of love is similar to a campaign in 1920s in North India against “alleged abductions”. Whether 1920s or 2009, Hindu Patriarchal notions appear deeply entrenched in such campaigns: images of passive victimized Hindu women at the hands of inscrutable Muslims abound, and any possibility of Hindu women exercising their legitimate right to love and their right to choice is ignored” (iv) This in a way was the backdrop of massive Muzzafarnagar violence, in which loss of lives and property of Muslim farmers was immense.

The angle of love jihad and saving ‘our women’ was very much there as the Muslim boy who hit the bicycle of a Hindu boy was accused of teasing his sister. As such in the violence, “In this case of Muzaffarnagar violence as the three boys got killed on the pretext of teasing of the girl after a skirmish on the road (there are two versions of the beginning of the episode). There was enough time to see the dangers of such inter-religious violence and control the same. But that was not to be. The officers in violation of the rules and even the imposition of 144 in the area let the Mahapanchayat (Congregation) of over a lakh people take place.”(8) This triggered the onset of violence in the state.

Another horrific case related to the propaganda of love jihad was the one related to burning alive a Muslim. Shambhulal Regar did the heinous crime of killing a Muslim labourer, with a mind full of Love jihad obsession. “The horrific part of the incident was that Shambhu got his 14-year-old nephew to shoot the incident on video and then to upload the clip. The incident must belong to hate crime of the worst order. Killing with axe then burning the body and video-shooting it!” (9)

Cow Beef and Lynching

Adding to the vicious atmosphere, the divisive sentiments among Hindus were deepened by throwing up the issue of Cow as Holy mother and talking of beef ban. This was meticulously done to incite the Hate against Muslims. As per IndiaSpend report “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86% of 28 Indians killed in 63 incidents. As many of 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014, and about half the cow-related violence — 32 of 63 cases –were from states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the attacks were reported, revealed our analysis of violence recorded until June 25, 2017.” (10) Una incident of flogging four dalit youth for carrying dead cows was equally horrific drilling a massive fear among the section of dalits dealing with leather and other products from dead animals.

CAA NRC: Shaheen Baug

The massive exercise of Citizens Amendment Act was implemented in Assam. The problems faced by citizens in Assam were massive. Keeping records for those living on pavements or even with average families is not easy. This was done in the backdrop of the propaganda that millions of Bangla Deshis have infiltrated in Assam and are a threat to security. At the end of the whole effort what came out was the false nature of the propaganda. The result was nearly 20 Lakh people were found who did not have proper papers, out of this 12 Lakhs were Hindus.

In this backdrop the government brought in Citizenship bill as per which the citizenship for immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangla Desh will be granted to Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. The Muslims were kept out of the list. The massive protests against this were there and police mercilessly cracked down on students in AMU and Jamia Milia in particular. This is what precipitated the Shaheen Baug Movement by Muslim women in Delhi to begin with and then it picked up all over the country. These protests had vast Impact. “… these protests can be interpreted as acts of citizenship where women spearheaded demonstrations against the Indian state to withhold their rights of citizenship as ‘activist citizens’, asserting the constitutional value of respecting diversity and democratic citizenship, thereby demonstrating ‘constitutional patriotism’” (11)

The Economic Scenario

The economic scenario was marked by rising prices, failure to fulfill the promise of jobs, and rise in consumer product prices. The petrol-diesel prices touched the sky and the rupee kept having a free fall against the dollar. The economic and global indices saw a continuous fall in most of the spheres. The hunger index, freedom of religion, and democratic freedoms all saw a steep decline. “India’s score on Civil Liberties was flat at 42 till 2018 but dropped sharply to 33 by 2022; that for Political Rights dropped from 35 to 33. Thus, India’s total score dropped to 66 which places India in the “partially free” category – the same status it had during the Emergency. Since the publication of the index, the only two previous instances where India was considered as ‘Partially Free’ was during the time of emergency and then during 1991-96 which were years of economic liberalization” (12)

The farm laws intended to increase the grip of corporate sector on the peasant’s economy were implemented and met with a massive protest. This protest lasted for close to a year, finally Government had to withdraw the laws. Good reflection of the high handed policies of the Government. It was a big sacrifice by farmers and the World saw that a unified struggle can still oppose the repressive policies of state. While withdrawing the agitation the Sanyukta Kisan Morcha (United Peasants Front), leading the protest states, “The current agitation stands suspended… The SKM dedicates the fabulous and historic victory of the struggle to around 715 martyrs of the movement, including those in Lakhimpur Kheri. SKM congratulates all the protesting farmers and citizens, and their supporters,” (13)

