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What I Told Rahul Gandhi As I Walked With Him in the Bharat Jodo Yatra

'When I told him that I had become a volunteer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when I was a teenager, he had a look of both surprise and curiosity on his face. He inquired, ‘What was your experience in the RSS like?’'
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi leads the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Photo: Twitter/@bharatjodo

The following is an excerpt from the chapter ‘Walking with Rahul Gandhi: Bridging Hearts and the Nation’ from the volume Bharat Jodo Yatra: Reclaiming India’s Soul, by Pushparaj Deshpande and Ruchira Chaturvedi, releasing today. Among contributors of the book are A.S. Dulat, Mallikarjun Kharge, Salman Khurshid, Mehbooba Mufti and Kanhaiya Kumar.

Bharat Jodo Yatra: Reclaiming India’s Soul, Pushparaj Deshpande and Ruchira Chaturvedi, HarperCollins, 2024.

I stood on the side of the road and watched. There was so much enthusiasm among the people coming and going on the road. The roads were full of people carrying the Tricolour. It was December, a very chilly morning, but the enthusiasm among the people made it warm. Around 8 o’clock, the first civil society group passed in front of me, in which Jairam Ramesh ji, Shankar Singh ji and Yogendra Yadav ji were seen. I immediately greeted them by shaking their hands, but did not move from my place since I had strict instructions to wait there. Within a few minutes, Varun ji, who was my contact person for this meeting, reached me. 

It took us some time to reach Rahul ji in the D circle of security. Varun ji took me far back and held my hand, saying that we would slowly keep moving forward. And in about ten minutes we reached Rahul ji. I saw that Nikhil Dey, a social activist associated with the Information and Employment Rights Campaign, and Dharamchand Khair, of the Adivasi Vikas Manch, were walking with him. The tribal activist had probably already spoken to Rahul ji, because I saw Nikhil Dey discussing something with him then. He was talking about bringing a law on social security for gig workers. Nikhil ji was saying that there were about 2.5 lakh gig workers in Rajasthan, who worked in various app-based companies such as Ola, Uber, Swiggy and Zomato, but did not have any social security system. So if the Rajasthan government came up with a scheme or a law for the welfare of gig workers, it would be unique in the whole world. 

Rahul ji was not only taking a serious interest in this conversation, but was also giving his views and asking questions. Later, during the lunch break, there was further dialogue on this topic between Rahul ji, the chief minister and Nikhil ji, and the conversation saw significant progress. And finally, the promise made by Rahul ji during the Bharat Jodo Yatra became a law and, today, Rajasthan is the first and only state in the country where the state Congress government has passed the Platform Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act, 2023. According to the Act, a board is to be formed, which will collect money from the companies and use this to ensure there is welfare and social security among gig workers. The government initially invested Rs 200 crore in this. 

As I was getting closer to where Rahul ji was, I met the Baytu MLA Harish Chaudhary. He said loudly from a distance, ‘Bhanwar ji, Ram Ram!’ I looked back and said hello to him. He asked, ‘When did you come?’ I told him that I had reached that very morning. After this I reached the second row, where I met Sitaram Lamba, who was overseeing training activities in the Youth Congress and was the president of the Rajasthan Youth Board. He warmly welcomed me and expressed his happiness at our meeting. 

I was soon in the line where Rahul ji was walking. But before meeting him, I met my own constituency’s MLA and state revenue minister Ramlal Jat in the first line. He shook my hand and expressed happiness that I was there. At that time Sachin Pilot and Hemaram Chaudhary were also walking in the first row along with Rahul Gandhi. Nikhil Dey was still talking; he introduced me to Rahul ji before leaving. 

Rahul ji greeted me with a handshake and a smile, saying, ‘I’ll talk to you in a couple of minutes. In the meantime, make your way from the left to the right, and be careful not to bump into me.’ I followed his suggestion and walked to the other side, where the former deputy chief minister of Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot, was also walking. Sachin ji looked at me and said, ‘With all this roaming, your hair has also turned grey.’ I remarked that his hair had also turned grey! After this I talked to him for some more time, while Rahul ji spoke to a local leader. Once he was free, he walked towards me, and our conversation started. I once again introduced myself to Rahul ji. When I told him that I had become a volunteer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when I was a teenager, he had a look of both surprise and curiosity on his face. He inquired, ‘What was your experience in the RSS like?’ 

I told him that when I was thirteen years old and studying in seventh class, Banshi Lal, a geography teacher, started an RSS shakha in a public place in our village where we used to play and exercise. Soon we started raising slogans in the shakha and learnt to sing songs. Our games were such that they aroused the spirit of extreme nationalism, and we were taught things about the minority community that could only be called illogical. We learnt that Gandhi’s non-violence was cowardice and that Nehru and Gandhi had together divided the country, that Muslims were invaders and had destroyed our temples.

I was part of the RSS for five years, and rose from volunteer to head teacher, caretaker and district office head. I went to participate in the kar seva to demolish the Babri Masjid in 1990. I did not reach Ayodhya, as I was arrested at the Tundla station after Mathura. I was kept in Agra’s Multipurpose Stadium Jail (a stadium temporarily converted into a jail) for ten days. After returning from there I was active in the RSS, but in 1991 I took part in the demonstration under the ‘Hand over the temple or leave the throne’ movement, where a bullet was fired and two people were killed after being shot by the police. While they had nothing to do with this protest or the Ram Mandir movement but were Hindus, both were declared martyrs and a funeral procession was taken out with their ashes in urns. This procession also came to my village. We welcomed them and cooked food for the RSS members. But they refused to have food at our house. A senior leader consoled me by putting his hand on my shoulder, saying, ‘Brother, you are a patriot volunteer … You know that the Hindu society is still rigid. We can eat food together from the same plate, but the saints will not be able to eat, so please pack the food. I will give it to them in the next village.’ This statement shocked me, as I used to constantly tell my family that there was no casteism in our sangh, that all Hindus were brothers and considered equal, that there was no discrimination against anyone there. But now this was happening to me. The leaders of my own organization were refusing to eat at my place, a Dalit worker. Finally we packed food for them, which they did not eat but threw on the roadside. Instead, they ate at a pandit’s house late at night. 

This news came to me the next morning. For me to know this was as terrible as death. I could not believe it. I visited the place, and upon seeing it with my own eyes couldn’t help but believe it. I realized that those I had journeyed to Ayodhya for and was prepared to make any sacrifice for were not willing to accept the food I had lovingly prepared at home. This made me question my place in the Hindu Rashtra, to which I had been dedicating myself day and night, aspiring to become a full-time pracharak. I was so broken by this incident that I attempted suicide, but I was saved. Then I left this hypocritical and casteist organization and started exposing their mentality. My struggle continues even today. 

Rahul ji listened to my experience of joining the RSS and the story of my disillusionment with sensitivity and seriousness. He embraced me with great compassion and love. Rahul ji said, ‘These people have a culture of indulgence—they want dominance over everything. They consider everyone less than themselves. They suffer from a superiority complex. They teach hatred. I came out to give love to people and receive love from them.’ 

Bhanwar Meghwanshi is an author, journalist and social activist.

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