A pilgrimage, a carnival, a roadshow, a celebration, a place to make new friends and to meet people from all over the country. The Congress party’s 3,500-km Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari to Jammu and Kashmir is all this and more.

I walked with the Yatra in Karnataka for a day-and-a-half, on October 9 and October 10, along with five friends. When we joined them, the yatris had been walking for 32 days already. The total journey is expected to take about 150 days.

The walk – averaging 23 km a day – was a time to experience the landscape, the people, the villages and towns of India. It gave me time to think. The mood was uniformly upbeat.

For me, joining the Yatra was a personal protest against the state of the nation today, and a chance to show solidarity with someone standing up against it, especially the hate and divisiveness. It was also a protest against the shrinking of our freedoms. I guess there comes a time we must each stand up and be counted.

The organisation of the Yatra, which is being led by Rahul Gandhi, is a massive exercise in logistical planning. From planning the route, to locating the places where the containers in which the participants sleep can be parked in the night, to places for eating and resting during the day; from putting up hoardings and taking them down and moving them ahead; from providing water and refreshments (fruit, dry coconut with jaggery); from arranging breakfast and lunch sites for the yatris on the way; from a green truck following the yatra picking up (almost) all the discarded plastic waste – all this must have taken enormous planning.

Mix this up with the masses of people thronging the roads or walking in the yatra for a little while, the security vehicles, ambulances, media truck, security personnel and the local police – and you could have a mobile, logistical nightmare. But it all worked well and very smoothly.

The author with Ratna Painkra from Chhattisgarh. Credit: Ramani Atkuri

The yatris themselves were strung out over a distance of 2 km to 3 km – some of them preferring to start early and walk at a slower pace than walk with the main convoy where Rahul Gandhi sets a brisk pace that few are able to keep up with. I spoke to some of them during my time with the yatra. Not all are Congress party members.

On Sunday morning, when we reached the village of KB Cross in Tumkur district from where the yatra was to begin that day, we were met by a group of yatris walking in advance. They greeted us with warm smiles.

I met Jamina Khatum from Davanagere district who was here to express solidarity with the ideas that the Congress party stands for. She does not support the party, she said, but the issues they raise through this yatra – against hate and divisiveness – are valid. She works with beedi workers and was particularly concerned about their situation today with wage stagnation and runaway inflation. She, too, was walking for a day-and-a-half.

The author with Jamina Khatum from Davanagere. Credit: Ramani Atkuri

Walking through Karnataka was Dr Vanitha, a gynaecologist from Bangalore, who quit her government job three years ago to become a Congress worker. That was just before the Covid pandemic struck, she said, and being with the party allowed her to help people during that time. She said she was enjoying her walk with the yatra because it allowed her to meet and talk to many people. At the end of each day, she stayed in the home of someone in the village where the yatra stopped for the night.

Walking from Pochkatte on Monday, I overtook Ratna Painkra who is from Jashpur in Chhattisgarh. We discovered some mutual friends in Pathalgaon, She was limping a bit and urged me not to wait for her as her knee was troubling her and she would take time to reach the site of the morning halt.

The prize for gamely carrying on, however, went to Chandy Oommen who was doing the yatra barefoot, limping a lot, but carrying on singing songs and shouting slogans and being unfailingly cheerful.

Two other young yatris I walked with were Rahul Rajbhar and Brajesh Arya. Both were from Uttar Pradesh and were Congress workers. They said that they believe that the religious divide in the country is very harmful and that we need to take a stand against it. They said the yatra had received an overwhelming public response in Tamil Nadu and Kerala but it was less enthusiastic in Karnataka.

Rajbhar said he was handicapped by not knowing Kannada and so was unable to seek the views of the people on the street about the yatra and the issues being raised. He said that he felt strongly that the Constitution of India is worth fighting for but added that this battle to protect it will be a long haul.

Chandy Oommen. Credit: Dilip D'Souza

Rahul Gandhi himself was, unfortunately, hemmed in by a security ring. Unfortunate but necessary, I think, given the crowds of people wanting to see him, to talk to him, to take selfies with him. The police held a rope all around to keep bystanders from pressing in.

On Tuesday, a group of young men ran alongside the security ring for quite a while holding aloft a portrait of Ambedkar. “Rahul Bhaiyya, Rahul Bhaiyya,” they shouted, wanting him to sign the picture for them. They jogged through the mud on the side of the road, trying to keep up with him.

All along the route, there were various groups wanting to speak to Gandhi and explain their concerns and problems – forest rights activists, members of the transgender community, people working with farmers. Some were allowed to walk part of the way with him inside the security ring so they could talk to him for a while.

Our group had an opportunity to walk with him too, and we shared our concerns about public health: universal access to public health care; nutrition support; social security.

During the morning and afternoon walks, there were eight to ten such interactions, apart from the longer meetings during the lunch break with various groups.

Dr Vanitha, from Bangalore. Credit: Ramani Atkuri

The security ring was preceded by the media van and a jammer and the pace was very brisk. Ahead of this main group, there was a carnival-like atmosphere. People lined the route in welcome and curiosity, some holding flags, some with portraits of Ambedkar. I came across at least four groups of dancers and drummers, waiting in welcome. Another group put on an exhibition of paintings inspired by the spirit of the Yatra.

After the morning walk (usually of three and a half hours or so), the group halted until the late afternoon. Two large areas were marked out: the yatris walking the length of the country had a separate area where they eat and rest (folding cots were put out in a large tent and several were asleep on mattresses on the ground). The adjacent area was for others – members of civil society who had registered could obtain a pass to enter this area where lunch was served and chairs laid out to enable participants to sit and talk.

Credit: Ramani Atkuri

We met a group protesting the New Education Policy and another that represented the concerns of the transgender community. In this area were also several senior Congress leaders listening to issues raised by civil society groups. My colleagues and I had prepared a policy brief on public health priorities, and we spoke to several of them about it, sharing a copy with them. I was impressed to see them actually reading the document and asking questions about it.

Walking with a large group of people with a shared purpose made me feel the strength in numbers. I came away with a deep respect for the yatris: walking across the length of the country is no mean feat. Each of the yatris I met exuded joy and was welcoming of us short-distance fellow travellers.

The tagline for the yatra asks: “Saath hamara kaun chalega?” Who will walk with us? I did, and I hope many more will, too.

Ramani Atkuri is a public health physician who has worked extensively with rural and tribal communities in central India.