It’s 10 am, and confusion reigns. As four vehicles assemble near the Takshshila Hotel in Rajpur in Badwani district, about 180 km from Indore, for the Ekatma Yatra announced by the Madhya Pradesh government “to spread social harmony”, among those watching nonplussed is 70-year-old Gangaram Patel.
Trying to understand what is written on the posters on the side of the vehicles shaped like raths, Patel says, “I have no idea what this is all about.” Deciphering the name of a “Baba”, he cheers up, “I think it’s a teerth yatra (pilgrimage). They want to build a 52-ft statue of Omkar baba.” He is still not clear where the “baba” is from though, Patel confesses.
If Patel is confused, it is for a reason. While the Ekatma Yatra’s professed cause is “social harmony”, it has many other missions, including “creation of Advait philosophy”; fighting casteism; seeking cultural unity; and protecting the girl child and women. All through, the yatra also aims to collect metal and soil from the villages it passes through to build a 108-foot statue of Adi Shankaracharya on the banks of the Narmada, at Omkareshwar.
One of the chariots carries padukas (footwear) said to be of Adi Shankaracharya as well as a big kalash with water from the Narmada. This leg of the Ekatma Yatra began from Omkareshwar on December 19, and is among four such yatras being taken out in different parts of the state, to culminate at Omkareshwar on January 22 after covering all the 51 districts of the state.
Today, the first halt on the itinerary is garlanding of a bust of freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad, located near the local market in Rajpur. After waiting for nearly 30 minutes, hoping to attract more people than the few hanging around, seers Swami Samvit Somgiri and Sant Bhumanand Maharaj set off with the vehicles for the garlanding. They will next go to Anjad town, about 15 km away, and after that to Badwani, the district headquarters, where the day will end with a meeting.
The sparse numbers are an embarrassment for the local organisers, including members of the BJP, VHP and some Hindu outfits. One of them, Rai Singh Sendhav, is chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Text Book Corporation. People have not turned up despite their efforts, including distributing flowers in the villages where the yatra will not go through.
Interest is piqued briefly when drums join the procession, but soon after, as the yatra passes through villages, the only ones watching are absent-minded young children waiting with flowers handed out to them. An intrepid announcer, however, doesn’t let any of this affect him as he thanks villagers for their “overwhelming welcome”.
Around noon, the procession makes its way to Mandil village, where young men break into shouts of Jai Shri Ram.
Some 3 km later, the yatra receives a warm welcome from women holding up saffron flags. Some climb up the chariot to bring down the Narmada water kalash.
At Borloy village near Anjad, the announcer tells more discerning villagers that “the yatra is very important”. “So important that if you take a darshan of the padukas, you would have visited all the pilgrimage sites.”
At a meeting at Anjad town around 1 pm, addressing a thin crowd, Sant Bhumanand Maharaj calls for an overhaul of the education system and a law banning admission of children aged four or less in schools. “Had Lord Ram, Krishna, Gautam Buddha or Vivekananda gone to school at two years, there would be nothing to remember them for,” he says.
Sant Bhumanand also refers to the legislation passed by the Madhya Pradesh Assembly recently to award death sentence to those convicted of raping girls aged 12 or less. Creating awareness about the legislation that will need presidential assent to become a law is another objective of the yatra.
While in the Assembly, most lawmakers had insisted that some schoolgirls sitting in the gallery be asked to leave when the Bill was being passed, at the Ekatma Yatra today, there is no such discretion. Seated in the audience are several young girls; even younger ones are on the stage, where they were worshipped as part of kanya pujan at the start of the meeting.
Around 4.20 pm, the yatra enters Badwani and an hour later, makes its way to Jhanda Chowk for the final meeting. Swami Samvit Somgiri, a seer from Bikaner who has been leading the yatra, is at his oratorial best over the next 90 minutes. The 74-year-old sets off into a discourse that addresses everything from live-in relationships and surrogacy to secularism, and how women “who abandon culture” will not produce “valourous” children.
“One young girl asked me why should living-in be objected to. She was 15-16 years old. I asked if she had any lafda (affair). I told her you can’t become a good wife if you have a live-in. Even if you do marry, poison will flow from your breasts, not pure milk. You won’t become a good mother or a daughter or produce good children. Then I asked her how long would the live-in last: a day, a month, a year? You would desert him,” Somgiri says.
Talking about a “so-called judge” who described the relationship between Radha and Krishna too as a live-in, he fumes, “The entire Hindu society heard (without reacting to) it.” Somgiri goes on to criticise those talking about secularism, saying “there is nothing like it.”
In his pitch on the significance of the yatra, the seer says it is so important that the Americans, Russians and Chinese are keeping a tab on it “from the sky”. “Don’t think the yatra will have an impact only in India. The entire world is watching, scientists are watching. The Americans, Russians and Chinese have their machines in the sky to find out what’s happening in India. Bharat is becoming jagat guru (world teacher).”
By the time Swami Somgiri finishes around 7.15 pm, many have walked out.
Pradeep Pandey, a BJP leader and vice-president of the Madhya Pradesh Jan Abhiyan Parishad, a semi-government body that is coordinating the Ekatma Yatra, insists history is being created. “In India and abroad, knowledge will flow. More than a crore have already attended the yatra,” he says.