For the BJP. the Ekta Yatra didn’t turn out to be the second coming it wanted. There was no saffron sunrise over Srinagar’s Lal Chowk and no exuberant cheerleaders to shout rabble-rousing rah-rahs. BJP President Murli Manohar Joshi’s face told the story.
A willing prisoner of the Jammu and Kashmir administration and surrounded by scores of men in fatigues. Joshi drove up, on the morning of January 26, in a police car, to be greeted by the sound of gunshots.
In a hurry to leave the confines of the Valley, Joshi quickly got down to the business of hoisting the tricolour he had carried with him from Kanyakumari. And while a contingent of 67 BJP workers raised feeble slogans of Vande Mataram, Joshi and yatra convenor Narendra Modi struggled with the flag presented to him on December 21, its pole snapped into two. Finally, Joshi had to make do with the state administration’s flag.
The ceremony lasted precisely 12 minutes, and there was not a single Kashmiri to witness Joshi’s embarrassment. Despite the hype preceding the hoisting, Joshi had to fly into the Valley under cover of darkness, the night before the event, swapping his symbolic houseboat for a staid Indian Air Force an-32. Because, as a police official put it: “Surprise is the best form of security.”
Security, in fact, was Joshi’s main worry. He even spent the night at the BSF mess close to the airport because it was not safe to drive through the city. All along the 15,000-km route of the yatra, Joshi had boasted: “We have more volunteers than the militants have bullets.”
But in the end. the bullets won, as an audaciously-planted bomb exploded on January 24 at the police headquarters, injuring DGP J.N. Saxena and four other senior officers. Added to this were the rocket attacks and the incessant firing, as well as the attempt to shoot down the Indian Airlines IC-421 as it was landing in a curfew-bound city.
As JKLF- commander-in-chief Javed Ahmed Mir told India Today over the telephone: “Our mujahedins are in a state of preparedness. The curfew is a measure of our success. The entire nation’s eyes are on Srinagar, not because of the yatra, but because of us.”
Indeed. The yatra united the scattered militant groups as even the Centre’s worst mistakes couldn’t. Gathering together under one umbrella and launching ‘Operation Snowstorm’, they set up ‘Maqbool Butt’ squads to tackle the travellers.
And succeeded in sending a chill through Srinagar’s ghostly air, which may last long after winter’s gone. For, Joshi’s coming has swung a losing battle in the militants’ favour and further wounded the Kashmiri psyche.
The signs were evident on the last lap of the yatra. Having billed itself as a long distance runner, the BJP ran out of oxygen after Jammu. Much of it was due to the attack on yatris near Phagwara on January 23.
As an anxious Atal Behari Vajpayee, on board the flight to Jammu, said: “The killings in Punjab could give ideas to the Kashmir terrorists.” They did. By the time, BJP leaders trickled into their Jammu hotel, the news of the Srinagar blast wrecked their remaining confidence.
All through the day, L.K. Advani, Vijayaraje Scindia, Vajpayee – among others – debated whether politics was more important than protection. And Governor Girish Saxena shuttled between his house-turned-office and the hotel. Ultimately, security prevailed. It remained for Joshi to put the seal on the deal.
Soon, the fanfare at Joshi’s Jammu reception faded into insignificance. There were no press briefings, no off-the-record conversations and no official announcements – from either the Centre, the state Government or the BJP leaders – but details of the agreement started filtering through. And Modi was blunt enough to tell journalists: “From now on, you are on your own. If you can, reach Lai Chowk and we will see you there.”
Convincing the BJP leaders wasn’t difficult. After consulting bureaucrats at the Centre, Saxena told them: “We cannot assure your security if you travel by road to Srinagar. We will do our best, but you will have to take your chances.”
The officials convinced the BJP top brass that even handing over the national highway to the army could not guarantee their safe passage. Then, there were reports that the militants had proclaimed a ban on private vehicles on the highway from 6 a.m., January 25, to 12 noon, January 26.
The only quibble the BJP had was on the timing of Joshi’s flight – the pretext, they said, should be that they had to stop because of landslides. Somebody up there must have heard. When the yatra set off from Jammu, there were two landslides near Banihal.
But those in Jammu who showered petals and chanted Vande Mataram and Jai Shri Ram while sending off the yatris were blissfully unaware of this high drama. Barely 5 km from Udhampur, when the yatris had broken off for lunch, District Magistrate B.L. Nimesh told the press cars to go no further.
And as agitated yatris blocked the road, they were told by Modi to head for home. Even as they looked on, angry and confused, Joshi was whisked away, with six others, in three cars led by Nimesh.
The next thing they knew, two iaf Chetak helicopters were heading for Srinagar. The reaction of a Rajasthan MLA, Tara Bhandari, was typical: “All of us feel cheated. What was the need to bring us all here and make us look like fools?”
On the morning of 26 January, 1992, the group reached the deserted heart of Srinagar city. The 67 BJP men encircled by BSF men walked down the Residency Road toward Ghanta Ghar holding the tri-colour, chanting feeble slogans, “Vande Mataram (Hail Mother India).”
Near the clock tower – where Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru in a historic speech in 1948 had promised a referendum to Kashmiri people to decide their political future – the experience of hoisting the Indian flag was short-lived as the flag carried by Joshi from Kanyakumari fell down on his head with its poles snapping into two – Finally, Joshi had to comply with the flag of J&K state.
Around noon, soldiers housed in the old city were tipped by an informer that a militant was inside one building. A young man bolted from the building and was brought down by a hail of police gunfire. Within hours, his family had organised a funeral that brought hundreds of people onto the streets of the city.
Then, dozens and dozens of needle-thin shikara boats glided across Dal Lake, their occupants standing with fists raised, shouting “Azad zindabad!” or “Long live freedom!” in chants thundering across the water’s glassy surface. And on a shikara on the middle of the boat the body of the young man, draped in a red and white checkered cloth, was held aloft by a group of silent men.
This was Narendra Modi’s first experience with Kashmir.