Rahul Gandhi walked most of his 4,080 km-long Bharat Jodo Yatra in a white T-shirt. But as the yatra culminated in a public rally in Kashmir on Monday, he had to make an exception.
With snow pelting down on the gathering at the Sher-e-Kashmir cricket stadium in Srinagar, Gandhi wore a grey pheran, the traditional cloak-like garment worn by Kashmiris to battle cold during winters.
Amidst heavy security, Gandhi batted for the secular and liberal idea of India which, he said, was facing an assault from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
“I have not done this [yatra] for myself or for the Congress but for the people of the country,” said Gandhi. “Our aim is to stand against the ideology that wants to destroy the foundation of this country.”
Standing on chairs to have a clear view of the stage, a group of youngsters from Srinagar’s Maisuma locality listened to Gandhi’s speech attentively. “I have never voted in my life. Nor will I,” said a 23-year-old cart vendor from Maisuma, once a hotbed of stone-pelting clashes in Srinagar. “But it’s my hatred and anger of BJP that has brought me here.”
The 23-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was aware of the power politics and the political doublespeak. But he felt there is a difference between the Congress and the BJP.
“I know it’s eventually about power. But then, Congress is different from BJP,” he said. “If both are evil, I think it’s right to go with the lesser evil.”
Gandhi skips Article 370 mention
The Congress had invited 21 Opposition parties from across India for the grand finale of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. But only the leaders of national parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, Communist Party of India and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam turned up.
Mainstream political parties from Kashmir like National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party also attended the meeting. Along with other smaller parties, both local parties comprise the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration – a coalition fighting for the restoration of the special status and statehood of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Congress vice president, however, skipped any mention of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave special status to the former state of Jammu and Kashmir and was hollowed out in 2019 by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government. Instead, Gandhi peppered his speech with personal memories of his loss and interactions with people during the yatra.
“Those who incite violence – like Modiji, Amit Shahji, the BJP and the RSS – will never understand this pain,” he said. “The family of an Army man will understand, the family of the CRPF personnel who were killed in Pulwama will understand, Kashmiris will understand that pain when one gets that call.” Forty personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in a terror attack in Pulwama in January 2019.
The purpose of his yatra, Gandhi said, was to “end the phone calls announcing the deaths of loved ones…”
While the snowfall played a spoilsport to what could have been the first largest unified opposition rally in Kashmir after August 5, 2019, droves of Congress supporters battled the harsh cold to reach Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium in Sonwar.
Rows of empty chairs stood out as Gandhi spoke.
“Had there been no snow, there would have been a sea of people,” said Tanveer Ahmad Peerzada, a block president of the party from North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. A frontier and mountainous district, Kupwara is 84 km from Srinagar. “Our people would have got on non-stop buses in the morning to reach here,” he said.
Peerzada said only those with private vehicles could reach the venue. “I have been staying in Srinagar for some days in connection with the yatra,” he said, explaining how he was able to attend the rally.
However, the snow had not stopped 65-year-old Gul Mohammad Khan of Jammu’s Ramban district from reaching Srinagar for the rally. Khan, who left his home in Banihal town at 7am amid the snowfall said, “I have been with Congress all my life.” How could he have missed it, he said.
But Khan was not happy with the gathering. “There should have been more people.” Not more than 500 people were present.
Peerzada, the party activist from Kupwara, conceded that ordinary Kashmiris skipped the event due to the bad weather. “It’s only the cadre and party members who came because they had to,” he said. “Otherwise, who will leave his house amidst this storm?”
Anger against BJP
But there were some ordinary residents in the rally, too.
A shopkeeper, friend of the 23-year-old from Maisuma, was angry about the purported lack of accountability under the Centre’s direct rule.
“The BJP is snatching land and property of people. Kashmir has never seen such a ruthless government till now,” he said. “Look at the police, they have become hooligans under the BJP rule. They can do whatever they wish to do. There’s no one to ask them.”
A third youngster in the group was more practical in his assessment. “If there is one party to defeat Modi, it’s the Congress…After all, this is the party which got India independence..,” he said. “My father told me Congress never did what BJP has done to Kashmir.”
Bharat Jodo Yatra is ending. What do voters think about it?
Bharat Jodo Yatra has revved up Congress workers – but a roadblock looms ahead