Of the many cretinous remarks that have escaped the lips of Amit Shah’s bearded visage, perhaps the most unlettered was his statement last week that the Congress only undertook yatras when they carried the ashes of their dead leaders around the country.
I do not think Amit Shah has read, or is perhaps incapable of reading, Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India. For were he to do so, he would discover the almost lyrical words in which Jawaharlal described his many journeys across the length and breadth of the land when helicopters did not exist and capitalist cronies were not available to loan private aircrafts to political patrons: “I passed through this vast country like some hurricane, travelling night and day, hardly staying anywhere, hardly resting…I travelled mostly by automobile, partly by aeroplane and railway. Occasionally, I had to use, for short distances, an elephant, a camel or a horse; or travel by steamer, a paddle-boat or canoe; or use a bicycle; or go on foot.”
Which of these modes of travel do the BJP PM and party President use? And please also note Jawaharlal’s refusal to resort to hyperbole. He uses the distracting expression “for short distances” so as to not mislead the reader into thinking him a greater adventurer than he was. Can we expect such rectitude, such passion for accuracy, such distancing from empty rhetoric, in the present ruling dispensation?
Nehru’s travels took him “to all manner of strange places, from the frontiers of Tibet to the border of Baluchistan.” Remember this was at a time when Nitin Gadkari was not frenetically building 35 km of highway every day. To reach the remotest villages and distant corners of the country, Nehru did not have at his disposal the technology that comfortably, indeed luxuriously, flies Modi/Shah out to some distant point and back to Lok Kalyan Marg (Race Course Road) for dinner. He really had to rough it out where, at best, a Dak Bungalow, not a five-star resort, was all that was available to lay his weary head for a few snatched minutes of sleep.
And where all that Shah and Modi see on their travels are hordes of herded human sheep and fawning sycophants, here is what Nehru saw: “broad fields dotted with innumerable small villages; towns and cities I have visited; the magic of the rainy season which pours life into the dry parched-up land and converts it suddenly into a glistening expanse of beauty and greenery; the Khyber Pass in all its bleak surroundings; the southern tip of India; and, above all, the Himalayas, snow-capped, or some mountain valley in Kashmir in the spring, covered with new flowers and with a brook bubbling and gurgling through it”. Ashes? Asti?
He also saw “people, individually and in the mass”. In what is arguably the most moving passage in his writings, Nehru talks of the “people”, the people of this great country: “Sometimes, as I reached a gathering, a great roar of welcome would greet me: Bharat Mata ki Jai – ‘Victory to Mother India’. I would ask them unexpectedly what they meant by that cry, who was this Bharat Mata, Mother India, whose victory they wanted? My question would amuse them and surprise them.. (someone) would say that it was the dharti, the good earth of India, that they meant.
What earth? Their particular village patch or all the patches in the whole of India? I would endeavor to explain that India is all that they had thought, but it was much more…what counted ultimately were the people of India. Bharat Mata was essentially these millions of people, and Victory to her meant Victory to these people…and as this idea slowly soaked into their brains, their eyes would light up as if they had made a great discovery”.
And, in return, what did he get from the people of India: “As I saluted them with a namaskar, the palms of my hands joined in front of me, a forest of hands went up in salutation, and a friendly, personal smile appeared on their faces, and a murmur of greeting arose from the assembled multitude and enveloped me in its warm embrace.”
What a far cry from the venom and sneering that marks BJP rallies these days. Yet, it is of this noble soul that Amit Shah believes he never went on a yatra but to carry around Gandhiji’s ashes. Shame on him!
Of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, perhaps the image of her that most fired the imagination of her people was her journeying to Belchi, “a remote village in Bihar”, says her biographer, Inder Malhotra, “deep in the heart of dacoit country”, adds journalist Janardan Thankur who accompanied her on the visit; “a risky undertaking”, in the words of another biographer, Katherine Frank, “because Bihar was a state notorious for roaming bands of dacoits who robbed and often killed travellers, and Indira no longer had security men to protect her”.
She had been comprehensively defeated in the elections of March 1977 but, just two months later at Belchi, “11 persons – eight Harijans and three sonars (goldsmiths) – were ruthlessly murdered, their hands were tied, they were shot and tossed into fire”. (Farzand Ahmed, India Today, 15 September 1977). This was part of a much larger problem: “The most heart-rending problem of the first few months was the sudden spurt in atrocities on Harijans”. (Malhotra, Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography). On arrival at Patna, recalled Farzand Ahmed, “an India Today correspondent, who joined the cavalcade, saw the people go crazy”.
