Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra Hailed, But Only Polls Will Determine Its Success

(IPS) – When countless supporters of the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party, arrive in Srinagar on January 30 to hoist the Indian flag, they would have walked 3,570 kilometers over 150 days.

The Congress Party organized the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY), a long march to counter what it calls the divisive politics of the ruling party. The exercise was to revive the idea of India as a country united in all its diversity. The BJY is led by senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, 52, who met countless citizens on the way at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not held a single press conference in the last nine years that he has been in power.

Founder and editor of The Citizen Seema Mustafa told the IPS Rahul Gandhi gained by leading the BJY. “He has emerged as a leader of substance with courage and honesty and compassion on display. What the Congress Party has gained will only be known once Congressmen can take it all forward. Other gains and losses will come after that, but for now, the BJY has indeed cut through the prevailing atmosphere of fear and hate,” said Mustafa.

The BJY will culminate in the Himalayan region of Kashmir on January 30 but will it receive the same kind of welcome as it has in the rest of the country, is the question. For nearly half a century, the people of Kashmir have complained of Delhi’s stepmotherly attitude towards them.

Spymaster and former head of India’s Intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), AS Dulat, had a personal invitation to join the BJY. He walked for one hour with Rahul Gandhi, but Dulat did not say whether they talked about the troubled province of Kashmir.

Dulat’s latest book, A Life in the Shadows, is about Kashmir, a place he loves passionately. He was first posted to Kashmir in the late 1980s. As a former Prime Minister’s advisor on Kashmir, he understands the Kashmiri psyche and empathises with the problems in the province. Because he is seen as a problem solver and well-wisher of all the people suffering in Kashmir, including separatists, militants, and Pakistanis, he is called Mr Kashmir.

In the book, he implies that the problem of militancy is no longer about joining Pakistan or seeking independence but resistance to the harsh majoritarian policies of muscular power tactics used against the people of Kashmir by the present government in Delhi.

Dulat told the media that participating in the BJY was a wonderful experience. Gandhi wrote in a letter inviting Dulat to join the march, “We listen to anyone who wants to be heard. We offer no judgment or opinion. We walk to unite every Indian regardless of their gender, caste or religion because we know they are equal citizens. We walk to fight hatred and fear.”

Dulat commented: “I think what this young man is doing is certainly something exceptional… incredible.”’ He doesn’t think that anyone will ever do it again, and nobody is going to walk so many kilometres again.

However, his walk has had its critics – with the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh accusing Gandhi of tarnishing the image of India by creating the impression that only hatred prevails in the country.

The BJY was started last September on the southern tip of the Indian peninsula in Kanyakumari, and it has marched non-stop through 12 provinces. During the march, Gandhi spent time with scores of citizens from different walks of life. After walking about 25 kilometres daily in two shifts, the Congress workers slept in makeshift accommodations at night.

Talking to IPS, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Zoya Hasan, agreed that the march had succeeded. “If crowds are any indicator, the BJY got an enthusiastic response in all the states it traversed. This shows that there is still space in the country for inclusive politics,” Hasan said.

Many see the march as altering the country’s mood. It has brought hope into the lives of citizens who have been feeling increasingly fearful of their future and security. Largely ignored by (mainly pro-government) mainstream media, the BJY has been streaming live on social media. Watching supporters walk thousands of miles and meet hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths mingling, embracing, shaking hands and making friends has reinforced positive ideas of bonhomie and togetherness amongst citizens.

Ever since the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the mood in the nation has been grim. Apart from tackling the never-ending scourge of poverty, the country has had to deal with repeated incidents of public violence.

The BJP has been criticized for being communitarian, and commentators say this, at best, ignores and, at worst, encourages violence by citizens against each other and divides Indian society by religious affiliation.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, in an interview, Sen had told Le Monde, the French daily newspaper, that the Indian government is one of the most appalling in the world because it is communitarian in the narrowest sense of the term. It harms India by attacking Muslims and propagating the idea that Hindus form the nation.

Many consider the BJY march a success as a political protest against the alleged divisive politics of the right-wing ruling party in power.

