In theory, my job was limited to issuing passes on day one, and then broadly supervising that Camp B was functioning smoothly. But all my expectations went out of the window within an hour!

The first problem we faced was that of space. It was anticipated that not more than 250 people would stay at Camp B. To our surprise, the first day started with 600 civil society yatris, and every day around 400 more were added! We had to scramble to arrange for food, accommodation, sanitation and medical facilities in the middle of the night. Everyone had already walked 25 kilometres that day, and it was simply not fair to tell them to go stay in motels nearby (in any case, the parts of Maharashtra we were walking through barely had guesthouses, let alone motels and hotels). Hundreds of mattresses and mobile toilets had to be trucked in within an hour from another district.

Meanwhile, we had to handle a massive, ever-growing crowd patiently and sensitively. I had five volunteers, and quickly realised I would need more Congress volunteers to help out. It was all hands on deck! The second problem was issuing passes to so many yatris and registering them on the spot (this was our only way to crosscheck that no unwanted intruders were entering the Yatra). We were issuing passes like ticket conductors to hundreds of yatris, then ensuring they were fed and making sure each person got a mattress and blanket. That evening, although I hadn’t walked the Yatra because I was busy with these arrangements, my pedometer clocked 30,000 steps! My team was running around even more than me, so I shudder to think of the state of their feet that evening. We finally managed to get everything settled sometime around midnight, which is when we had to make do with a modest meal of plain rice and besan (gram lentil).

But there was absolutely no rest because we had to wake up at 4 am to ensure the mobile bathrooms (which were nothing more than three plastic walls and a curtain) were functioning. This was no mean feat, given temperatures were dipping below ten degrees. When that was sorted, we had to wake up the yatris, who had to get ready, have breakfast and then be ready to join the Yatra at 5.45 am.

It was physically impossible to wake up everyone individually, so I had to resort to our tried-and-tested jugaad. I commandeered the audio and stereo systems and started playing patriotic songs (like a nationalist disc jockey). Between each song, I was making announcements. Yatris, please wake up. Quickly bathe and have food. The road awaits us.”

Although I didn’t intend it to be so, many yatris woke up both bewildered and laughing, saying they imagined they had been magically transported to a railway station!

Keeping aside the collective joke at my expense (which earned me the moniker “Den Mother”), our duties were far from over. After the announcements, our team had to convert the pass-issuing station into a temporary cloakroom. We had to collect everyone’s luggage, issue tags and make sure each bag was loaded onto trucks that would ferry them to wherever we were to halt at night. Only when all this was done did we finally get to have breakfast and join the Yatra.

Walking the entire day in scorching heat was difficult, but unlike the other yatris (who had the small luxury of resting after they had walked the 25 kilometres), we had no rest. Our real jobs began once the Yatra was completed. Each of the camps was located about 20-30 kilometres from any town or water source. So one of our first duties was to arrange for a minimum of six water tankers for every camp per night! We had to also arrange for a generator to load this water into the washrooms and mobile toilets. On one particular night halt, we realised that we had sufficient water tankers but the generator van had abruptly vanished. We stayed up the whole night waking up people and begging them to lend us a generator, just so the yatris could resume the padyatra.

Another problem that cropped up was that after two districts, because of some miscommunication, fresh passes were printed by the leaders in charge of those districts. We could have continued with the earlier passes, but unfortunately, the police had already been briefed about the revised passes. So on the fourth day of the Yatra, we again had to take back all the passes issued and reissue them afresh. This was completely avoidable and just reinforces the earlier point I was making about the need for streamlined communication.

But I think this was still manageable. What was especially problematic was the disruptive elements within civil society. While an overwhelming majority of the civil society yatris was considerate, eager and helping us in this great adventure, a few disruptive elements began misbehaving with others. They reportedly began forcing younger civil society yatris to carry their bags, get them food and massage their legs.

