After placing India under an authoritarian Emergency regime in 1975, Indira Gandhi’s Congress threw an estimated 1.4 lakh people in jail. Dileep Singh, then in his early 30s, was one of them. He was imprisoned for 19 months.
In 2022, Dileep is walking with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a campaign by Rahul Gandhi’s Congress to, in the grand old party’s words, “unite the country against hatred”. The yatra, which began on September 7 in Kanyakumari, will traverse the 3,500-km length of the country and culminate in Kashmir in January. Along the way, Congress leaders, workers and supporters will join it. Alongside them are also people such as Dileep, who aren’t with the Congress as such and, in fact, have had their reservations about the party, and in some cases still do, but are joining the yatra nonetheless.
In Maharashtra, the western state where the yatra is now, Newslaundry caught up with about a dozen such people to understand their reasons and motivations for being on the road.
“If the forest catches on fire, it is alright if nothing remains in the end. What matters is whether or not you did anything to save it,” said Dileep. “Today, we live in a more dangerous time than during the Emergency. Our institutions are being destroyed and this is a fight to save them. I’m not here for myself, I am here for my granddaughter, great granddaughter.”
Dileep said if the Congress behaved similarly to the BJP after coming to power, then he would not hesitate to stand against them. For “it is not about the party, but the country”. “I told my friends that they owe me. I fought in 1975-77 and saved this country. Now it’s on them to save it. It’s their moral responsibility.”
Like Dileep, most of the non-Congress yatris said they had come out for their children and their grandchildren. Some were “disillusioned by the Narendra Modi government’s treatment of farmers and minorities” and a few were tired of fighting with relatives on Whatsapp groups and wanted to meet like-minded people. And for some it was simply about “choosing the lesser devil”.
‘Only national party that can make a difference’
Darshan Mondkar, a businessman from Pune, said he was grappling with an “internal tussle” between his socialist side and his capitalist side. “I am a businessman, so honestly Modi has been good to me. It’s the back of the unorganised sector that he is breaking,” he said. “But the targeting of minorities and women and communalisation of issues is what bothers me.”
Darshan said he was far from being a Congressman and, in fact, a lot of the party’s people didn’t like him when he criticised them. “But the Congress seems like the only national party which can make a difference right now. And for the first time in our lifetime, after Mahatma Gandhi, someone is walking across the country,” said Darshan, meaning Rahul Gandhi. “I have two sons. When they grow up and ask me what I was doing when all this was happening, I don't want to tell them I was sitting home watching TV.”
The Congress, on its part, has been proactive in inviting people from outside its fold, and especially the civil society, to join the yatra. Any person affiliated with a civil or community initiative can email to express their desire to join the yatra, after which Congress workers ask them for more details and make arrangements to join in. For those not associated with any civil or community initiative but want to walk the yatra, they can track where the yatra is and join.
Currently, about 50 people from the civil society are walking the entire stretch from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. In Maharashtra the Congress had made arrangements for 50 such people to join, but the organisers said around 375 people expressed their interest to participate.
The yatris either sleep at the camp, which moves almost daily, or arrange for their own accommodation. Some come for just the day.
Rama Saptarshi, 68, and her husband Praveen Saptarshi, 73, are from a civil society group in Pune called Yuva Kranti Dal and joined the rally in Nanded. “We are big followers of Mahatma Gandhi,” said Rama, smiling. Her husband said they joined because the principles of Yuva Kranti Dal matched Rahul Gandhi’s.
“Rahul Gandhi is questioning Modi, his supporters, and supporters of fascism which we are deadly against,” said Praveen. “But if he ceases to talk like this, we will be against him too. We are free. The response to this yatra indiciates that it will remove the fear that the people have of the government, of going to jail, of mob lynching and things like ‘goli maro’.”
Rama and Praveen Saptarshi.
‘Rahul forgiving his father’s killers’
There are many reasons for wanting to stand with a politician. For Savita Kulkarni, 60, Rahul Gandhi’s capacity to forgive was a strong reason that drew her to the yatra. She recalls reading about a conversation between Rahul Gandhi and Kavita Lankesh, the sister of the slain journalist Gauri Lankesh, when they walked together in Karnataka last month.
He asked Kavita if she forgave her sister’s killers. She said she hadn't. He spoke about how he had forgavin his father’s killers, and the peace that followed. “He seems to be different as an individual. We are used to leaders that talk loudly and aggressively, so maybe India will take some time to get used to his style of politics, to understand that this, too, is a way of leading. Of course, if with all this he can’t govern well, he will be held accountable,” she said.