“I joined the march and walked with Rahul Gandhi not because I am a fan of the Congress Party but because I thought the young man (Rahul Gandhi) has stood up for the right values at the right time, and I support similar values,” filmmaker Saeed Mirza said at the launch of his latest book I Know The Psychology of Rats in Goa recently.

“I believe every Indian who wants love and inclusiveness should be participating in the yatra beyond political identity. Although it is a predominately Congress-organised event, it is not exclusively a Congress event. So every Indian has been welcomed with open arms, and that is how it should be. If political pettiness comes in the way, it will be a self-defeating attitude,” said Tushar Gandhi, who joined the march last November. Tushar is Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, and Rahul Gandhi is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

The Congress Party says the objective of the BJY is to fight against the politics of fear, bigotry and prejudice and the economics of livelihood destruction, increasing unemployment and growing inequalities.

“What the yatra has achieved is way beyond what the sceptics anticipated. They have been proved wrong, and I include myself in the category. A suffocated nation was waiting for some such happening,” wrote journalist Saeed Naqvi.

Hasan adds that the BJY has refurbished the Congress’s credentials as a party of national unity Lifestyleand social cohesion, upholding the values of secularism, the welfare of the masses and their constitutionally granted rights. This marks an important wedge in a hyper-nationalist narrative of the ruling party’s politics.

Hasan said the impact of the BJY was that the ruling party wasn’t setting the narrative but was forced to react to the Congress Party. While only time will tell whether the march will bring electoral gains to the Congress Party in the general elections to be held in 2024, Hasan says: “It is the necessary first step in building a politics of change.” (IPS UN Bureau Report)

Youth Icon’s Fight For Rights Among India’s Destitute

Pooja Shukla, 25, a socialist candidate, has lost her maiden elections to the provincial parliament in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. But Shukla is no loser.

A day after the results were announced on March 10, Shukla was back to a rousing reception in her constituency in North Lucknow to thank her supporters for polling 1,04,527 votes for her.

She was with the people again on March 18 on Holi, the festival of colour held annually to celebrate the end of winter and in anticipation of new beginnings.

Shukla told the IPS that she was hoping to win. Of course, she is disappointed, but electoral defeat would not stop her from continuing her struggle to get economic and social justice for the people of her constituency.

Although Shukla belongs to the upper caste community of Brahmins, she has worked hard to develop a personal connection with a cross-section of those who live in North Lucknow, one of the city’s nine constituencies. Lucknow is the capital of UP, the country’s largest, but economically and socially, it is one of its least developed states. More than 400,000 voters are registered in North Lucknow, nearly half of whom are impoverished women.

The constituency is home to Muslims, upper-caste Hindus and thousands of impoverished people belonging to communities who have been living for decades in makeshift shanties, often on the bank of open drains. Some are daily wage earners, and others are without paid work.

Shukla won hearts because she has knocked on every door in North Lucknow and continues to spend time with citizens.

“I have visited every single home in every single neighbourhood in North Lucknow. I will continue to do so as I really care for members of all communities that reside within my constituency,” Shukla adds.

This first-time contestant had faced Dr Neeraj Bora, a seasoned politician from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing party. Despite the formidable challenge, Shukla was leading on the day the votes were counted. She was ahead before her rival finally defeated her by 33,985 votes until noon.

Out of 403 seats in the UP-state parliament, the socialists won 111 seats. The Samajwadi Party (SP) of socialists came a distant second to BJP’s 255 seats, but the party has emerged as the largest opposition party in UP.

This was a golden opportunity to strengthen democracy by converting the numbers won by the SP into a viable opposition to the ruling party, Shukla believes. A well-meaning, vocal opposition is needed, she says, when the ruling party seems to want to wash its hands of all its social responsibility in favour of outsourcing businesses and privatising even essential services like education, health, and employment opportunities.

“Democratic values strengthen when the opposition to the ruling party is strong,” says Shukla, who believes that elections are held to elect representatives who will provide affordable homes, education, and health facilities to voters.

Shukla feels that socially conscious people don’t have to be Marxists to dream of justice in society. The desire to want to see all citizens cared for fairly and equally by the state is a desire of all decent human beings.

