As Bharat Jodo Yatra Draws to Close, a Day of Rare Bonhomie for Srinagar

In a land without an elected government since 2018, several had come to witness the Congress's march. The security cordon, however, was thick. A youngster's sketch of Rahul Gandhi smashed and broke. Some grumbled about not catching a glimpse of the leaders.

Srinagar: Farooq Ahmad and his 12-year-old son left their home with a purpose on this cold January morning. “I haven’t come to see Rahul Gandhi. One can see him on TV. I am here because I want to show my support for him. Unlike most politicians who are tainted, he is a good man,” he said.

As a crowd of men, women, young, elderly and even children, started to swell at Pandrethan locality on the cold Sunday morning of January 29, the final day of the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY), Farooq, a driver, believes that the anger against the BJP is pulling out people from their homes, despite severe cold.

“The BJP government had promised to change Kashmir. But inflation and unemployment are at a record high. Where are the one lakh jobs promised to Kashmir? Instead, a liquor shop was recently opened in the neighbourhood that will destroy our younger generation. It is because of this that people are coming out to watch the rally,” Farooq told The Wire.

Local residents gathered in Srinagar to watch the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Photo: Jehangir Ali

The grievances of Farooq could well find resonance in many parts of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been without an elected political dispensation since 2018 when the BJP toppled the coalition government headed by Mehbooba Mufti. The Bharat Jodo Yatra, which culminated in Srinagar, seems to have opened a tiny door for many people to escape the prevailing political uncertainty and vent their anger and frustration.

Security forces demarcate the area for the march. Photo: Jehangir Ali

“The people of Kashmir have not complained so much since independence in 1947 as we have done in the last more than three years (after Article 370 was read down). We were silenced by fear but this yatra has shown that fear can be overcome and the BJP is not invincible,” said Ghulam Mohammad, 70, who had come from Beerwah to join the yatra.

A supporter of the Peoples Democratic Party headed by Mehbooba Mufti, Mohammad, a farmer, is troubled by the prospects of his small orchard being taken away.

Women PDP workers singing songs on the Gandhi siblings. Photo: Jehangir Ali

The J&K administration recently launched an anti-encroachment drive and so far, three former J&K ministers have been targeted. While the opposition alleges that the drive is being used for settling political scores and the administration has denied any wrongdoing, Farooq hopes that the yatra will trigger a change of course on Kashmir’s political landscape.

“People are fed up with these new rules and policies. We have been living here for centuries. Why are you evicting us now? Instead of providing jobs, the government is threatening to make us landless. I have nothing personal against anyone but Kashmir has only suffered since the BJP came to power. This rally will definitely damage the BJP’s fortunes in next elections,” he said.

“If Rahul Gandhi comes to power, all our problems will be solved,” Mohammad added.

Before the final procession of Bharat Jodo Yatra to Lal Chowk started on Sunday morning, hundreds of political workers from different parts of Kashmir swarmed around a bus stand in Pantha Chowk, on the outskirts of Srinagar, which was used by the BJY organisers as the final base for the container trucks accompanying the yatra amid tight security arrangements.

On the main road outside the bus stand, hundreds of security personnel, armed with batons and automatic rifles, made a large rectangular cordon using a rope for the safety of Congress leaders, while their seniors paced up and down the rectangle to check for any deficiencies. Although civilians were allowed to watch or walk with the yatra outside the perimeter of the rope, normal traffic was banned, causing great inconvenience to many commuters.

Along the one-and-half kilometre length of the procession, pockets of enthusiastic workers of National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who have extended their support to the yatra, spiced up the celebratory mood by dancing to and singing songs about Rahul Gandhi and his sister.

Soun chukha bahadouro, kariyo goor-e-gooro (‘You are our brave heart, let us sing a lullaby for you’),” crooned a woman clapping her hands as dozens more in a circle around her sang in chorus.

Aaya aaya, kaun aaya (‘He’s come, he’s come. Who’s come?’),” shouted a youngster, to which others around him replied in a thunderous roar: “Sher aaya, sher aaya (‘The lion has come, the lion has come’).”

In a sea of security personnel, the Gandhi siblings walked briskly, waving back at the crowds lined along the nine-kilometre route to Lal Chowk. At many places, the fast pacing Gandhis and the narrowness of the road gave a tough time to the yatra supporters and even the security personnel, some of whom were sweating heavily, despite single-digit temperatures.

A Rahul Gandhi cutout in Srinagar. Photo: Jehangir Ali

Locals had come out of their homes to see the Gandhis but many were visibly disappointed. One woman at Batwara complained angrily that she wanted to shake hands with the Congress leaders but was not allowed by security personnel. A sad youngster had brought a framed, handmade sketch of Rahul Gandhi but it slipped from someone’s hands and crashed on the road before it could reach the Congress leader.

To prevent a repeat of Friday’s alleged security lapse, a multi-layer security cover was thrown along the route which culminated at Lal Chowk, besides the historic clock tower. Over the years, the clock tower has turned into a symbolic platform of contesting political narratives on Kashmir. Rahul Gandhi was not the one to be left behind.

The Congress had earlier said that Rahul will hoist the tricolour at the party headquarters in Lal Chowk. However, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh told media that the J&K administration hadn’t permitted flag hoisting ceremony anywhere except the party headquarters and had only greenlit today’s Lal Chowk ceremony “last evening”.

After a brief pause, Rahul Gandhi unfurled the national flag beside the Clock Tower, instead of atop it, as has been the tradition, in the presence of Priyanka, senior Congress leader K.C. Venugopal, J&K Congress president Vikar Rasool and other party functionaries.

Addressing the media in Srinagar, Rahul said that the BJY received a great response in the country which showed the “resilience and strength” of people of India. “We also got to hear about the issues being faced by farmers, and unemployed youth in the country,” he said.

Although the Congress has said that the yatra was not aimed at making any political alliances in Jammu and Kashmir, where the long overdue elections are likely to be held this year, Rahul Gandhi kept the option open. “Opposition parties may have their differences but they will always stand together against the RSS and the BJP,” he said.

In a tweet, the Congress leader said that “a promise” made to the people of India has been fulfilled with the culmination of the yatra. “Hate will lose, love will always win. There will be a new dawn of hopes in India,” Gandhi tweeted.