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Opposite of Advani’s Yatra, Bharat Jodo Must Memorialise Harmony

Ajaz Ashraf |
The grand idea of a cross-country journey needs a participatory and performative conclusion; a permanent study in contrast to Hindutva.
Opposite of Advani’s Yatra, Bharat Jodo Must Memorialise Harmony

Image Courtesy: The quint

The significance of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is better grasped when compared with the Rath Yatra of Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani, who embarked upon it in September 1990. Advani’s journey inaugurated an era of hatred and bigotry, with its periodic ebbs and tides for over three decades—and continues to rise to alarming heights during the ongoing tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is the antithesis of the 1990 Rath Yatra. The Congress defines Gandhi’s walkathon as “aimed at highlighting social polarisation, economic inequalities and political centralisation.” Social polarisation was what Advani triggered, making prejudices respectable, hatred acceptable and violence inevitable.

As large crowds gather to greet and cheer Gandhi, it is still too early to tell whether a new era of social harmony has been inaugurated. For that to happen, it is necessary for the Congress to give the abstract ideas informing Gandhi’s yatra a tangible, relatable shape, in much the same way as the hope of building a Ram temple, now under construction in Ayodhya, made Advani’s 1990 peregrination historic.

It is possible to speculate upon the kind of tangible, enduring shape the Bharat Jodo Yatra can be given by comparing Advani’s yatra with Gandhi’s. This speculation presumes that Gandhi’s endeavour is not just a mechanism to gather votes, an impression conveyed by his decision to march for as many as 18 days in Kerala, where the Left has been the bulwark against hate. By contrast, he is scheduled to spend just two days in Uttar Pradesh, which requires an army of volunteers to combat bigotry. And Gandhi’s route skirts Gujarat, the original Hindutva laboratory, where the elections are due in December.

Context of Advani’s Yatra

Advani was spurred to go on his yatra because of the VP Singh government’s decision to introduce, in August 1990, 27% reservation for the Other Backward Classes in government jobs. For the BJP, the political affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the OBC reservation threatened their decades-old project of papering over the caste divide among the Hindus to unite them. The idea underlying this project was about insulating the hegemony of the upper castes from subaltern challenges.

It was to dissipate the pressure from the OBCs that Advani’s yatra was conceived. Its goal was to mobilise the Hindus to mount pressure on the VP Singh government to hand over to them the Babri masjid, claimed to have been built by a general of the Mughal emperor Babur after destroying an ancient temple that ostensibly stood at the spot where Ram was born. In case its demand was not accepted, the BJP said it would withdraw its support from the Singh government—and trigger its collapse. The minority Singh government depended on the Left and the BJP’s support for survival.

Advani’s yatra commenced on 25 September 1990 from the Somnath temple, which Mahmud of Ghazni had raided several times in the 11th century. It was rebuilt in the years following Independence. After traversing several states, Advani’s yatra was to enter Ayodhya on 30 October, the day thousands of Sangh cadres were scheduled to storm the Babri masjid. By linking Somnath to Ayodhya, Advani foregrounded the alleged depredation of Muslim rulers in the past and the supposed intransigence of today’s Muslims.

Othering Muslims

Religion and politics were entwined. A Toyota was turned into a makeshift chariot, an imagined replica from the epics. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot writes in his paper, “The Hindu Nationalist Reinterpretation of Pilgrimage in India: The Limits of Yatra Politics” that Advani’s rath was escorted by “activists dressed as Hanuman…and women performing the dances of the gopis…all of this taking place in a highly charged atmosphere amid religious songs and slogans chanted in unison”.

Mixed with religious slogans were speeches demonising Muslims. Their crimes were said to be double-fold—Muslim rulers not only demolished temples centuries ago, their descendants were being contemptuous of Hindu sentiments by not voluntarily handing over the Babri masjid to build a grand temple for Ram. Militarism brimmed over. Jaffrelot cites a few examples—of a young man who used his blood to put a tilak on Advani’s forehead; of a Rajkot village presenting Advani with a jar full of their blood as a “sign of sacrifice to the Cause”.