Shukla was the youngest candidate in the polls, nursing a constituency that is a sprawling, chaotic cluster of college campuses, traffic jams, markets spilling from every corner and rows of slums with open drains that overflow and swallow up lives during rainfall.

Her dream is to invite educationists to open model public schools for the majority of the poor people in her constituency. She wants low-cost houses for the poor and free health services. She says that time is on her side. She will find many more opportunities to contest elections.

“To win elections is important for me as I want to be a lawmaker and make sure that people-friendly legislation is passed in parliament to protect the interest of the most vulnerable in the country,” Shukla says.

Until she makes it to parliament, she plans to work tirelessly to raise literacy in her constituency and lower the poverty rate. She wants clean drinking water, cleaner drains, and better roads. Women’s safety is her priority, as is a regular and fair wage for the many communities of artisans like potters and weavers.

Shukla has witnessed the police lathi-charge citizens who dared to ask the government for jobs. Social activists have been jailed, kicked around, and beaten in lockdown for participating in protests and questioning the government in UP. There are countless incidents of gruesome crimes perpetrated against women.

Most political parties want women’s votes but are reluctant to share power with them. Therefore, politics in UP today is a constant struggle for any woman who joins the male-dominated world of politics. Shukla’s biggest strength is her belief in herself.

The daughter of a small property dealer, Shukla, learnt to be fearless from Beena, her mother. At first, Beena wanted her to marry a suitable Brahmin boy. However, the constant cry to marry died down after she decided to contest the elections.

Her parents suggested that Shukla choose a more respectable profession like teaching instead. The parents were pained when she was jailed in 2019, and countless criminal cases were filed against her for participating in street demonstrations.

Shukla is the eldest of three sisters, and she feels responsible for her siblings. The family reminded her she was a role model, but she refused to give up her politics. Her determination to remain engaged in public life is less frowned upon now. At least her immediate family members and neighbours are supportive. She is no longer considered a black sheep within the Brahmin community that sees itself as exceptionally respectable.

Shukla has been in the limelight since 2017 when she and fellow students waved black flags at the motor convoy of those in power. She was part of a group of students protesting against the use of Lucknow University funds for a political party event.

She was angry when jailed for protesting peacefully. After 20 days in jail, the University refused her admission for postgraduate studies. Shukla started a hunger strike and forced the University to allow all the students to continue their studies.

Today she is a youth icon. She has emerged as a leader and a role model not just for her siblings but for thousands of other youngsters, students, women and some male members of society.

Shukla says that she stands for a democratic, secular and inclusive India. How will she realise her dream in the cutthroat political culture where all that matters is power and money?

There is no substitute for commitment and hard work, she says with a smile. (IPS UN Bureau Report)

Youth Icon’s Fight for Rights Among India’s Destitute

Pooja Shukla, 25, a socialist candidate, has lost her maiden elections to the provincial parliament in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. But Shukla is no loser.  A day after the results were announced on March 10, Shukla was back to a rousing reception in her constituency in North Lucknow to thank her supporters for polling 1,04,527 votes for her.

She was with the people again on March 18 on Holi, the festival of colour held annually to celebrate the end of winter and in anticipation of new beginnings. Shukla told the IPS that she was hoping to win. Of course, she is disappointed, but electoral defeat would not stop her from continuing her struggle to get economic and social justice for the people of her constituency.

Although Shukla belongs to the upper caste community of Brahmins, she has worked hard to develop a personal connection with a cross-section of those who live in North Lucknow, one of the city’s nine constituencies. Lucknow is the capital of UP, the country’s largest, but economically and socially, it is one of its least developed states. More than 400,000 voters are registered in North Lucknow, nearly half of whom are impoverished women.

The constituency is home to Muslims, upper-caste Hindus and thousands of impoverished people belonging to communities who have been living for decades in makeshift shanties, often on the bank of open drains. Some are daily wage earners, and others are without paid work.

Shukla won hearts because she has knocked on every door in North Lucknow and continues to spend time with citizens. “I have visited every single home in every single neighbourhood in North Lucknow. I will continue to do so as I really care for members of all communities that reside within my constituency,” Shukla adds.

