Dhaneswar Bordoloi, a 46-year-old farmer, was among 500-odd people who had lined up at the outskirts of Morigaon town to see and hear Rahul Gandhi on January 22.

“We could not see him as he did not come down from the bus,” said Bordoloi, echoing the disappointment of others who had gathered at Baghara, 10 km from Morigaon town.

The Congress leader was travelling through Assam as a part of the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra – a successor to the political outreach programme last year which saw Gandhi walk from Kanyakumari, on the southern tip of India, to Srinagar. This round of the yatra, however, has seen Gandhi mostly travelling in a bus, with a few public meetings thrown in.

“The Congress does not have much support here but we were looking forward to meeting him,” Bordoloi said. “In the end, we did not even know what message the party was trying to convey.”

The farmer watched the bus go past him, with Gandhi waving at the crowds.

Only hours ago, the Morigaon district administration had denied the Congress entourage permission to hold any public meetings, claiming it may create a law and order situation.

In the eight days that the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra travelled through BJP-ruled Assam, it ran into several obstacles. The Assam government denied Gandhi permission to hold public meetings, to enter the capital city – and even barred him from visiting a monastery.

At many points in the travels, the yatra came face to face with angry Hindutva supporters. On January 21, Assam Congress chief Bhupen Borah was injured as BJP workers allegedly attacked him in the state’s Sonitpur district.

The yatra’s Assam leg ended with a first information report against Gandhi and Congress leaders for “wanton acts of violence, provocation, damage to public property and assault on police personnel”.

“It was like the full might of the state of Assam was brought to bear on the Congress,” a research scholar at Gauhati University told Scroll. The scholar was a part of a group of university students who were forced to meet Gandhi at a hotel in Jorabat, a town on the Assam-Meghalaya border, when he was not allowed to enter Guwahati.

While Rahul Gandhi’s run-ins with the police and sharp attacks on Himanta Biswa Sarma as the “most corrupt chief minister” kept him in the headlines – in contrast to the national media’s lack of attention and interest in the yatra last year – analysts are still sceptical about whether the yatra will help the Congress’s fortunes in Assam.

“Rahul’s visit failed to create an awareness about the misrule of the BJP among the masses,” said Guwahati-based veteran journalist Lalit Gogoi. “The common people went to see Rahul out of love, not because they were angry at the BJP.”

Farmer Dhaneswar Bordoloi waiting to see Gandhi on the outskirts of Morigaon town. Photo by Rokibuz Zaman.

The ambition

When the Congress picked a route through Assam, as part of the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, it was hoping to give the party a leg-up in Middle and Upper Assam – regions where it has lost influence in the last many years.

The yatra entered Assam on January 18 through Haluwating in Sivasagar district and passed through Jorhat, Majuli, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, before it travelled to lower Assam districts. The Upper Assam districts, home to ethnic Assamese communities, are considered as the heartland of Assamese politics.

“The state of the [party] organisation is very bad in Upper Assam districts,” a Congress leader from Upper Assam told Scroll. “The Congress has always talked about protecting Assamese culture and identity and this was an attempt to reconnect with the Assamese people.”

In the last two Assembly elections in 2016 and 2021, the BJP had swept Upper Assam, North Assam, the hill districts and the constituencies surrounding Guwahati. The Congress did well in Muslim-majority areas of Lower Assam and a few seats in Mangaldoi and Nagaon districts.

The party has been struggling to shake off allegations that it does not represent the interests of the ethnic Assamese communities. Chief minister Sarma has dismissed the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra as a programme directed at Muslims. “This is not ‘Nyay Yatra, it’s ‘Miya Yatra’. Wherever there are Muslims, they visit those places,” Sarma had said.

‘Miya’ is a disparaging term used for the Bengali-origin Muslim community in Assam, who are often vilified as illegal immigrants and Bangladeshis.

The main gate of the Batadrava Than in Nagaon on January 22 morning. Photo by Rokibuz Zaman.

The ground reality

Rahul Gandhi’s intent to visit the Batadrava Than, a monastery founded by the Vaishnavite saint-scholar Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva (1449-1568) – on the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Ram Temple in Ayodhya – was meant to send a message that the party was eager to engage with symbols of Assamese culture and identity.

This was also significant as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had come to power in Assam in 2016 by making promises to protect the monasteries or Satras – from alleged encroachment from Bengali-origin Muslims – with the slogan of safeguarding jati (community or identity), maati (land) and bheti (hearth).

But when Scroll visited Than, not even 50 people had gathered to welcome Rahul Gandhi despite the fact that the legislator of Batadrava, Sibamoni Bora, and the Member of Parliament from Kaliabor, Gaurav Gogoi, are from the party.

“Most people were busy with the Ram temple inauguration,” said a 45-year-old villager of Batadrava. “The women are also out, to collect forms for a government beneficiary scheme.”

The government was distributing forms for a new scheme for rural women entrepreneurs.

“The BJP government has also done a lot for the Batadrava Than,” the villager said, referring to the eviction of Muslim people from the government land near the monastery and the ongoing over Rs 100 crore beautification project for its development.

“People may not want to upset the chief minister who has been personally looking after the project,” he said.

In the end, Gandhi could not reach anywhere near the Than, as he was stopped by police officials 16 km from the monastery.

“If Rahul Gandhi had made it there on January 22, he could have appealed to the people of Assam to reject the aggressive form of Hinduism that we are seeing all around us today in the name of Sankardev and his egalitarian philosophy,” said Mridugunjan Deka, a senior research fellow of political science at Gauhati University. “But the episode sent a message that the BJP was the true and only representative of Hindus.”

People shouted “Jai Shri Ram” as Rahul’s convoy passed Assam's Jagiroad town on January 22. Photo by Rokibuz Zaman.

Not enough answers

As Scroll traveled with the yatra between Nagaon and Barpeta, it found a fair degree of curiosity about Rahul Gandhi – and sympathy for him because of the Assam government’s heavy-handed response to the yatra.

“We found Sarma’s remarks on this being a Miya yatra offensive,” said A Kalita, a 47-year-old Guwahati resident. “We have been impressed by Gandhi as he has raised the issues of the poor, of the price of rice. We felt bad that the CM is attacking him and using such communal remarks.”

It is not clear, however, if that sympathy can translate to votes. “The Congress is trying to connect with the Assamese people,” agreed Biplop Sarma, a hospital manager in Guwahati, who hails from Upper Assam’s Jorhat. “But it is a half-hearted attempt so far.”

The BJP, Biplop said, had a stronger political message and “had delivered on their promises.” “But the Assam Congress has many problems, from leadership to the organisation.”

Deka, the research scholar, pointed out that the Nyay Yatra had failed to show how the Congress can answer the politics of welfare schemes in Assam, one of the BJP’s main poll planks.

“Many people in the villages fear that if the BJP were to lose, the direct benefit transfers will stop.”

He added: “In the daily lives of common people, threats to secular constitutional principles and democratic institutions mean little directly. How does one articulate these concerns in a way that captures the imagination of the masses? I don’t think the Nyay Yatra has been successful in answering that.”