Advani’s yatra carved out a trail of blood and devastation as it roared into the Hindi heartland. After securing permission from VP Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, then Bihar Chief Minister, arrested Advani in Samastipur, Bihar, on 23 October. But the politics of polarisation, anchored in hatred, was there to stay. The Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992; Christians were battered during the prime ministerial tenure of AB Vajpayee; Gujarat witnessed a pogrom against Muslims, in 2002, under Modi’s chief ministership.

In the last eight years of Modi sweeping into power at the Centre, the lynching of Muslims, passing discriminatory laws against them, bulldozing their houses to punish them without trial, and normalising hate are not rare occurrences. The othering of Muslims is just one of the BJP’s tools to unite the Hindus. Even as the BJP woos Dalits and OBCs, it has launched a vicious campaign against their leaders for being pro-Muslim and favouring, when in power, only those castes to which they belong. The Centre has used its hold over central agencies, such as the Enforcement Directorate, to raid and portray them as corrupt.

Contrasting Ideas and Styles

The India of 2022 is no longer the India of the decades before 1990. The idea of composite nationalism, conceived during the national movement and articulated in the Constitution, has been put under tremendous stress by the RSS and its affiliates pursuing the politics of hate and bigotry, against which the Bharat Jodo Yatra self-avowedly aims to mobilise people. In other words, Gandhi’s yatra seeks to alter and redefine the political culture inaugurated by Advani.

Their methods of mobilisation are a study in contrast. Gandhi is walking down the roads, tapping into the memories of what yatras, which have an inherent Hindu religious symbolism, were before modern means of communication. It is unhurried and reflective, in sharp contrast to Advani’s. It foregrounds a pacifist version of Hinduism. The Bharat Jodo Yatra neither confronts the State nor violates the laws, as Advani’s did in 1991.

Much of the national media has blanked out the Bharat Jodo Yatra or relegated the coverage to a few paragraphs on inside pages. We cannot tell whether it is on account of their ideological inclination or whether their disinterest springs from Gandhi’s yatra lacking the drama of conflict. Or whether they do not wish to displease the BJP government. The live streaming of Gandhi’s yatra on the Bharat Jodo Yatra website compensates—but just about.

Memorialising the Yatra

Independent media helps disseminate ideas. Their disinterest in the Bharat Jodo Yatra implies its values will have a limited spread. And, anyway, it is unlikely one yatra will win the battle for the idea of India or wean people away from the politics of polarisation, which took three decades after Advani’s journey, to act upon the hatred and bigotry inculcated in them.

And so, the question: Will Gandhi and his fellow yatris, on reaching Srinagar, take the first flight back home? The values of the Bharat Jodo Yatra require to be perpetuated beyond the duration it lasts. These values need to be memorialised and have people express them through their actions.

An example of this recently surfaced in Badanavalu, a village in Mysuru district, Karnataka, where a path with colourful tiles was laid out connecting the separate quarters of Dalits and Lingayats. Thirty years ago, the Lingayats banned the entry of Dalits into a temple, and the ensuing skirmish led to the killing of three Dalits. Twenty Lingayats were arrested and convicted. Taking its inspiration from Gandhi’s yatra, the villagers, including those who were convicted and now out of prison, decided to build the path, now named Bharat Jodo. An Indian Express story said Gandhi himself laid out some tiles.

The Badanavalu example needs to be scaled up at an all-India level. For instance, the Congress should seek donations from people to buy a plot of land—in Delhi, Ayodhya, Varanasi or wherever—to build a wall or a pillar or a museum-like structure. It should ask them to send symbols representing their linguistic, religious and caste identities. It should have photos of leaders who played a role in enriching the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, and also of those who harnessed technological breakthroughs for the benefit of people, as, for instance, in ushering in the Green Revolution. Perhaps it should have names of victims who fell to the politics of hate.

Ultimately, this structure should represent the mosaic of India, its togetherness that is deliberately being unravelled daily. It is through such performative acts that the Bharat Jodo Yatra will create its legacy and inspire people to inaugurate a new era of social harmony.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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