Professor Ganesh N Devy – The Bharat Jodo Yatra
for the dreams yet not realised

Prof Ganesh N Devy LE Mag V1 Dec 2022

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Live Encounters Magazine Volume One December 2022.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra for the dreams yet not realised
by Professor Ganesh N Devy.

Bharat Jodo Yatra (PTI Photo)
Bharat Jodo Yatra (PTI Photo)

1942 was a most turbulent year. In India, the Muslim League had already demanded a separate nation for Muslims, and the air was charged with communalism. The war in Europe had spread to other continents and the British wanted India to support their war effort. The Cripps Mission was sent to India in March 1942. Its demand that India participate in the war caused tremendous resentment in the country, especially because there was no prior consultation with Indian leaders. Outside India, the Indian National Army (INA) was created under Rash Behari Bose and its command handed over to Subhash Chandra Bose later that year. Hitler’s forces were deep inside Russia. Erwin Rommel, a decorated general nicknamed ‘Desert Fox’, had trounced the Allies in the African war theatre. In June 1942, Rommel took tens of thousands of troops prisoners in Tobruk.

Also in June 1942, Hitler ordered the massacre in Czechoslovakia’s Lidice village, which was reduced to ashes on his orders. On 4 July 1942, German bombers attacked an Arctic convoy of the Allies, codenamed PQ17, sending it into such disarray that for weeks together 100,000 tonnes of cargo, including 210 planes and 3,350 vehicles, went missing. Within the Congress itself, there were heated debates on the path ahead, and socialist factions found it necessary to form breakaway organisations and <dal>s. The scene was very different a decade ago.

In 1931, the frail saint of Sabarmati Ashram had taken out a march from Ahmedabad to Dandi, in an act of quiet defiance that made the world take notice of the Congress as a force to reckon with. For several years after, the Congress went from strength to strength, attracting the youth from across India to its idea of demanding <swaraj> through a non-violent struggle. These were precisely the years when fascism was in ascendancy in Europe. Hitler had come to power in 1933. For the youth in India, Germany’s enmity with Britain could have turned them towards fascism. But that didn’t happen, thanks to Gandhi’s inspirational leadership.

Nobody in India at the time, barring the RSS, was drawn to Hitler’s fascism as a possible option. Not even when differences arose, say between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Nor even for Subhash Chandra Bose, who had very different ideas from Gandhi about ways of securing independence, but there was no racial prejudice in his world view—Muslims, Hindus, Christians stood shoulder to shoulder in his Azad Hind Fauj, as indeed did men and women. Their differences notwithstanding, there was an unspoken consensus among India’s great leaders that a better future for the Indian people could only lie on the path of democracy.

In 1921, nearly a decade before the Dandi march, the Congress was just emerging from a bitter factional fight between its moderates and extremists. A generation of leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal had faded out. In 1920, Gandhi had been on a whirlwind tour of India, to get to know people, to connect with them and to bring them into the Congress fold. In 1921, he was given control of the party. To see the 1942 Quit India/ Bharat Chhodo movement in its historical context, it is important to study the trajectory of the Congress from 1920 to 1942 through 1931.

That context has a close resemblance with the context in which the Bharat Jodo movement has sprung up. In 2002, the Congress looked far away from being able to counter the ‘India Shining’ rhetoric of the NDA government. A decade later, in 2012, a Congress-led UPA government managed to usher in landmark pieces of legislation on the Right to Education and the Right to Information besides creating an excellent livelihood support programme through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act better known as MGNREGA. But again, over the past eight years, India has undergone a complete transformation. We have a government that cosies up to a few super-rich business families and has systematically emasculated all counterbalancing democratic institutions meant to restrain a runaway Executive.

Mainstream media has been turned into a government lapdog and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression exists as if only to remind us of its real-life absence. Central investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate have been weaponised with laws that give them unbridled powers to search, seize, arrest and spread fear. The sharp rise in hate speech and hate crimes directed against minorities since 2014 has no parallel in India’s history since 1947.

Outside India, war clouds are thickening and the community of nations seems ill-equipped to effectively check aggressive intent and wars. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the popular uprising in Sri Lanka, the escalation of tension between India and its neighbours and the sharp rise in unemployment and poverty are all factors that bring back memories of Hitler’s rise to power. The BJP’s unceasing propaganda war and its ritual invocation of a fake militant nationalism also remind us of those times. The divisions in the opposition camp and the factionalism within opposition parties also make 2022 uncannily similar to conditions in 1942.

The similarities may not be obvious, though; they will become clearer when we review 2022 from a vantage point in future, when history reassesses the long march of 2022—the Bharat Jodo Yatra. In 1942, almost immediately after Gandhi raised his ‘do or die’ slogan, he was arrested and taken to prison with Kasturba and Mahadev Desai, both of whom died in prison. The Indian National Congress and three of its regional committees were banned; a hundred thousand went to jail and nearly as many went underground to continue the agitation.

Five years later, India had gained independence. In the same time interval, the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany also crumbled. By 1947, Mussolini and Hitler, who commanded the world’s most powerful armed forces in 1942, had become names uttered only in contempt. In 1942, colonialism was at the zenith of its exploitative might; by 1947, European colonialism had begun to look like a relic of the medieval dark ages.

Not everyone was convinced of Gandhi’s method of resistance even in 1942, even after he had demonstrated what was possible over the previous decades. How can you fight the military might of the colonial power and fascists with non-violence and non-cooperation, his critics would ask. Similar doubts are being expressed today about the Bharat Jodo Yatra. How will this long march combat the strong-arm politics of the adversary? How will it stop the intimidation of citizens through constant surveillance?

