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A ‘March to Unite India’, Led by Congress, Comes Halfway

Mandy, India – A nationwide “unity march” led by India’s top opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has reached its 80th day and is currently marching through the streets of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (or Unite India March) set off from Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India in the state of Tamil Nadu on September 7. It will travel 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) to reach Indian-administered Kashmir in the north, fully standing – in the next 70 days.

Gandhi is the 52-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family: his father Rajiv Gandhi, his grandmother Indira Gandhi, and his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had all been Prime Ministers of India. Gandhi is a parliamentarian and has served as Chairman of the Indian National Congress party.

Since the “unity march” began in early September, Gandhi has been walking an average of 20 km (12 miles) every day, accompanied by more than 100 fellow travelers and thousands of others joining the march. when it comes to their neighborhoods.

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In Madhya Pradesh, Gandhi was joined by his sister Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who is now a leading Congress party activist.

Several activists, academics and actors have walked with him so far in the march which has already traversed the four southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and the western state of Maharashtra before entering Madhya Pradesh last week.

Topics raised at the march

After India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, Gandhi has been attacking the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological source, the far-right reserve Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (SSR). ), which counts Modi among millions of its lifetime members.

Since its formation in 1925 along the lines of fascist groups in Europe, the RSS, and the BJP as its political wing, have been pursuing a communal agenda that aims to transform a constitutionally secular India into an ethnic Hindu state. Critics fear that India’s 200 million Muslims will be reduced to second-class citizens and their political and human rights will be drastically reduced.

Gandhi has been raising these issues throughout the march. “The purpose of this march is to oppose the hatred and violence spread by the BJP and RSS,” he said in his first speech after entering the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka, considered by many to be a “Hindutva” or laboratory of Hindu supremacy. In the south.

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“The march will go from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. It will not stop – rain, heat, cold, storms, nothing… It will go like a river. And you will not see hate or violence in this march, only love and brotherhood. This is the history of India and this is the DNA of India,” he said.

The Congress leader has also been raising other issues, including unemployment and rising prices, as he accuses the BJP of helping a few billionaires get rich while the vast majority of Indians remain poor.

“Unemployment is increasing day by day… People in India and Karnataka are being squeezed between unemployment and rising prices,” he said.

Political experts say the mammoth march is aimed at rejuvenating Congress as election debacles and infighting haunt the party. During the “unity march”, the party elected veteran MP Mallikarjun Kharge as its chairman, a significant departure from the Gandhi party leadership.

Experts say the march is an experiment to change Gandhi’s image as the main face of the opposition ahead of general elections scheduled for summer 2024.

‘Surreal to walk with him’

Last month, Gandhi was in Mandya, a small town in Karnataka about 100 km (62 miles) from Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. The highway was lined with colorful banners and signs as drinking water and snack counters greeted protesters and residents of the sugarcane growing region.

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Gandhi started the walk around 6:30 a.m. local time and covered much of the distance before 11 a.m., after which he and his team had several meetings with members of civil society. At one such meeting, Gandhi met Kavitha and Indira Lankesh.

Kavitha is the younger sister of the murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, while Indira is his mother. Gauri was shot dead in 2017 outside her Bangalore residence, allegedly by members of a far-right Hindu group.

The Publishers Union of India called Gauri’s murder “an ominous harbinger for dissent in democracy and a brutal assault on press freedom.”

After Kavitha and Indira met Gandhi, they accompanied him on his walk for some time.

“It was surreal for me to walk with him and talk about the death of a family member. On one level, we were among hundreds of people, and yet we had this deeply personal conversation. We talked about how he felt about the deaths in his family: father, grandmother and I talked about Gauri. He took care of my mother while we walked and the conversation was candid. That spirit has almost disappeared from our narrative today,” Kavitha told Al Jazeera.

Police search supporters of India's main opposition Congress party as they arrive to attend a rally led by party leader Rahul Gandhi during his Bharat Jodo Yatra (United March of India) in Ballari, state of Karnataka, India, on October 15, 2022. REUTERS / Manoj Kumar
Police search people as they arrive to attend the march in Ballari, Karnataka. [File: Manoj Kumar/Reuters]

Many of those who marched with Gandhi in the past three months have echoed Kavitha’s sentiments.

