India, this side, is far different from the India that mainstream media and established histories make it to be. Its small towns and villages have a life of their own, rarely reported in news, but entirely self-supporting and resilient. Think, for instance, of the town Kalamnuri. The 2011 Census put its population at 24,700 and the number of households at about 4,500. It is in Hingoli district of Maharashtra, but not so well known to people outside the district. It is not as if the place is without any sociological or historical significance. It has been given this name as it houses a shrine of a historically important Sufi saint, popularly known as Noori Baba. In Sufi records, his name is Hazrat Sarkar Sayyad Nooruddin Noori Shahid Chisti-Kalamnuri. The Noor Darga has been standing in Kalamnuri for the last six centuries. It continues to stand there in dignity, never vandalised despite having come under various regimes in history.
The people of Kalamnuri have preserved its sanctity. Kalamnuri has a mixed religious population. It is not too far from Nanded, a place sacred for Sikhs and not too far either from the area where Basaveshwar preached a thousand years ago. Thus, Muslims, Sikhs, Lingayats, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Hindus inhabit Kalamnuri in harmony and mutual respect. Educational and health-care institutions, parks, and public places created by various communities are open to all other communities with no visible discrimination. As a result, the ideas of Sufis and saints of all sects have been in currency in routine conversations of people. Many progressive writers from neighbouring districts have espoused the ideas of Phule, Shahu, Gandhi, and Ambedkar and added to the eclectic and progressive mindset of the people in the area.
Kalamnuri appeared in the news because Rahul Gandhi and the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” walked through the town and made a night halt there. In anticipation of the Yatra, poet-novelist Shrikant Deshmukh and thinker Datta Bhagat had formed a group of writers named “Sahitya Dindi”. Dindi refers to the age-old tradition of “a procession of poets” involved in the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur, known as “Wari”. They had asked me if I would help them to meet Rahul Gandhi as I was involved in handling the civil society interaction with the “Bharat Jodo Yatra”.
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When I reached Kalamnuri on the eve of the Yatra’ s arrival, I found the writers gathered in the premises of the Cambridge English School. Some of them addressed the gathering and spoke to young student activists about the great books in Marathi. The school has been established by Dr. Santosh Kalyankar and his doctor wife, who have put all their income into running the school. Hundreds of children from poor families get entirely free education and hostel facilities there. The Kalyankars have never sought media publicity for their work. I asked Santosh if he would like to meet Rahul Gandhi. He accepted the suggestion but said that he would like to stay quiet. “I do this work, but talking about it is not in my nature.” I asked him if I could invite the Moulana of the Noor Darga. He did not waste time in answering my question, but just sent a vehicle to fetch him.
Our meeting with Rahul Gandhi was scheduled at 2 p.m. We were asked to reach the tent an hour earlier. It was a surprise for all in the group of some 25 writers and activists that senior Congress leaders personally received them, conversed with them, and escorted them to the area of the meeting. The meeting place was a small make-shift tent, but clean and orderly.
Rahul Gandhi arrived there at the appointed time. Although he had walked about 15 km that morning, he showed no signs of fatigue. He was cheerful. After I introduced the group to him and after brief statements by three writers, he asked if he could intervene. He was curious to know if the writers could think of a single word that could describe all productive and working people, a word that does not have any shade of contempt or indignity.
This led to a brainstorming about the semantic layers and sociological connotations of many terms, among them “Dalit”, “Proletariat”, “Bahujana”, “Loka/log”, and “Janata”. The discussion also brought in official labels like ST, SC, OBC, and, Minorities. It touched upon historically used terms like “Shramana” as against “Brahmana” and “Praja” against “Raja”. Rahul said, “Please think of how we can think of the large majority in India that is engaged in production, the majority that ‘gives’, in order to give them dignity that history and society have denied them.”
The discussion became so engaged that the writers present there completely forgot that they were talking to a leader. During that hour of their being together with Rahul Gandhi, they felt almost as if he was one of them, a well read and inquisitive intellectual, compassionate to those who have a life of suffering. The writers had prepared themselves to present their views on the contemporary situation in India and what they expected Rahul Gandhi to do. Most of them just forgot what they had come prepared to say and were completely engrossed in the discussion initiated by Rahul Gandhi. Just then the moment for him to leave came. He requested the writers to stand with him for a photograph; and after the photograph was taken, he walked away gently, cheerfully, to meet another group.
Rahul Gandhi has been walking day after day, meeting such groups, talking to people, trying to understand their lives, their emotions, and their thoughts, sharing with them his concerns, his dream of creating a society that can live in harmony.
The Yatra has been extremely challenging, Just the super-human physical stamina required for it makes it daunting. The number of group meetings and public meetings day after day make it even so. Yet, one sees Rahul Gandhi and his yatri colleagues exuding joy as if they have found a great spiritual strength, a “nasha” as a Sufi would say, or a “brahmananda” as a Hindu saint would put it. The divine delight that Rahul Gandhi has brought to the yatra cannot be captured by any political analysis. It also cannot be understood if seen as a makeover or transformation of a persona. It can only be understood if it is seen as a pure desire to create India as a society based on the values of respect, dignity, equality, and love for all.
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I was present in Kanyakumari on September 7, the eve of the commencement of the yatra. I had a copy of the Constitution and the Indian tricolour for giving to Rahul Gandhi as gifts on behalf of India’s civil society. I had participated in organising the civil society interaction with the yatris in Karnataka. I met them again in Maharashtra, as they walked through some of the most difficult terrain in the state. I have been in conversation with many who have been walking alongside Rahul Gandhi, and many who have been to the yatra for interactions.
Going by what I have seen so far, what I have heard so far, and what I have noticed in social media posts circulated by thousands who have seen Rahul Gandhi passing by their fields and villages, I have come to the conclusion that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is no ordinary political action. It is a saintly act, suffused with a realisation that far exceeds anything India has seen since the times of the Buddha and the medieval saint-poets. Rahul speaks English and Hindi and no other Indian languages. He is no poet in any traditional sense. Yet, the way children get attracted to him, the utter comfort women of all ages feel walking with him, the complete absence of cliché and the power of a non-lingual message that the yatra is spreading, all indicate that here is a semiotic experiment yet unknown in history that Rahul Gandhi is set out to carry out.
The appeal of the yatra is not in what it says; it is in its ability to move the minds and hearts of millions without saying much. It says exactly what the age-old harmony between different religious groups in Kalamnuri says to India; and it is, “Never mind if you do not acknowledge my presence, but I am timeless, and I am here to stay for as long as India is India.”
Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.
- Kalamnuri, located in Hingoli district of Maharashtra, has a population of 24,700 according to the 2011 Census.
- It has been given this name as it houses a shrine of a historically important Sufi saint, popularly known as Noori Baba.
- Kalamnuri has a mixed religious population. It is not too far from Nanded, a place sacred for Sikhs and not too far either from the area where Basaveshwar preached a thousand years ago.
- Kalamnuri appeared in the news because Rahul Gandhi and the Bharat Jodo Yatra walked through the town and made a night halt there.
- The appeal of the yatra is not in what it says; it is in its ability to move the minds and hearts of millions without saying much.
- It says exactly what the age-old harmony between different religious groups in Kalamnuri says to India: “Never mind if you do not acknowledge my presence, but I am timeless, and I am here to stay for as long as India is India.”