Democratic Liberties

Authoritarianism went up by leaps. The powers of the Prime Minster became close to absolute. With the different agencies meant to counterbalance the power of the executive getting constrained. Modi was on a trip to unfold the agenda called Hindutva agenda. Abrogation of Article 370, construction of Ram temple has already been achieved. With full media, becoming Pro-Government, the voice of opposition got further undermined and those criticizing the Government were labeled anti-National. Many intellectuals have been labeled Urban Naxals and are in jails. The attack on JNUSU (Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union), the Hyderabad University episode leading to Rohith Vemula and the banning of Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras, came as the repressive policy of the Government which overall added to the stifling of atmosphere. BBC report calls India as partly free, “Since 2014, it says, increased pressure on human rights organizations, intimidation of journalists and activists, and a spate of attacks, especially those against Muslims, had led to a deterioration of political and civil liberties in the country.” (14)

It is in this backdrop that ‘Bharat Jodo: Nafrat Chhodo’ (Unite India: Leave Hate) was conceptualized.

Bharat Jodo:

The yatra (Pilgrimage) began on from Kanyakumari. Its route passed through 12 states and two union territories to culminate in Srinagar on 30th January, Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom day. It got huge response right from the word go. It kept its slogan of unity of India. Rahul Gandhi (RG) is the central figure. The issues it raised through slogans, songs and regular press conferences were related to the issues of livelihood, rising prices, growing unemployment, the rising hate against minorities and the atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

In addition to the efforts of the Indian National Congress, many civil society groups also came forward in this endeavor. Yogendra Yadav, form Swaraj India played major role in getting the civil society groups for associating, and articulating their own concerns as well. Neatly summing up the need for this yatra, He summarized the backdrop of such a need, “Never before have the values of our Republic faced as heinous an assault as they have in the recent past. Never before have hate, division and exclusion unleashed on us with such impunity. Never before have we seen a regime so callous to the plight of the people while the economy lies in ruins, propped up only by a few favored cronies. Never before have had the real nation-builders — an overwhelming majority of the farmers and workers, Dalits and Adivasis — faced such effective exclusion in the shaping of the nation’s future.” (15)

As such Yatra has a spiritual connotation in India. It is a spiritual journey. The most significant Yatra one remembers was the Dandi March of Mahatma Gandhi, which roused the conscience of the nation against British injustice. After 1933 Gandhi undertook many yatras to eradicate untouchability, which had profound effect on the psyche of the nation in eradicating untouchability.

It is getting such a response yatra is on foot, unlike the Toyota Converted into chariot. In this people come to join and mix with the yatra and share their issues with RG, who is all ears for them, "If I had undertaken this yatra in a BMW, the people you see here would not have come. They have joined because I am walking on the road, meeting them, and listening to them.” (16) His tee shirt has also become a matter of great discussion along with his tireless journey, he says, "They [media persons] keep asking me how I do not feel cold. But they do not ask the farmer, the worker, poor children, this question…I have walked 2,800 km, but I believe that is not a big deal. Farmers walk so much every day; as do farm laborers, factory workers – all of India, in fact.” (17)

Love and compassion of the tradition of Buddha and Gandhi are the core concerns and message. Through the politics of Hate the divisive forces have brought country to a pass where the weaker section is feeling insecure and marginalized. It is in this context that RG said, ‘Maine Nafarat Ke Bazar mein Mohabbat ki Dukan Kholi hai’ (I have opened the shop puff love in the Market of Hate)

Interestingly while Congress and national flags are there, one can see diverse expression in this journey. The type of people associating are from all walks of life, sharing their plight and coming out with their problems and ideas to the one who is regarding this as a learning process for him. Surely those who are travelling are getting a real feel of what India is all about and what type of travails it is suffering from last decade or so. Many accounts of Yatra tell us the receptive nature of RG who behaves more like an empathetic friend rather than a politician with inflated ego.

This journey is the most significant movement which has happened in India. On one hand one can see the yearning of the vast section to be heard on the other there are social groups keenly following it to imbibe nature of issues which are dogging the nation. Apart from RG the civil society groups are looking up and associating to ensure that this learning will help them to enhance the struggle for rights of the people. It is clear as on one side RG/Congress have initiated the yatra, on the other different sections of society had been looking for a move where they could express their pain and anguish, where they could articulate their suffering. Parallel to this there are programs to start other local programs and also other yatras in different parts of the country. So the first goal of yatra to create a churning in the society seems to be within striking distance, that it cannot be the endpoint.

Challenges to Yatra

While there was a criticism against the Yatra, that Congress party which is initiating this process needs to unite itself, and that it will be a flop. It is not a flop in the first instance, but the question remains whether it can make the Congress stronger remains.

