To witness the official inaugural of the Onam festivities in Thiruvananthapuram last week, and their conclusion on Monday, was to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. After four Onams of misery – two years of severe flooding in 2018 and 2019, followed by two years of Covid restrictions and lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 – this year marked the first occasion for unbridled joy and celebration. The city of Thiruvananthapuram was festooned with lights. Superstar Dulquer Salmaan, who attended the inaugural, remarked that he had been told to look out for the lights when he came to town, and they had lived up in vivid colour to his and his friends’ expectations.
The crowds at Thiruvananthapuram's Nishagandhi auditorium that day were overflowing in every direction. I have witnessed multiple events there, from the International Film Festival of Kerala to literary and musical extravaganzas, but I have never seen so many people crowding into the auditorium as on this occasion. Tourism Minister Mohammed Riyas spoke of how tourism had picked up with a vengeance as Covid ebbs, and was being called “revenge tourism”, people avenging themselves on years of denials; he suggested this was, for the people of Kerala, a “revenge Onam”. The estimated 10 lakh people who lined the route of the floats participating in the “khoshayatra” that concluded the festivities confirmed how much this “revenge Onam” meant to them.
It was all the more appropriate, since Onam represents the best of the Kerala ethos – a festival which rises above the divisions of religion, caste, language and creed assiduously promoted by some in our country's politics. Onam is the time when all celebrate their common humanity and their shared Malayaliness, and all of us in the state capital did the same, exchanging gifts, enjoying colourful dances, music and laughter.
Onam is a festival of unity; it is what marks out the Kerala spirit from anywhere else. I remember once, when I was a minister in the External Affairs ministry, meeting the honorary Indian Consul-General in Gambia, a tiny sliver of a country on both sides of the river Gambia in West Africa. The total population of Gambia is only 24,00,000, about the same as my Thiruvananthapuram constituency, so I jokingly remarked that surely he didn’t have too many Malayalis there. He replied that they were only three families of Keralites amongst some 20 odd Indians in that country. In that case, you could not be getting too much botheration to celebrate Onam, I suggested. On the contrary, he said: these three Malayali families are two Christians and a Muslim, but they will not allow us to let Onam to go by without a celebration at the consulate, to which all the other Indian families are invited. I was delighted to learn that, in this tiny outpost in Gambia, the spirit of inclusiveness, of sharing and of mutual affirmation across communities – which is the best of what Kerala is all about -- flourishes. As long as we have that spirit, no one will ever be able to change our character, whatever be the undesirable trends we see elsewhere in India.
Yatra for harmony
This year, I was not, unfortunately, able to fully enjoy the wonderful closing ceremony of the official Onam festivities, which took place on Monday. After a brief appearance at the inauguration, I had to move on. For once there was something even more important – the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which was marching through my constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, that afternoon. The Yatra is a massive, 150 day undertaking led by Rahul Gandhi that will walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir with the clarion call to “unite India.”
Why does India need uniting, 75 years after we established a nation that enshrined our diversity and democracy in freedom? In many ways we are engaged in an existential struggle, to defend the idea of India enshrined in the Constitution. The Bharat Jodo Yatra is one important contribution to this ongoing effort. While we are working with everyone, including other parties, non-political individuals and civil society groups, any such major activity undertaken by a political party undoubtedly has a political message. And that message is that we are the party that can unite India and stop the process of dividing us on the basis of religion, caste and language that is being promoted by the ruling party.
This battle is a continuing one. We have lost a few skirmishes, notably in 2014 and 2019, but the Bharat Jodo Yatra marks the beginning of an effective reply. As long as it goes on, we will hope to raise people’s awareness, stir their consciences and galvanise public support. The sight of thousands of people thronging the streets of Parassala at 6.30 on a Sunday morning was proof enough of the interest this Yatra has generated among the ordinary people of southern Kerala. The same was repeated at the conclusion of each day’s Yatra in the delirious crowds that gathered to hear Rahul Gandhi speak at Nemom and Kazhakuttam on Sunday and Monday nights. Their enthusiasm will sustain the marchers on their arduous trek through the country.
The march will affirm with each step that India should never surrender to majoritarianism and other divisive forces. In his speeches Rahul Gandhi said that Kerala’s spirit of co-existence, harmony and co-operation is the very spirit the Yatra seeks to affirm across the rest of India. That is no small ambition, but it is most worthwhile. It is clear that the struggle for India’s soul will not cease after the Yatra ends.