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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and party's general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra share a light moment after hoisting the tricolour flag, at the party office, in Srinagar on Monday, January 30, 2023. Image Credit: ANI

Srinagar: India’s main opposition Congress party ended a five-month cross-country “unity march” in 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.

Members of different opposition parties, including Kashmiri regional groups, 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 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 and crossed 12 states before finishing in Kashmir.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with supporters during the unfurling of the National flag amid the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, at the party office, in Srinagar on Monday, January 30, 2023. Image Credit: ANI

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.

The ruling BJP has dismissed Gandhi’s march and speeches as a political gimmick to regain his “lost credibility.”

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

Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a bitter standoff in the mountainous Ladakh region since 2020.

In Srinagar, Gandhi accused the BJP 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.

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India's Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi speaks at a public meeting amid heavy snowfall as he concludes the 'Bharat Jodo Yatra' march in Srinagar on January 30, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

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.”

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.

Leaders from half a dozen opposition parties attended the rally, the largest opposition gathering in Kashmir.

“All secular parties must come together to liberate the country from BJP,” D. Raja, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, said at the rally.

Several other opposition leaders failed to make it to the rally because flights into Srinagar’s airport were cancelled due to the heavy snow.