The juggernaut was bound to run into hurdles. Garishly decked with monstrous men in top-hats, scantily-clad women, mangled mandirs, the spectre of crosses and churches and the Christian clergy out to convert, the rath was already the bearer of bad tidings when the Madhya Pradesh government stopped it on its march. Words plastered across the vehicle's body matched the monstrosity of the visuals: 'Seva ka durupyog na ho; dharmantaran turant rokiye (don't misuse the goodwill; stop conversions at once), Rome nahin, Ram chahiye (not Rome, but Ram)' and 'Hindu saare ek (Hindus are one)'.
Despite the hype, there were few takers for this yatra
With an unapologetic Pope coming to India, a dozen-strong saffron salvation army had set out journeying from Goa to Delhi between October 21 and November 4 to remind the nation of its "sanskruti". The Sanskruti Raksha Manch (srm) had made clear its intentions: a BJP government or not, bullet-proof cars for the Pope or not, it was going to fire token shots at the pontiff.
The rath had rolled in from Goa to Mumbai en route to Delhi accompanied by a few vehicles and feeble applause. From Borivili to Baroda, the tone of the dharmajagran yatra stayed the same. Shrill, playing to the gallery for an audience that had turned up for the rabble-rousing roadshow.
But the BJP top brass, by refusing to bless the yatra, had put a dampener. It showed. Hastily-erected mandaps displayed frayed edges; third-rung leaders, with the sole exception of Bajrang Dal national convenor Surendra Jain, were to address the crowds and both local and national journalists were few and far between.
The agenda, however, was shaped by the religious tilt. At every corner, every turn, the Pope was threatened. "If you come as a guest, you'll be welcomed. If not, you'll be insulted even if you are a religious head," warned Swami Vishwesharan, head-priest of a suburban temple at the meeting held at Borivili's Swami Vivekanand Circle.
The choice of the venues was deliberate. Christian-dominated places with a strong missionary presence and areas associated with some history of hate. "We'd identified places like Goa, Belgaum, Kolhapur, Talasari and the Dangs which are hotbeds of missionary activity. We want to tell missionaries that if we can come this far and address people here, we can throw you out as well," says Bhujangrao Goghe, the Yatra Pramukh.
Till the time he opted out of the yatra, Acharya Dharmendra Maharaj was the high draw, evolving his own version of religion and history. The Story of Creation was replaced with Darwin's theory; Mother Teresa was termed as a "jadugarni budiya (the witch)"; "Priyanka bitiya" and "Rajkumar Rahul" as "crossbred, confused children."
After a damp squib of a rally in Talasari, the yatra hit Gujarat - first stopping at Silvassa then Dharampur. As cries of 'Hindu jagey, Christian bhagey' loosely hung in the air, Harishbhai Patel, a bystander, commented, "There are only VHP workers here. Nobody was aware that this swagat was to take place. " Dangs, the definitive destination, came a cropper. Assembled crowds at Unai were kept waiting for a yatra that arrived three hours late. After five minutes of fire-breathing by Surendra Jain, followed by a quick dip in the hotsprings made famous by the VHP's reconversion programmes, the yatra made its way towards Vyara.
Zankhvav was next, followed by a fairly successful rally at Netrang. Here, reconverts to Hinduism were paraded, a "Hindu veer" Jethabhai Vasava felicitated for keeping the faith. Pamphlets of Christian fringe groups were circulated and the air was thick with condemnation. "We do not differentiate between the mainline churches and the fringe groups because we find that the former always defends the misdeeds of the latter. To us, they are all the same," said Jain.
A swagat at Rajpipla and a meeting at Devalia over, the yatra headed towards Baroda. But what if after all this the Pope refused to apologise? "Well, we have done our duty by making people aware of the duplicity of Christians. Now they should carry on the movement," says Harishbhai Bhatt, Bajrang Dal national vice-president. "Why?" counters an adivasi woman at Talasari, which shows no signs of the meeting held a day earlier. "We've our lives to lead. Nobody wants trouble." A boy accompanying her chirps: "Desh bachao, padri bhagao (save the nation, drive away the clergy)."
The srm wanted to raise a storm. But it seems all they could raise were slogans.