How will it uproot fear, falsehood, propaganda? I’d written earlier in these pages that the similarities between Gandhi’s Bharat Chhodo agitation and the current Bharat Jodo Yatra go far beyond their surface-level attributes. Perhaps the most important feature they share is the realisation that the push for freedom must come from the people, which, in turn, must necessarily involve their awakening. Implicit in Rahul’s embrace of the Gandhian method is the conviction that <his> battle against the prevailing economic disparities, the communal divide, the collapse of democratic institutions is their battle. It is a method designed to make people fearless and weaken the hold of the State over the minds of people. It is the method that taught people the strength of self-regulation or swaraj. It worked then, and beyond all expectations. Why won’t it work now?

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is showing signs that people might be slowly emerging from their coma-like stupor. Media has tried its utmost to play it down, but thousands and thousands are joining it voluntarily every day. When this long march began on September 7, most predictions were unfavourable, even in circles that do not subscribe to the Sangh/ BJP ideology. But with the Yatra now close to completing the first half of its 3,570 km pilgrimage, the picture has changed completely.

The Yatra has gathered great moral capital. People have begun to see that Rahul Gandhi is not what the BJP’s propaganda machinery has sought to make of him. He comes across as a humane, determined, perceptive leader of people, full of care for everyone. A child can climb on to his shoulders and feel comfortable there; an old woman can hold his hand and walk with him in dignity, young girls can get close to him and feel the affection of an elder brother. He has acquired through this entirely public spectacle an image that no amount of propaganda can bring to anyone else. Whether the media and the etherised followers of the right-wing ideology admit it or not, Rahul Gandhi has the most magnetic presence in India’s public sphere today.

The moral capital of the Yatra is deepened by its aesthetics—its atmosphere of caring and togetherness and the utter lack of mistrust and communal hatred that has become the default setting of our public life. The swarms joining the Yatra consist of students, farmers, labourers, who are no doubt putting aside everyday commitments and concerns to be a part of it. OBCs (other backward communities) are possibly the most numerous. There are civil society activists, initially wary of associating with the Congress; there are writers, artists, singers, film-makers, all participating with an exuberance that is uplifting, to say the least.

The Yatra has generated social capital too: the most significant impact is seen among the Congress party workers, its karyakartas. For years, they had been clamouring for opportunities to interact with the national leadership. They have got it now and their morale is up, their body language positive. All of this has no doubt created some political capital as well, and the buoyancy you witness in the Yatra seems to augur a seismic political reordering in days to come.

Rahul Gandhi has been candid and convincingly articulate through the Yatra. He has laboured the point that the Yatra has nothing to do with the upcoming state elections; he has repeatedly described it as a ‘tapasya’, a pilgrimage of discovery and introspection. He has also described it as a journey to discover India, to know his country intimately. His fellow Yatris are also not talking tactical politics but instead of taking politics to a higher plane. They are trying to reset the political vocabulary, to craft a new political idiom, to find a political language that is not marooned in communalism and innuendo, or in divisive rhetoric that keeps invoking the Partition of India and the birth of Pakistan.

Weeks from now, the Yatra will be over, and it certainly won’t get its due from our media. But those who participate in it, those who endorse it, those who speak to anyone who took part in it will speak of politics and public life in a new voice. A new climate of opinion will hopefully have been created, a new interest in keeping democracy and India’s federal structure and diversity alive. I have no hesitation in saying that the Yatra has opened a new page in India’s political life, a page that might set the agenda for an unfinished freedom struggle, to set our people free in ways we have dreamt of but not yet realised.

© Professor Ganesh N Devy

Professor G. N. Devy, was educated at Shivaji University, Kolhapur and the University of Leeds, UK. He has been professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, a renowned literary critic, and a cultural activist, as well as founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre at Baroda and the Adivasi  Academy at Tejgadh. Among his many academic assignments, he has held the Commonwealth academic Exchange Fellowship, the Fulbright Fellowship, the T H B Symons Fellowship and the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship.

He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for After Amnesia, and the SAARC Writers’ Foundation Award for his work with denotified tribals. His Marathi book Vanaprasth has received six awards including the Durga Bhagwat memorial Award and the Maharashtra Foundation Award. Similarly, his Gujarati book Aadivaasi Jaane Chhe was given the Bhasha Sanman Award. He won the reputed Prince Claus Award (2003) awarded by the Prince Claus Fund for his work for the conservation of craft and the Linguapax Award of UNESCO (2011) for his work on the conservation of threatened languages.

In January 2014, he was given the Padmashree  by the Government of India. He has worked as an advisor to UNESCO on Intangible Heritage and the Government of India on Denotified and Nomadic Communities as well as non-scheduled languages. He has been an executive member of the Indian Council for Social science Research (ICSSR), and Board Member of Lalit Kala Akademi and Sahitya Akademi.

He is also advisor to several non-governmental organizations in France and India. Recently, he carried out the first comprehensive linguistic survey since Independence, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, with a team of 3000 volunteers and covering 780 living languages, which is to be published in 50 volumes containing 35000 pages. Devy’s books are published by Oxford University Press, Orient Blackswan, Penguin, Routledge, Sage among other publishers. His works are translated in French, Arabic, Chinese, German, Italian, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu and Bangla. He lives in Dharwad, Karnataka, India.

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