Savita, who has spent years working in the social and rural development sector, was a big supporter of the India Against Corruption movement in 2011.
“I was never a Congress supporter and, traditionally, we NGO people have fought with them all these years, but I also think that they are a party you can criticise and have a dialogue with. Right now there is no dialogue with the government, which is important to have in a democracy,” she argued. “Some of us know we are making compromises. But if the Congress goes wrong in two years, we will come out against them as well. But at least we won’t feel guilty that when Rahul Gandhi was trying to do something, we didn't support.”
Her family wasn't pleased when she told them she was joining the yatra. She wondered why since they hadn’t said anything when she had joined the India Against Corruption movement, which propelled Arvind Kejriwal to power, a decade ago.
“I sometimes feel very odd that most of my friends and family do not see anything wrong with what is happening. Instead, they try to justify things and try to convince me. Sometimes I keep quiet with my family and relatives because I know there’s no point spoiling our relationships over a third person,” she said. “This yatra is also an opportunity to be around people who are trying to do something.”
‘People need to connect with each other’
Holding back one’s political views on family WhatsApp groups is one thing, but being censored in the public is another. Niranjan Takle, the journalist whose reporting on the death of judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya kicked up a political storm, is among the non-Congress people who have joined the yatra in Maharashtra. He was working at the Week when he reported the story but had to leave over the magazine’s refusal to run the story, which was later published in the Caravan.
“I was hounded. I had done several stories before 2014 as well but no one hounded me like this. The fact that colleagues in the journalism fraternity weren’t supportive either shows how bad the situation has become,” said Takle, also speaking about the backlash that he had received for a report he ran in the Week about the Hindutva ideologue Vinyak Savarkar. “I have been witnessing for seven-eight years people are scared to talk about the government, that fear has to go away. This yatra can contribute to that to a large extent.”
Like Savita, Tackle said he believed that the yatra was also important for connecting people. “The party needs to connect with people, that is its political motive, but even more than that, people need to connect with each other instead of being against each other,” said Takle, who got the chance to walk with Rahul Gandhi later that day.
‘Walking for hope’
Anwar Rajan, 67, was once staunchly against the Congress. He was jailed during the Emergency for so long – about 15 months – that he appeared for seven college exams over two academic years from inside prison.
“I do not think I did anything wrong then. It was important to get up and fight at the time. Eventually, the Congress realised its mistakes and took steps to change,” he said. “But if it was Emergency then, it is an undeclared Emergency now. There is fear and unrest in civil society again now. The hope that was in the people has been broken. This yatra is an opportunity to get that back. Given the current state of politics, ‘Bharat Jodo’ and ‘Naftat Todo’ are the most important slogans.”
Rajan said all these years there was no leader in the Congress who could visibly fight over these matters, but the Bharat Jodo Yatra was changing that, slowly.
“The BJP government runs on hate – hate of Muslims, hate of Christians, of Dalits. The last not through words but actions. We are watching hope slowly come back through Rahul Gandhi and this yatra. That’s why we have come back despite having opposed the Congress for so long. For hope,” he said.
‘We need the Congress more than they need us’
As Sushila Morale, a farmer leader from Beed, sat in a crowd waiting for Rahul Gandhi’s arrival, she spoke about the issues she’d want to discuss with him if given the chance: the plight of farmers and increasing farmer suicides in Maharashtra, especially Marathwada.
“As a responsible citizen, it is a crime to remain silent in times like this. It feels that more than the Congress needing us, we need the Congress,” she said. “They are the only remaining political party on a national level. The only party that can put up a fight against the BJP. So it needs to be saved.”
Asked about the Congress’s track record in dealing with farmer issues in the region, Sushila, who is with the civil society group Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti, said no matter what the conditions were, they were never as bad as they are now.
“Now, even women farmers are committing suicide in Maratwada at an alarming rate,” he said. “This has never happened before. Farmers have made this country with their hard work. We will tell Rahul Gandhi to make a proper plan about how the party will improve things in Marathwada,” she said. “The Congress set up the railways, IITs, Air India, and so much more. The BJP, on the other hand, is selling everything. If someone is stealing our country’s heritage, we can’t stay silent and let it happen.”
Sushila is 72, but is determined to walk the entire stretch of the yatra. Why? She tells the story of a Martin Luther King march in the United States. A 96-year-old woman was walking in the march, a passing car offered to drop her to the other end but she refused. When asked why and what her walking would achieve anyway, she said the march wouldn't make much difference in her lifetime, but it would for her grandchildren.
“My reasons are the same,” Sushila said, beaming. “I am walking for our coming generations.”
Pictures by Tanishka Sodhi.