Two ‘padayatras’ and a ‘rath yatra’ that pale before the Bharat Jodo Yatra

LK Advani’s ‘rath’ was a converted Toyota with a fridge sofa and chairs in an airconditioned cabin. He and his companions, among them Narendra Modi, would retire at night to five-star hotels

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi continues with his Bharat Jodo yatra in Kerala, on Sept 11, 2022
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi continues with his Bharat Jodo yatra in Kerala, on Sept 11, 2022
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Sujata Anandan

It is not easy to walk across India; the uneven and dusty roads, the soggy fields and wet, muddy terrain, no facilities to wash mud-splashed clothes and, worst is the non-availability of clean and functional toilets.

I have first-hand experience of walking with Congress MP Sunil Dutt, who undertook a padayatra from Mumbai to Punjab at the height of militancy. His family had first settled in Yamunagar (Haryana) after Partition and he had an affinity to the region.

Dutt would park himself under trees for lunch and tea breaks and as a Member of Parliament, he could book a room for himself in government guest houses at night. But the rooms would be too few to accommodate the entire entourage and so everybody would bunk down in halls or corridors at night. Whenever rooms were available, women in the team would get them on priority.

I was also picked to cover his next padayatra. Dutt decided to walk from Nagasaki to Hiroshima in Japan in 1988 and this was a trip endorsed by the Rajiv Gandhi government. Rajiv had made a resounding case for nuclear disarmament in the United Nations and later handed Dutt a khadi silk tricolour to hold aloft during the Japan yatra - I was one of the flag bearers, as all of us got our turn to lead the march.

This walk through Japan drew international and media attention and was seen as an important milestone in furthering the peace agenda that Rajiv Gandhi had started. It was a 45-day walk ending in Hiroshima on August 6 to coincide with the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb; walking was easier because the roads were smoother and from 7 am to 11 pm shops were open in both towns and villages, making it easier to procure food. Roadside toilets were also available in plenty, but there were other obstacles alien to us as Indians.

In Japan we simply could not park ourselves under trees to rest or eat lunch or drink our tea. Even if we promised not to litter, we were not given permission by the prefectures (equivalent of our municipal corporations) because gatherings of more than four people anywhere were against the law and looked upon as a potential riot at worst or squatting at best.

Then, again, not more than two of us were allowed to walk side by side on roads. We could not even sit down in a garden for a maun vrat as Dutt had planned in a park in Hiroshima before the atomic dome – a special permission was given for eight hours but not overnight. So, we had to abandon plans to sit in silence for three days until the end of the annual Japanese commemoration at the park.

Japan, we learned, was a very disciplined democracy with no argument entertained by authorities when it came to rules and regulations. But there was also the issue of housing – Dutt did have some funds but it was not enough to put up 15 of us for 45 days even in half-way decent hotels and guest houses.

His team comprised a college professor, a sportsperson, a gentleman farmer, a couple of failed actors and directors, a small entrepreneur or two, besides some of his American and European friends working towards nuclear disarmament. None of us could afford hotels either and since the Japanese authorities did not allow sleeping in the open, it was a major issue until a Buddhist monk came forward to make our sleeping arrangements in his temple.

So, we slept in church halls and temples along the way, using their bath and laundry facilities throughout the padayatra that ended with a two-day stay in a good hotel in Tokyo on our return journey (we returned to the capital by bullet train).

I had this padayatra, fresh in my mind, to compare with when BJP leader LK Advani started off on his rath yatra from Somnath in 1990 and I was assigned to cover its first leg up to Maharashtra.

His rath was a superior air-conditioned converted Toyota vehicle with a very soft, comfortable bed, a refrigerator cooling a lot of food and drinks, sofa chairs, a wardrobe, a small television and everything needed to make Advani's travel comfortable.

LK Advani's air-conditioned converted Toyota 'Rath'
LK Advani's air-conditioned converted Toyota 'Rath'

Pramod Mahajan, the then BJP general secretary close to Advani, had been the advocate of the Toyota vehicle to be converted as a chariot for he felt if Advani walked (like Gandhiji or Sunil Dutt), took a train (like Gandhiji) or even a car of his own from point to point between spots to be covered, his progress would be too slow. He needed something more to mobilise crowds and what better than a converted Toyota?

That rath yatra was the start of the massive communalisation of India and of the agenda of dividing the country on the basis of religion, leaving behind on its route massive riots, clashes and conflict.

Advani would disappear every now and then into his air-conditioned comfort (his yatra also started in September), having lots of chilled aerated waters inside the refrigerator to wash down his thirst every few minutes, stopping at the most luxurious hotels for lunch, dinner, press conferences and a good night's sleep before boarding the rath again after breakfast.

The crowds that the Bharat Jodo Yatra has drawn so far beats the other padayatras. Some people would come out to see a famous hero when Dutt was on his padayatra. Bharat Yatris are sleeping in containers, not in five-star hotels - Advani also could have slept in temples, given his agenda; but he and his charioteers, including Narendra Modi, preferred five-star comfort.

So, I am not surprised that the BJP should be nervous at the message the Bharat Jodo Yatra has been sending out and the response it has been receiving.

I know which I prefer, not just in terms of the means but the end. To unite India or to divide it, like Advani and the BJP did. Give me Bharat Jodo rather than Bharat Todo, any day.

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    Published: 11 Sep 2022, 9:09 PM