On early Friday morning, scores of people amid nail-biting cold were desperately waiting at Qazigund —the gateway of Kashmir Valley to catch a glimpse of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra.
In the first major political activity in the region since the Abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, thousands of people welcomed the Congress leader and his rally in the Valley.
Kashmir’s Overwhelming Response to Bharat Jodo
For the first time after the 2008 Amarnath land row agitation and protests, thousands of people on Sunday, marched with Gandhi through Army's 15 Corps Headquarters at Badami Bagh cantonment.
While reaching the Clock Tower in Lal Chowk area of Srinagar, Gandhi hoisted the tricolour along with his sister and Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the presence of a large gathering.
“For the first time after 2019, massive crowds have lined up on streets to welcome Rahul Gandhi. I have seen people who were angry, get a chance to walk on the streets and shout their anger out,” a senior journalist who has been covering Kashmir for the past two decades told The Quint.
Despite Kashmir being under the grip of 'Chillai Kalan’—a 40-day period of harshest winter, Gandhi continued to wear his trademark half-sleeved white T-shirt as he entered the Valley.
A large number of people came out from snow-filled villages and stood on both sides of the National Highway-44 to welcome Gandhi and join his last leg of yatra, having traversed 14 states and 75 districts.
Security Grappled To Control Crowd Surge
Witnessing the enormous enthusiasm and support of people, Gandhi waved back at the crowd, shook hands with many, and hugged some kids. Traditional dance was also performed at one place.
Some in the crowd carried the Congress party’s flags while security forces had a difficult task dealing with the crowds.
Due to the large crowd, Gandhi had to cancel the walk on Friday after security forces “failed to manage” the large crowd that had gathered near the Banihal tunnel through which Gandhi entered the Kashmir Valley.
Even the Jammu and Kashmir administration had admitted the pressure on security resources due to the presence of a larger crowd in Gandhi’s historic yatra.
Following the allegations of security breach at tunnel, a claim denied by the J&K police, Gandhi’s caravan was later encircled by party workers and security officers as Gandhi walked through Srinagar while waving at the people as a long cavalcade followed him.
How Will Congress’s Yatra Impact Polls
With shops and business establishments shut and roads leading to Clock Tower sealed with razor wires, a huge group of people carrying Congress flags with slogans "Dil Jodo, Bharat Jodo" continue to reverberate throughout Sunday.
Among the large crowd was a 27-year-old Ashiq Mir from Lasjan area of Srinagar, who walked with Gandhi from Pantha Chowk to Lal Chowk.
Speaking to The Quint, Mir said he had left home around 7:00 am and joined yatra at 10:00 am. “For the first time I am participating in a political rally but I want Congress to win the next elections to stop growing hate, intolerance and prejudice in India. I was excited to meet Gandhi but due to tight security protocol, I could not meet him but caught his glimpse from a distance,” said Mir with a smile.
Mir’s friend Irfan Mir had come to support Congress against what he said was rising unemployment, privatisation and oppression. “If youth will not wake up today, then when? The time is so gloomy that whosoever talks against the present dispensation, is arrested and jailed. The BJP has sold everything and the inflation is growing which means the poor are getting poorer,” said the 29-year-old youth.
Both Irfan and Ashiq hope that Gandhi’s yatra will give an edge to Congress to replace BJP in the 2024 elections. As the yatra progressed, a large number of people kept joining it, while many more were lined up along the Pantha Chowk-Lal Chowk route.
‘For Harmony, Against Hate’
Before Yatra could enter Kashmir on Friday, former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah joined Gandhi in the Banihal area of Jammu. The National Conference leader was also seen twinning with Gandhi wearing a white T-shirt and marched with the yatra to South Kashmir.
Abdullah said that the Bharat Jodo Yatra received a good response in J&K and that men, women from different age groups have been lining up and marching for unity.
Greeted and welcomed by thousands of people holding the Congress flag and shouting slogans: “Jodo, jodo Bharat jodo” and “Chhodo, chhodo nafrat chodo”.
During the yatra on the highway, Gandhi also laid a flower bouquet at the spot where the CRPF bus was blown up by a Jaish-e-Mohammad suicide bomber along the Jammu-Srinagar national highway four years ago.
On Saturday, another former J&K chief minister People Democratic Party (PDP) Chief Mehbooba Mufti along with her mother and daughter joined the Yatra at Awantipora in Pulwama district.
Speaking about the yatra, PDP president Mufti said the Bharat Jodo Yatra was like a 'breath of fresh air' in Kashmir as it allowed people to come out of their homes in numbers for the first time since 2019. Mufti even wrote an article in The Hindu, calling the Congress yatra the “first and genuine outreach to the people of J&K, who have been threatened into silence and submission."
Can Congress Restore J&K Statehood if in Power?
On August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi government revoked the special status of J&K and bifurcated the erstwhile state into two Union Territories—J&K, Ladakh.
With a hope that Congress may restore the Article 370 and 35A, a lot of people had joined the march to support Gandhi.
Among such supporters was a 27-year-old carpenter Shabir Gul who had come from Chadoora area of Budgam to join the yatra. “I did not go to work today because I was excited to join the yatra. I was a National Conference supporter but now I will vote for Congress. I am confident that young Gandhi can fight oppression and take us out from it.”
After walking nearly nine kms at the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gul feels that if Congress regains power, the party will restore Article 370 and statehood in J&K. “We are living in bad times. For example the J&K government is currently demolishing structures and taking back land from the people on the pretext of land grabbing. The leaders are in jail and everything looks desolated here.”
Another vibrant young man while carrying Bharat Jodo Yatra poster enthusiastically said, “After a long time, someone has come here to relieve our pain. After seeing the massive participation of Kashmiri people in the yatra, a hope has ignited that something good is about to happen. We were waiting for Rahul Gandhi in Srinagar the day he started his yatra in Kanyakumari,” said 35-year-old Basharat Naseem who is a PDP worker.
A youth Congress leader Baljeet who started the yatra in Haryana and reached Srinagar told The Quint that like in other states, Bharat Jodo Yatra has received overwhelming public support in J&K. “Nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan khul rahi hai. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are joining to defeat BJP.”
On the streets of the Valley wherever Rahul stopped he was swarmed by people even as a huge number of women supporters and children continue to join.
From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Could Bharat Jodo Unite India?
The yatra of 3,570 kilometers which started from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu on 7 September, will culminate in Srinagar today on the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
The yatra stands concluded as Rahul Gandhi unfurled the tricolour at the party headquarters in Maulana Azad Road Srinagar, followed by a public rally at Sher-I-Kashmir cricket Stadium for which 23 opposition political parties have been invited.
(Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Kashmir. He tweets @irfanaminmalik. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)