This first-time contestant had faced Dr Neeraj Bora, a seasoned politician from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing party. Despite the formidable challenge, Shukla was leading on the day the votes were counted. She was ahead before her rival finally defeated her by 33,985 votes until noon.

Out of 403 seats in the UP-state parliament, the socialists won 111 seats. The Samajwadi Party (SP) of socialists came a distant second to BJP’s 255 seats, but the party has emerged as the largest opposition party in UP.

This was a golden opportunity to strengthen democracy by converting the numbers won by the SP into a viable opposition to the ruling party, Shukla believes. A well-meaning, vocal opposition is needed, she says, when the ruling party seems to want to wash its hands of all its social responsibility in favour of outsourcing businesses and privatising even essential services like education, health, and employment opportunities.

“Democratic values strengthen when the opposition to the ruling party is strong,” says Shukla, who believes that elections are held to elect representatives who will provide affordable homes, education, and health facilities to voters.

Shukla feels that socially conscious people don’t have to be Marxists to dream of justice in society. The desire to want to see all citizens cared for fairly and equally by the state is a desire of all decent human beings.

Shukla was the youngest candidate in the polls, nursing a constituency that is a sprawling, chaotic cluster of college campuses, traffic jams, markets spilling from every corner and rows of slums with open drains that overflow and swallow up lives during rainfall.

Her dream is to invite educationists to open model public schools for the majority of the poor people in her constituency. She wants low-cost houses for the poor and free health services. She says that time is on her side. She will find many more opportunities to contest elections.

“To win elections is important for me as I want to be a lawmaker and make sure that people-friendly legislation is passed in parliament to protect the interest of the most vulnerable in the country,” Shukla says.

Until she makes it to parliament, she plans to work tirelessly to raise literacy in her constituency and lower the poverty rate. She wants clean drinking water, cleaner drains, and better roads. Women’s safety is her priority, as is a regular and fair wage for the many communities of artisans like potters and weavers.

Shukla has witnessed the police lathi-charge citizens who dared to ask the government for jobs. Social activists have been jailed, kicked around, and beaten in lockdown for participating in protests and questioning the government in UP. There are countless incidents of gruesome crimes perpetrated against women.

Most political parties want women’s votes but are reluctant to share power with them. Therefore, politics in UP today is a constant struggle for any woman who joins the male-dominated world of politics. Shukla’s biggest strength is her belief in herself.

The daughter of a small property dealer, Shukla, learnt to be fearless from Beena, her mother. At first, Beena wanted her to marry a suitable Brahmin boy. However, the constant cry to marry died down after she decided to contest the elections.

Her parents suggested that Shukla choose a more respectable profession like teaching instead. The parents were pained when she was jailed in 2019, and countless criminal cases were filed against her for participating in street demonstrations.

Shukla is the eldest of three sisters, and she feels responsible for her siblings. The family reminded her she was a role model, but she refused to give up her politics. Her determination to remain engaged in public life is less frowned upon now. At least her immediate family members and neighbours are supportive. She is no longer considered a black sheep within the Brahmin community that sees itself as exceptionally respectable.

Shukla has been in the limelight since 2017 when she and fellow students waved black flags at the motor convoy of those in power. She was part of a group of students protesting against the use of Lucknow University funds for a political party event.

She was angry when jailed for protesting peacefully. After 20 days in jail, the University refused her admission for postgraduate studies. Shukla started a hunger strike and forced the University to allow all the students to continue their studies.

Today she is a youth icon. She has emerged as a leader and a role model not just for her siblings but for thousands of other youngsters, students, women and some male members of society.

Shukla says that she stands for a democratic, secular and inclusive India. How will she realise her dream in the cutthroat political culture where all that matters is power and money?

There is no substitute for commitment and hard work, she says with a smile.

Women’s Voices Raised Against Hate In India

More and more women from different walks of life and corners of the world are raising their voices against the treatment of minorities in India today.

“Unity and the safety of citizens is the first and foremost condition of a country’s security,” Roop Rekha Varma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University (LU), told IPS.