Noted critics like Suhas Palshikar have from an empathetic angle raised other issues, which need a deeper introspection. Suhash Palshikar in his article in Indian Express (Jan 14, 2023) writes, "But on both counts — the rejuvenation of the party and the rediscovery of our democratic national self — the Bharat Jodo Yatra seems to be underperforming in comparison to its stated ambition. It is understandable that in view of the participation of many non-Congress groups, it does not want to over-emphasise the objective of Congress rejuvenation.” (18)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta makes a very pertinent observation about this Yatra (Indian Express ‘A Journey in Search of Destination’, December 24, 2022) “It was to give a glimpse of an alternative style of politics: A politics of decency, comfortable with listening, refreshingly bereft of the orgies of hate that define public discourse. The Yatra embodied love and national unity. Doubtless, it created that effervescence for those who participated.” (19)

Responding to these valid observations and comments, Yogendra Yadav, who is not only participating in the Yatra as a yatri, observes “Indeed, its destination must go beyond Srinagar — to the mind and heart of every Indian. These mid-term assessments must be seen as guides to action, as lighthouses. A yatri would do well to heed Palshikar’s call to expand the “geographical, political, and intellectual scope” of the yatra. Or address Mehta’s three tests — creating a new ideological vision, gaining political momentum, and becoming the fulcrum of opposition unity.” (20)

The Likely Fallout

Though yatra is completing on 30th January, the future programs have not been outline concretely yet. A glimpse of Rahul Gandhi’s letter as the Yatra is coming to a close (30th January) is very indicative of future prospects. The letter in a way sums up what he observed and what are the needs for future, "The people of our country realize that we cannot reach our full potential unless we embrace our diversity and work shoulder to shoulder. I strongly believe that India will reject hatred. We will rise above caste, religion, language, gender, and all other differences that cause rifts in society. Our greatness lies in our ‘Unity in Diversity’. My message to each one of you - Daro Mat! (Don’t be scared), Remove fear from your hearts and hatred will vanish from within you," (21) He also warns of the economic difficulties and unemployment which the country is facing.

The impact on the communal scenario can be partly glanced from an article of Yogendra Yadav. “I also can vouch with my little participation in the yatra, that it may be the beginning of the process of combating hate and promoting amity.” (22) Yadav feels that wherever the message of Yatra has reached it has de-escalated the communal tensions. He sums up his observations and hypothesis by saying “Rahul Gandhi’s forthright position against the politics of hate, a refreshing change from the equivocation or strategic silence by most mainstream political leaders of the opposition, has suddenly made it acceptable to speak about love. Statements like “Main nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan kholne aaya hoon (I have to come to open a counter of love in the bazaar of hatred)” have a longer shelf life than we imagine.” (23)

It is likely that as the atmosphere of hate declines the fear and intimidation of minorities will come down. The expressions of people’s concern may come out more boldly. The Congress as electoral machine may be able to put its house in order. At the same time other non-BJP political parties may see more ray of hope in the possibility of a coalition at center which can come up as a defense of pluralism of India, of bringing back the country to the path which we embarked with hope and longing on 15th August 1947. It may pave the path of taking our Constitution more seriously, to follow this path more sincerely in future.

Summing up

Zoya Hasan, the renowned social scientist correctly sums up the yatra, “BJY has raised three big issues – economic inequality, social polarization, and authoritarian politics. These issues have been raised every day during Rahul Gandhi’s interactions while walking, in his press conferences, in meetings with special collectives of people, in speeches, and in rallies.” (24)

On similar lines S.N.Sahu, Apoorvanand in Janata Weekly. 15th January 2023 (‘Issues Raised by Dandi March Resonate in Bharat Jodo Yatra’) “The import of BJY is better comprehended by locating it in the historical backdrop of Dandi March, the significance of which endures beyond time and space. It was on the 91st anniversary of Dandi March on March 12, 2022, that Prime Minister Modi started the national celebrations of the 75th anniversary of our Independence, Aazadi Ka Amrit Mahotasav. It is equally significant that during the Aazadi Ka Amrit Mahotasav, the BJY began from Kanyakumari to unify India by taking head-on the forces of hatred and engaging in an ideological struggle with them.” (25)

Whether the yatra can pull the country from the dark tunnel of material deprivations and attacks on the diverse culture of India, only time will tell but what it has demonstrated that it a phenomenal beginning and it has great potential to change to a culture of Hate to a culture of love and amity.

Books References

i. Ram Chandra Guha, ‘India after Gandhi’, p. 435, Picador, Delhi 2007

ii. Anand Vardhan Singh, page 222, Hey Ram to jai Shree Ram, Anamika, Delhi 2022

iii. Mahtab Alam, ‘As Liberhan Commission saw it’ page 132, in Justice Demolished (Editor Ram Puniyani) Media House Delhi, 2021

iv. Charu Gupta, Hindu Women Muslim Men, Love Jihad and Conversions, EPW, December 19, 2009, page 13

Internet References: Foot Notes

1. (Last accessed on 11Jan 2023)

























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