Over two dozen yatris complained about this organisation to me. When I flagged this to other Congress leaders, I was astounded to learn that the same elements had also roughed up some young Congress workers in Camp A (during lunchtime, when the lunch sites for camps A and B were in close proximity). Naturally, all of us were furious at what was happening and wanted to do something to protect the other yatris. We were directed by our leadership to be even more attentive to other civil society yatris and make sure nothing like this happened.

That whole incident left a bitter taste in our mouths, but we reconciled ourselves by accepting that not everything could be perfect. And I was gratified to see how unanimously every single Congress leader acted in the best interests of people outside the Congress party organisation. Not once did anyone say that this didn’t concern them or not show concern for the civil society yatris. On that occasion, I felt very proud because it reaffirmed to me that the Congress party has a heart that beats strongly for the people of India.

But leaving these minor problems aside, I was very happy that I was given the opportunity to manage Camp B. Every day was an unsaid affirmation of Bharat Jodo. For example, every morning we were greeted with bells of aarti and quiet chants of namaz by our yatris. Each community prayed in close proximity and went to have breakfast together. What could be a bigger testament to India’s civilisational ethic of vasudhaiva kutumbukum? Secondly, many civil society yatris went out of their way to not just praise our team for the work we were doing for their comfort, but many started helping out as well. I recall how an elderly yatri started helping us prod yatris to have food before it was over. Another very young yatri (who had taken special leave from his school to join the yatra) insisted on meeting each yatri and hearing their life stories. He would hold the hands of elderly yatris who would sometimes struggle in the hustle-bustle of the Yatra and tell them stories that he had picked up to comfort them. Likewise, a young partially disabled boy had run away from Himachal Pradesh to join the Yatra (defying his parents, which we rectified by speaking to them and convincing them that he was well looked after). Many of us organisers would get very frustrated when something went wrong or didn’t go our way. On those occasions, we would all look after each other, sharing candies or just talking to each other so we wouldn’t feel alone. We all felt as if we were part of a special family, bonded together in a great adventure.

I also admire the resilience of the real Bharat – those ordinary Indians and Congresspersons I bonded with in Camp B. We were housed in the strangest of locations – right from wedding halls to farm fields to a vacant hospital (with yatris sleeping in wards and on hospital beds) and even in dharamshalas! During a rest day in Hingoli, Camp B turned into a dhobi ghat (washermen’s hub) with patriotic songs ringing in the air! It was a surreal experience. Similarly, a middle-aged woman had joined us from Kerala. She was unable to communicate in any language other than Malayalam, but we somehow found a way to communicate with her. A young software engineer joined us from Pune armed with his laptop, so that he could be part of the Yatra and still be at work “online”! Many times, my car became his portable charging point. Then there was the young couple who joined the Yatra with two infants, just to make sure they contributed their bit to this historical feat. On another day, the lunch hour was near a school, and instead of resting, many yatris began playing with the children in their playground. The schoolteachers finally gave up trying to control all of us, and even joined us in the festivities!

I have never experienced such “positive” mass euphoria before. It genuinely felt as if we were part of a national movement, much like the freedom movement that our forefathers fought in and died for. That day, in fact, every day of the Yatra, was like a festival. When I think back, I honestly cannot remember the hardships or pains we all faced. All I remember is the buoyant spirit of Bharat Jodo.

Today, as I sit back and reminisce about the Bharat Jodo Yatra, I am awash with a feeling of gratitude, pride and contentment. I can tell myself and my child that when my country was going through its darkest period post-independence, I did my bit and stood for India! The Yatra is over, but the task of Bharat Jodo still lies before us. But as I always tell myself, “Together we shall overcome, one day.”

Excerpted with permission from ‘A ‘Den Mother’ Recollects Bharat Jodo’ by Utkarasha Rupwate in Bharat Jodo Yatra: Reclaiming India’s Soul, edited by Pushparaj Deshpande and Ruchira Chaturvedi, HarperCollins India.