With Ramesh Dixit, a former professor LU, Varma walked into a local police station to file a police report against hate speech against those who have threatened to kill Muslims in India.

In a recent case, provocative speeches allegedly calling for a genocide of Muslims were made at a December 2021 conclave held in the Himalayan town of Haridwar.

“If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill two million (Muslims), then we will win … protect India, and make it a Hindu nation,” said Pooja Shakun Pandey, a senior member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party in a video recording of the event.

Pandey, Wasim Rizvi alias Jitendra Narayan Tyagi, Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, and Sagar Sindhu Maharaj are facing hate speech charges for their utterances.

Varma is shocked at rising incidents of unprovoked targeting of Muslims, including Muslim women, in recent times.

Sunita Viswanath, founder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based civil society organization, is equally anxious.

“Muslim women in India are being barred from entering college for wearing the hijab. This is a country where the Prime Minister rode to power promising equal rights for women. Clearly, not everyone is equal. If this is not apartheid, please tell what is,” Viswanath says. She referred to the controversy that erupted in January when a government-run college in the Udupi district of Karnataka state barred girls from attending lectures for wearing headscarves. The matter is now under judicial review.

Along with 16 other civil society organizations in the US, Viswanath organized two Congressional briefings on India’s treatment of Muslims.

“We are US citizens of Indian origin, and we have the power to influence and to move US lawmakers and the Biden Administrations to speak out,” says Viswanath on social media. She feels that the world needs to understand that something is wrong in India, that India is on a perilous path.

“India’s tryst with hate is on overdrive. The only way we can fight systematic hate is to stand by India’s tried and tested secular fabric,” Saumya Bajaj told IPS on the phone. Bajaj is associated with Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch (GNEM), a Delhi-based group for unity among citizens.

“Terrorizing Muslims and Christians on a daily basis seems to be the new norm. We, as citizens, can no longer afford to remain silent spectators to this macabre celebration of hate engulfing us?” reads a circular, inviting citizens to say no to hate mongers.

GNEM demands that the police investigate all violence cases against fellow citizens, including online abuse. Nayantara Sahgal, 94, an award-winning Indian, says she does not recognize the new India.

“Today, that India is disappearing. My country is unrecognizable. It seems like a foreign country full of hatred and exclusion. There is a deep slide in democracy. It is utterly despairing. Yet we cannot be silent. A writer has to speak loud and clear,” the former vice president of PEN International said in a recent interview.

Booker Prize-winning author and essayist Arundhati Roy fears that Hindu nationalism could break India into little pieces like Yugoslavia and Russia. The hope is that ultimately the Indian people will resist what she calls the fascism of the ruling party.

Sahgal is pinning her hopes on the elections in five Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh (UP), until March 7.

In UP, interfaith marriages have been restricted in recent times. Muslim men married to Hindu women have been harassed by vigilante mobs and often arrested by the police. Many online attempts to humiliate and terrorize Muslim women continue.

Sahgal is the daughter of Vijay Laxmi Pandit, sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of independent India. She is also the widow of the late bureaucrat Edward Nirmal Mangat Rai, an Indian Christian. Today she is concerned about the safety of her Christian relatives and Muslim friends as incidents of majoritarian hate against minorities peak.

Sabika Naqvi, community and advocacy head at The Fearless Collective, says that vocal and assertive Muslim women have woken up in India to find their names on Auctioning apps – from Sulli Deals over the last two years to Bulli Bai. The call to rape and kill Muslim women is routine, and efforts to dehumanize Muslim women is on the rise, she says.

“They fear our ability to write, to speak, to journal, to dream, articulate, assert, organize, and fiercely fight the oppressors. They either sexualize us, try to act as our messiahs or plot to kill. But we are here to conquer the world. We are lawyers, poets, journalists, actors, activists, entrepreneurs, scholars and much more,” says Naqvi, adding that this is not just a ‘prank’ or mere ‘bullying’ but harassment that Muslim women face every day.

The Fearless Collective is a movement that helps citizens move from fear to love through the creation of participatory art in public space.

Naqvi feels that the time has come to speak up and ensure that solidarity voices are louder than those who support hatred.

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