Indian opposition's 'unity march' ends in disputed Kashmir

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SRINAGAR, India (AP) — India’s main opposition Congress party ended a five-month cross-country “unity march” in disputed Kashmir on Monday with hundreds of members of various opposition groups joining in a public rally in freezing temperatures.

The march led by Rahul Gandhi, an opposition leader and scion of the influential Gandhi family, sought to challenge what the Congress party says is a “hate-filled” version of the country under the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party.

Members of different opposition parties, including Kashmiri regional groups that oppose Modi’s policies but are pro-India, joined Gandhi’s rally in Srinagar in snow and bitter cold.

Hundreds of police and paramilitary soldiers blanketed Srinagar’s Lalchowk area and restricted public movement, allowing only people with passes issued by the Congress party to enter the venue.

Dressed in a traditional Kashmiri tunic worn during the winter, Gandhi, 52, and other leaders stood on an open podium inside a cricket stadium.

The march was to “raise a voice against the hate” and “open shops of love in the bazaar of hate,” he said.

Gandhi accused Modi, the home minster and the national security adviser of stoking violence and said he wants to show that India is a “country of love.”

Gandhi began the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” or “Unite India March” in Kanyakumari, a coastal town at the southernmost tip of India, on Sept. 7. The march, which was live-streamed on a website, covered 3,570 kilometers (2,218 miles) and crossed 12 states before finishing in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Passing through hundreds of villages and towns, the march attracted farmers worried about rising debt, students complaining about increasing unemployment and activists who say the health of India’s democracy is in decline. Along the way, Gandhi abandoned his formerly clean-shaven look for a thick beard and slept in cabins made of shipping containers during the night.

Hindu nationalism has surged under Modi and his party, which have been criticized over rising hate speech and violence against Muslims. Opponents say Modi’s lack of criticism of the violence emboldens right-wing groups and threatens national unity, but his party has denied this.

Modi’s party dismissed Gandhi’s march and speeches as a political gimmick to regain his “lost credibility.”

In impassioned speeches during the march, Gandhi accused Modi and his government of doing little to address growing economic inequality, rising religious polarization and the threat posed by China.

Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a bitter standoff in the mountainous Ladakh region since 2020. Opposition parties and some experts say the Chinese army has occupied some Indian positions in Ladakh's cold desert.

In Srinagar, Gandhi told reporters that Modi “is almost frankly the only person in the country who is under the impression that the Chinese have not taken any land from India.”

Gandhi also accused Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party of “attacking the institutional framework of this country.”

“Whether it is Parliament, whether it is assemblies, whether it is the judiciary, whether it is the media, all institutions are being attacked and captured by the BJP,” he said.

He set a conciliatory tone in Kashmir, where New Delhi in 2019 ended the region’s semi-autonomy and took direct control of it amid a widespread crackdown and communication blackout.

“I think statehood and restoration of the democratic process in Jammu and Kashmir is fundamental and very important and I think that would be a first step,” Gandhi said on Sunday. “I am not happy with what I see in Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, I am saddened.”

Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan, which each control part of the region.

Gandhi called the march a “vision” and said it was “not just a walk” but “an idea of how India should move forward.”

With a national election about 15 months away, the march could help determine whether the beleaguered opposition can put up a fight against the electoral juggernaut of Modi’s party, which won majorities in 2014 and 2019.