Bharat Jodo Yatra: The yatra, the yatris and all that makes it tick

Bharat Jodo Yatra: The yatra, the yatris and all that makes it tick

The first clue that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is going to begin its next leg of the day is when the posse of policemen start fiddling with a thick long doubled-up rope.

Then come the drummers, about 10 young men, distinctly local, wearing white T-shirts with Bharat Jodo Yatra emblazoned on the front and back, who group together on the side of the road, limbering up and down and loosening their limbs.

A pick-up truck positions itself with a camera mounted 1012 feet up on a crane at its rear end. The opening scene is almost ready. A high-flying balloon with a photo of Rahul Gandhi and the now familiar ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ slogan marks the spot.

A few minutes later, the mass of people on the road start moving around animatedly; the Quick Response Force (QRF) team, in its distinct camouflage uniform, gathers at the head of the starting point, asking the people to move to the sides of the road; so do the state policemen who too spring into action and form a large ‘U’ with the rope in their hands keeping the people out of it.

A media bus, open at the top, moves ahead with the crew from various television channels and photographers training their lenses on the road behind. You hear a TV reporter, animatedly and breathlessly, as is the new normal, shouting into his mike: “Look at the people waiting to get a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi…”

His following words are drowned as a group of yatris dressed in white kurta-pyjamas plastered with Bharat Jodo Yatra posters notice him and his camera and start running along the open bus, waving the tricolour and shouting ‘Bharat Jodo, Bharat Jodo’ at the top of their voice.

The policemen, meanwhile, have decided who will hold which section of the rope; this positioning is crucial, as would become evident when Rahul Gandhi would appear with a group of walkers.

Rahul Gandhi appears in his now familiar T-shirt and trousers at the head of a large group, walking with immense speed, as a man possessed. It is then that you realise why the policemen were taking so much time to decide on their exact positioning with the rope.

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Rahul is walking so fast that they have to run to maintain that sanitised ‘U’ shape ahead of him. Around 20-25 policemen, holding the rope, have to run as a single unit without tripping on each other and keeping the security formation in shape at the same time.

Rahul Gandhi walks past in a blur, followed by a tightly packed group of ‘Bharat yatris’, those who are walking the full stretch of the yatra, numbering 118, and state leaders.

Then comes the mixed group of ‘sah yatris’ (Congressmen walking across states for limited days), ‘pradesh yatris’ (those from the state Congress, walking within their state borders), ‘atithi yatri’ (Congressmen from states not falling on the yatra route) and the people walking voluntarily to show their support. A caravan of vehicles, too, makes its way through.

The drummers keep pace just behind the first group. Young boys, clearly from surrounding areas, keep racing up and down in what can only be called the exuberance of youth. Some are waving flags, some just running while shouting the ‘Bharat Jodo’ slogan.

Bharat Jodo Yatra drummers
The drummers, about eight-ten young men, distinctly local, keep pace just behind the first group

They are the short-distance runners, accompanying the yatris from one village to the next, some wrangling a flag from somewhere. The seniors, though, are trying to keep an even pace, walking sombrely with their heads down. They clearly are there for the long haul. A few women, too, are walking, though much less in number.

Some four-wheelers, an assorted collection of SUVs, cars, pick-up vans and RTVs, also known colloquially as ‘chhota haathis’ (small elephants), have a group sitting on the roof with dholaks and harmoniums. Some among the group are dancers, dressed colourfully.

These musicians and dancers, at times, leave the vehicle and walk along, singing and dancing through. As this stretch runs between Indore and Ujjain, a two-day walk, many are dressed as Lord Shiva; with matted hair, trishul and leopard-skin print wrap-around on the waist. After all, they are approaching the city of Mahakal, Ujjain.

There are an appreciable number of old women too, who are progressing on a ‘Chhota haathi’. These are women from rural areas. The bright colour of their sarees, the way of tying them, help identify their geographical origin. They come from as far as Karnataka and Maharashtra to the villages of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh.

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Curious villagers line the route, watching quietly and intently as the yatra passes through. The rooftops of houses, along the route, are full of spectators as are the roads and streets going up small hillocks sprouting as pimples along the road.

After every kilometre or two, there is a stage on the side, mainly set up by the block-level party workers and a few by organisations and institutes falling on the way. A shower of flowers, mainly rose and marigold petals, and dancers swaying to a folk tune welcome the yatris as they walk through.

Bharat Jodo Yatra dancers
After every kilometer or two, there is a stage on the side. Dancers sway to a folk tune, welcome the yatris as they walk through

Small bottles of water, with Bharat Jodo stickers, are available for those feeling thirsty. This is a performance lasting about five minutes, enough time to strew the road with colourful petals and provide the yatris with a welcome distraction.

On the stage set up by an educational institution between Indore and Sanwer, venue for a night stay, the dancers were replaced by students and a couple of teachers wearing their institute’s t-shirts.

Within an hour or so, the lead group of yatris with Rahul Gandhi goes out of sight. The tail-end of the procession is amorphous in nature, comprising stragglers walking in small groups of two and three. Some rest their tiring legs at tea shops on the way. Some shopkeepers are gleefully cashing in on the windfall, frying fresh inviting kachoris to attract the welcome swarm of customers.

These pitstops turn into small arenas of exchange of ideas where local people and yatris intermingle, both trying to pick each other’s brains. While yatris try to gauge the impact of their endeavour, the residents are more curious about Rahul Gandhi. When yatris try to veer the discussion towards politics, the elders in the locals’ group grow a bit silent, not sure whether they should express their opinion or not.

Bharat Jodo Yatra crowd
Pitstops turn into small arenas of exchange of ideas where local people and yatris intermingle, both trying to pick each other’s brains.

But the younger ones are vocal about their views. They mostly lament about lack of employment opportunities and those working complain about rising prices which, they say, are making it difficult to survive on their salaries. As the discussion grows animated, some elders too leave their reticence and join in. Interestingly, most of them turn out to be farmers. They bemoan the fall in their incomes, difficulty in procuring fertilisers either due to lack of availability or because of rising cost. They, though assiduously, keep away from bringing party politics into their expressed thoughts.

The pitstops mean that the number of stragglers is increasing. Mercifully, the winter sun is forgiving and the weather is no impediment to walking. It is the tiring limbs that are making things a bit difficult. The speed goes slow, the conversation dies down and heads hang. The aim now is to reach the destination for the day.

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Identifying the route of the yatra, bulk of which has gone much ahead, though is easy. Posters put by local Congress leaders and flags of party organisations line the road, interspersed with huge cut-outs of Rahul Gandhi frozen in a purposeful stride. Surprisingly, the yatris have left no litter behind, neither packed food wrappers nor plastic bottles that usually are omnipresent in India wherever there is a crowd.

Bharat Jodo Yatra end
Surprisingly, the yatris have left no litter behind, neither packed food wrappers nor plastic bottles that usually are omnipresent in India wherever there is a crowd

Soon trucks appear. They are taking the hoardings off and collecting the flags left pitched en route. These are trucks hired by the Congress party to gather the hoardings lining the road already walked through and which will now be put along the route to be covered the next day.

The tired stragglers now look up once in a while in a bid to locate the balloon that marks the end of the day’s leg, the place where food will be available, and the place to rest.

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