Bharat Jodo Yatra: An Ongoing Mission
To reconnect Indians—to each other and the idea of a pluralist nation that doesn’t ‘other’ any community
Shahnawaz Alam from Uttar Pradesh, who has walked with the Bharat Jodo Yatra through several states, came up with an interesting, if not significant, observation: in Maharashtra local organisers insisted that Rahul Gandhi visit memorials of social reformers like Anna Bhau Sathe, Mahatma Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar besides Shivaji Maharaj. But in Karnataka there were requests that he visit temples.
Maharashtra has certainly been a land of social change, but often the reformers had to face opposition from local Congress units and the government. Sooner or later, however, the Congress welcomed and even embraced the reforms. Indeed, several Congress leaders and workers were associated with these reform movements in the state. Both before and after independence, Congress has frequently been at the vanguard of social change. But is the party willing and ready to own the legacy is a question being asked by the people who believe the Bharat Jodo Yatra is the need of the hour. They also feel that electoral benefits to the party will at best be limited.
Even while walking through the southern states, Rahul Gandhi visited memorials of K. Kamaraj, Thiru Valluvar, Vivekananda, Periyar and Sree Narayana Guru. The Congress that Rahul Gandhi represents made K. Kamaraj the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and also the president of the Congress. Kamaraj came from the backward ‘Nadar’ caste. Welfare schemes initiated by Kamaraj facilitated the education of children from poor, Dalit and backward families in the state. His contributions for marginalised sections are unhesitatingly recognised and recalled by even non-Congress leaders of the state. “Had Kamaraj’s mid-day meal scheme not been there, I would never have been able to study,” says CPI general secretary D. Raja.
The Congress took initiatives to usher in gradual changes in society and politics, both before and after independence. This has been the legacy of the Congress party for long. Supporters and critics of the Bharat Jodo Yatra alike are waiting to see if the Yatra and indeed Rahul Gandhi himself are able to connect with this legacy and claim it as their own.
It is worth recalling that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had failed to get the Hindu Code Bill, introduced by Babasaheb Ambedkar, passed by Parliament. The bill was fiercely opposed by the rabid Hindu organisations as well as the conservative right-wing elements inside the party. He then introduced three different bills and steered them.
Ambedkar was close to Nehru within the Congress, but he also had differences with him. This was largely because Nehru carried on his shoulder all the responsibility for the successes and the failures as the leader of the government and the party. He had to reconcile conflicting interests and take leaders and the people along. That explains their relationship, which some historians see as fluctuating between adoration and exasperation. But both leaders had confidence in each other’s sincerity and ability to build an equitable India.
The success and importance of the Bharat Jodo Yatra can be explained because of the long history of the party and its front organisations which were politically active and almost always committed to an inclusive polity, equality and social change. The Bharat Jodo Yatra can therefore be seen as a continuation of the journey to forge and foster brotherhood. It needs, however, to take an extra stride and reclaim the legacy of great Bahujan-Dalit leaders and reformers. This will be an important step forward to make Indian society truly secular.
Alam came up with yet another insight that is not common in popular discourse. In Maharashtra and elsewhere, he suggested, the image of Shivaji has been built by the RSS as a great crusader against Muslim rulers. That is the image of him which persists among the Muslims as well, he pointed out.
In contrast, Bahujan and Dalit narratives of Shivaji present him as a secular king and a peasant leader. Not only did Mahatma Phule in the 19th century write about Shivaji disabusing the popular myths about him, but more recently even rationalist thinker Narendra Dabholkar, assassinated by militant Hindu extremists, also placed Shivaji in a historical perspective that is sharply at variance with the RSS narrative. This alternative narrative, he says, is what needs to be propagated among the people.
Another marginalised and oppressed section that has responded positively to the Bharat Jodo Yatra are the women. Images coming out of the Yatra of women hugging Rahul Gandhi, walking in a sea of men without any obvious sense of insecurity and women recalling how they felt at ease in sharing their thoughts with the Yatris have created a positive impression of the Yatra among women in other states.
The Yatra has reaffirmed the place of women in politics. It is another landmark in feminisation of politics, first achieved by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. More action is now required to cement the gains made by the Yatra among women.
The minders and managers of the Bharat Jodo Yatra need to connect Rahul Gandhi with contemporary thinkers, writers and reformers who believe in the Bahujan ideas and ideology. With the RSS having successfully seeded its regressive and communal ideas among Dalits and downtrodden communities, a massive and all-out effort will be needed to make these communities shed the toxicity; or else the gains of the Yatra can easily be frittered away.
The two Congress chief ministers of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are from the OBC communities. The party can justifiably claim to have ensured political representation to the socially and economically backward groups. Chhattisgarh government has also come up with a bill to give suitable reservation to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBC communities. Not surprisingly, the Governor has not given the assent or returned the file.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge is also a Dalit. The party ought to take this opportunity to aggressively reach out to Dalit communities in the country. For this outreach too, the new party president is required to connect with Dalit-OBC intellectuals to firm up the future course of action.
The impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is evident. Its arrival in north India coincided with several members of the Sangh Parivar praising Rahul Gandhi and the Yatra. This may, however, be a strategic move to sabotage or dilute its impact. The Congress needs to be aware of such attempts being made and those that will be made in the coming weeks to undermine the gains of the Yatra. But as long as the party remains true to its legacy, it can hope to overcome the challenges.
Sanjeev Chandan, the writer is editor of Streekaal, Wardha. Views are personal