IT was a ‘pilgrimage’, but turned out to be a political jamboree. Riding high on popular nationalist fervour, the Sindhu Darshan Yatra— organised by the RSS clan every year in Leh— was given a new political meaning in the after-math of the Kargil war. Significantly, this time the army brass shared the dais with RSS activists and BJP leaders to address the yatris on the banks of the Indus.
Many eyebrows were raised about the manner in which the sacrifices of army jawans in Kargil were co-opted for the Yatra. It wasn’t for nothing that home minister L.K. Advani saw the Sindhu yatra— an R S S show— and the success of Operation Vijay as a "happy coincidence". He gushed: "Sindhu darshan is a great opportunity for us to salute the martyrs and express our gratitude." Defence minister, George Fernande s , on his part underlined the "cultural significance" of the Indus as "it has witnessed several wars on its banks". Said Fernandes : "Even this war was fought along the Indus. In Batalik, the Pakistanis were chased away from it’s banks." For Fernandes and Advani, the Sindhu darshan was also an opportunity to claim credit for "handling Kargil efficiently". In his speech, Advani did not forget to draw a parallel between the Sino-Indian war fought under Jawaharlal Nehru and the Kargil conflict of ’99. "This time, here was some result of the war," he said. The clear implication was that the political leadership this time was more efficient.
While moderating the programme, Tarun Vijay, editor of the R S S mouthpiece Panchajanya, repeatedly stressed— in the presence of jawans from the Ladakh Scouts— that "the Indian Army and the Sindhu Darshan Abhiyan together create a great sense of patriotism. We are blessed to see this." However, army officers privately expressed their concern about this trend of trying to appropriate sacrifices made by the armed forces by political formations in the name of patriotism. "We have no business to be here. It was 100 per cent a political meeting. If they wanted to honour the jawans, they should have come to the army units instead of calling us here," said one officer. But Lt Gen V.S. Budhwar, G O C of the Leh-based 3rd Division, who even made a speech, later justified his presence. When Outlook quizzed him about the subtle political overtones of the function, Budhwar said: "I have no idea what you are talking about. I am only looking at this (dance and music). They are honouring my jawans and I will go wherever my jawans will be honoured . "
There were differing perceptions of the event. While, for a local the Indus— Singay, in the Ladakhi dialect— is just another
tsangspo (river), for a Sindhi from Delhi or Gujarat it is a symbol of his cultural identity. So, when the loudspeaker blared the Sindhi song Dama dum mast qalandar in Runa Laila’s voice, it was a festive time for Sindhis who broke into a vigorous dance, chanting Ayo Jhulelal with their fingers pointing up at the sky. For others, it was just an opportunity to get noticed by Advani. After a long wait, when Advani reached the spot with Fernandes and Farooq Abdullah and the rest of the entourage intow, among those who started jiving were famous dancer Sonal Mansingh and Chandan Mitra, editor of The Pionee r.
aarti and puja on the banks of the Indus, all three leaders— Advani, Fernandes and Abdullah— added an almost perfect secular colour to the event. But Abdullah, it seems, wanted to prove a lot. "Many boundaries in Europe have disappeared," he declared, "so this line (between India and Paki-stan) will also disappear." Having evoked a round of loud applause, Abdullah, in his enthusiasm, left the dais and joined the chorus to sing Vande Matara m. And when members of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, women’s wing of the R S S, came up to tie rak-his on Advani’s and Fernandes’ wrists Abdullah had the broadest smile on his face.
In the evening, the families of soldiers killed in the war were brought to a large gathering at the polo ground. Each family was handed cheques of Rs 25,000— collected by
Panchajany a— amidst the songs and choruses sung by Anup Jalota and the Song and Drama Division orchestra. The mixing up of symbols became even starker when, along with the cheques, the families were also given portraits of Hindu gods and framed citations signed by none other than R S S chief Rajendra Singh, a.k.a. Rajju Bhayya himself. "It has become an R S S show, " quipped a telecom officer involved in the arangements, blessed with acute insight.
With Advani, Fernandes and Farooq Abdullah on hand, the entire state machinery— including the armed forces — was ressed into service to make the event a grand success. The army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police units in Leh provided food and logistics for the Sindhu yatris, even though the event was purely a private affair organised by the Dharma Yatra Sangh, branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The Sindhu yatra is the brainchild of Advani and Vijay— who stirred a hornet’s nest when he, in one of his editorials, at the height of the Kargil war called upon the government of India in to drop a nuclear bomb on Pakistan. By Advani’s own admission, he was not aware that "the Indus flows through India" till three years ago. "I saw the Sindhu as a child (in Pakistan), but in ’96, when I came to Leh, I was told that the river in front of my guest house was the Sindhu. I couldn’t believe it." Later, Vijay chalked out a plan to start Sindhu pilgrimage every year.
THE RSS network in the country was used to popularise the yatra. The first yatra was organised in ’77, where most of the participants were R S S activists of Sindhi extraction who have an emotional attachment with the Indus. "To popularise anything, you have to mobilise your own people. There fore, it’s quite natural if most of the yatris are close to the R S S," said an office earer of the Dharma Yatra Sangh. Even though there was a concerted effort on behalf of the organisers to portray the event as having the support of "all political parties and ideological and religious groups", Muslim and Christian leaders were conspicuous by their absence. Names of Shia and Sunni leaders were called out at the main function to receive mementos, but they were not p resent. Both Vijay and Advani several times stressed that all the religious and political groups had come for the function, but they were not called to the dais.
Ladakh has, of late, been of special significance for the RSS. It has had a full time pracharak in Leh for a couple of years. Under its interaction programme, the RSS takes children and students from Ladakh to other parts of the country—" to strengthen cultural ties"— where they stay with R S S activists’ families. Tension and violence between the Buddhists and Muslims over a decade ago in Leh had polarised society on communal lines. The suspicion is so deep that the Buddhist Association of Ladakh, during the Kargil conflict, had demanded that no migrants from Kargil be allowed to enter Leh. The political significance of the Sindhu Yatra also lies in the social environment of Ladakh where the process of Muslim alienation has not stopped. Fertile round indeed for the saff ron brigade.