Her first stop was Bihar Sharif, where four persons had been killed in a communal flare up days earlier. She visited the shrine of Makhdumal Mulk Shah Yahya Meneri, “offered prayers there, met the bereaved families”. (Farzand Ahmed). Here I yield to the greater wisdom of Amit Shah who certainly knows better than me that Modi had to reach the grand old age of 67 before ever stepping into a Muslim place of worship and, until Vajpayee forced his hand, had steadfastly refused to visit the Shah Alam mosque in 2002 where hundreds of frightened Muslim families, who had escaped from the pogrom unleashed on them as the Chief Minister looked the other way, were sheltering with little food and less water.
At Harnaut, 15 km from Belchi, “the path was full of ditches, nullahs, mud and slush from small rivers overflowing their banks. She changed from car to a jeep tugged by a tractor. She covered hardly a few metres when it got stuck”. (Farzand)
Then came the moment history was made. As extracted from Sagarika Ghose’s recent biography of Indira Gandhi, Janardan Thakur records: “she said, ‘We shall go on walking even if it takes all night’…Smt Gandhi walked through the mud, her sari raised above her ankle. A thoughtful local suggested an elephant. ‘But how will you climb an elephant,’ aides asked. ‘Of course, I will,’ she replied impatiently”, clambering aboard with a “terrified Pratibha Singh clinging to her”. And that is how Moti, the tusker, met his tryst with destiny.
“At Belchi,” Janardan continues, “grieving families stared awestruck as Indira on Moti loomed into view. They lit torches and came running towards her. She had the elephant kneel and listened to them and offered words of comfort. Mother India was back, the saviour of the Harijans had braved tempests and floods to bring comfort to her children”.
It was that night that the first government to include Modi’s ideological ancestors began its descent into ignominy. Was she carrying her father’s asti to Belchi?
India Today once crowned me Rajiv Gandhi’s “Manager, Tours and Travels”. In that capacity, I both organized his journeys to every nook and corner of the country and accompanied him everywhere. Has Modi ever been to Minicoy? Does he know where Guru Gobind Nagar in Greater Nicobar lies? Apart from helicoptering from manch to manch, has Shah visited Tezu, Tuting, Daparijo, Tawang on a single visit to Arunachal Pradesh? Has he been deep into the forests of Kalahandi and Bastar? Has he spent a night in a forest guard’s house lit only by a dim sizzling lamp? Has he driven from Jorhat to Mokokchung? Has he traversed, village to village, the entire left bank of the Brahmaputra in spate from Dibrugarh through Sibsagar to Guwahati? Has he been past dhanis on a camel over the shifting sands of the Thar desert? Has he visited our jawans on the international border in Rajasthan or at the Line of Control in Kashmir? Have Modi/Shah the agility to leap off a hovering helicopter because the helipad was a frozen sheet of slippery ice to meet the victims of an avalanche that hit the tiny village of Padam in the depths of the remote Zanskar valley of Ladakh? Have either of these gentlemen driven themselves through the Naxal bastion of the dense forests around Bhadrachalam in Andhra Pradesh? Or relentlessly through every district of Tamil Nadu over 13 visits, the most exhausting of which started at Mannargudi at dawn and, after transiting through Kulitalai in a thunderstorm at four in the morning, arrived at Trichy at six am without a wink of sleep because the milling crowds in the middle of the night just would not let Rajiv go on without stopping?
He was not carrying his mother’s ashes. It was because on those memorable rides through Tamil Nadu he saw scores of polio victims come crawling towards him that steps were initiated to end the blight of polio in our country.
And, most germane, did Modi drive out to the burning bastis of Ahmedabad during the ghastly massacres of 2002 as Rajiv, on his own, did in Delhi, once he saw that his senior-most minister, the Home Minister, had utterly failed to control the riots, and personally went in the dead of night to the worst-affected pockets to dampen the raging fires?
It was on that fateful last night of his life, as he flew with the Bulgarian journalist, Daniela Koneva, on his way via Odisha to Tamil Nadu that he told Daniela, who had assiduously covered all our Prime Ministers from Jawaharlal to Rajiv, that while she was undoubtedly the foreigner who had travelled the most across India, could she tell him who was the Indian who had travelled everywhere most? She shook her head and he answered his own question: “I – and Mani”. 24 hours later he was dead, blown to smithereens by a human bomb. Yes, I did carry his asti to mingle a bit of it with the waters of the Kaveri.
But, no, I will not be accompanying the Modi/Shah yatra carrying the asti of their party around the country after it is reduced to cinders in the electoral inferno of 2019.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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