On the same day, the Congress politician also met with some activists who oppose the revision of textbooks taught in Karnataka’s government schools to propagate the Hindutva agenda, a project referred to by academics as ” saffronization” because saffron is the color that defines the Hindu right. .

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At a rest stop in Mandya, sugarcane juice was distributed to comfort protesters in the scorching heat. A group of children, dressed in traditional costumes, waited to meet Gandhi.

Among them was Rifah Taskeen, a 12-year-old Muslim girl wearing the hijab. Taskeen holds a world record for driving more than 17 types of vehicles before his 10th birthday. Her doting father spoke of the adulation her family received from the Gandhis. “We can’t do much about what’s going on around us. But we hope that things will change, for the sake of our children,” Tajuddin told Al Jazeera.

Mukeshraj Shah, hailing from Bhopal, the Madhya Pradesh capital where the march is currently based, echoed the sentiment. “We have to worry about the farmers, unemployment and we have to recover the feeling of camaraderie between all the communities,” he said.

‘Safe space for Muslims’

Several right-wing Hindu groups operate in Karnataka, where the BJP government has passed a series of laws and orders banning the wearing of the hijab in public schools or against so-called “forced conversions”. Activists say this form of “institutionalized communalism” has further marginalized Muslims and has increased incidents of hate and violence.

“First it is legitimized in public and then it goes to the government assembly for its validation. We as civil society have not responded enough and that is their success,” Aishwarya Ravikumar of the People’s Civil Liberties Union told Al Jazeera.

Despite launching campaigns like Say No to Hate, activist Vinay Srinivasa feels that the situation in Karnataka has only gotten worse. “Polarization is driven by a broad institutional framework. RSS is supported by a large part of the media. The classrooms are polarized, the society is deeply poisoned, ”he said.

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Given this situation, Srinivasa says the “Indian unity march” has taken on a deeper meaning. “We don’t know how it will address the root cause of the polarization. But Congress has made it a safe space for Muslim men and women in particular to have their identity and participate in public. However, you also have to think about how bad times are, that we have to praise a political exercise to create this space, ”he said.

It’s an analogue ‘yatra’ (marching) in the age of social media.

by Krishna Prasad, Former Editor of Outlook Magazine

Congress Senior Leader Jairam Ramesh told Al Jazeera the march is “not going to suddenly transform the community scene” in India.

“It is an ideological battle. The important thing is that, for the first time, Congress is playing cricket on the ground it has prepared. Until now we were playing on a field rigged by the BJP,” he said.

“For the first time, we have established the narrative and the agenda, that is the difference. The real challenge will be harnessing the momentum created by the yatra (march).”

‘Analog’ gear in the digital age

Ramesh denied that the party was trying to make electoral gains or change Gandhi’s name during the march. Asked why the march is limited to 12 of the 29 Indian states, Ramesh said factors such as security, distance and logistics had to be considered.

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“Many more Bharat Jodo Yatras are being planned in different states like Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar,” he said, adding that finances were the party’s biggest challenge.

“We have to find the money to feed 3,000 people every day: breakfast, lunch and dinner… We have to generate the resources,” he said.

Writer and journalist Girish Kuber said the march has created good optics, but the party mechanism to capitalize on goodwill is missing.

“Leaders are also not sure how to project it. Is it to revive the party, to project Rahul Gandhi as a future leader? It’s hard to say if it will help them get votes,” he told Al Jazeera.

Krishna Prasad, the former editor of Outlook magazine, wondered if, in an age of instant social media where public memory is short, people will remember the march once it crosses their state.

“It’s an analog yatra in the age of social media,” he told Al Jazeera.

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Still, Prasad felt that the Congress march is a much-needed attempt to unite India.

“Whether this effort will result in political or electoral gains is a different question. The most important question this march has raised is this: Is there a market for kindness? Currently, India has become a major market for toxicity. Will this analogue ‘yatra’ in the age of social media make goodness attractive to people?”

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