With Delhi in the grip of cold wave conditions, the massive crowds on the main streets of North East Delhi were an unusual sight on a January morning. Numbering thousands, the local residents had lined up along roads waiting for Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to pass by as he resumed his Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) on January 3, after a brief break in the National Capital.

Even before the massive BJY procession reached, many residents of North East Delhi had lined up the streets, bundled up to guard against the bitter cold. Many among them were survivors of the anti-Muslim pogrom that had engulfed their neighbourhoods in February 2020.

That violence was unleashed just three winters ago, and the emotional scars remain fresh in the memories of those who witnessed, suffered, and survived to tell the tale. The violence had led to the deaths of 53 people and left hundreds injured, and many more robbed of their livelihood. The families are still mourning the deaths of their loved ones, and await a healing touch.

Rahul Gandhi chose to walk the second phase of his anti-hate march through the neighbourhoods, from where the most reports of organised violence amidst police absence, dereliction or complicity had emerged in 2020. These included Maujpur, Jaffrabad, Gokalpuri. All the spots that the BJY planners chose as key points of the rally before it entered Uttar Pradesh at Loni, Ghaziabad, are said to be communally sensitive areas.

On Tuesday morning, walking briskly in the middle of a beehive of volunteers, ringed by Delhi Police personnel, Rahul Gandhi, clad in his now signature white summer tee shirt, was seen waving, smiling and acknowledging those who had waited for hours to greet him. However, there was no pause to talk to the people there, maybe even make a small speech to assure them that they were not suffering in isolation. Many had been looking forward to that and were visibly disappointed.

On the ground, there were a lot of people gathered in support of Gandhi and his yatra, however, many on the sidelines asked "why did he not come here earlier?". That there is still some degree of hidden fear and insecurity among the locals, was also evident as many refused to share their real names, even as they shared their opinions. There were also more men, then women who had come out to see the yatra pass by.

The shops had been told to remain shut till the yatra ended, and vendors had not been allowed either. Vehicular traffic had been diverted all along the route and people took the metro, and many more walked to reach the designated spots at North East Delhi.

The people welcomed Gandhi with open hearts and many also said that the Congress will hopefully clock "better performance" in the 2024 elections, but should also do more for the people. "The yatra is just one of the elements the Congress has to bank on in the coming elections, but it is not the only one. Rahul Gandhi and other leaders need to continue meeting Muslims and not stop this public connection when the yatra ends in Kashmir," said a resident.

Gandhi's brisk walk through the area was also disappointing for many who wanted to hear his views, but there were no speeches. "Why is he not stopping to talk to us?" asked some. Many supporters, and curious commuters also walked out onto the metro station corridors to get an aerial view of the thousands walking in the BJY. "This yatra will help Congress for sure," said Aasif, a local of Jaffrabad, "but they are not likely to win a majority in 2024".

"Yeh genuine banda hai. No other leader from BJP, Congress or AAP has got such a crowd response," said Reema, a teacher who spent the last day of her winter break at the yatra. "We have lived here all our lives and never seen such a crowd. Hope he helps our people here," added Arif and Tarranum, " but the real effect will only be seen after this yatra is over."

"There is no one like Indira Gandhi but Rahul is trying which is why we have come to see him. We feel he is genuine and Congress will revive itself with this Yatra," said Santosh, a local from Maujpur who had come with her neighbours. Many at Maujpur, both Hindu and Muslim, had come to see Rahul Gandhi but they too ended up joining the yatra from this point.

"If this yatra had happened earlier the Congress would be in Parliament now, '' said Sameer, a local businessman who had come to see the "show" as he called it after his morning puja. He declined to be photographed. "The people here are always helping each other. We all want to earn and violence stops our work. But no politician has reached out like this in violence hit areas so far," he added.

The big criticism on the roads of North East Delhi was that "no big neta from any party was seen after the riots. No one helped us. Only people helped each other. Our wounds have not healed," said an old resident of Mustafabad who came to see the rally. He refused to give his name because he says he's still fearful of consequences.

According to news reports Rahul Gandhi also visited the Marghat Hanuman Mandir in Delhi, and "was seen carrying a mace" after visiting the temple. Traffic diversions for vehicles had been put in place all along the route which crossed the Yamunna on the historic Lohe Ka Pul, or the iron bridge to enter North East Delhi. That, however, did not stop the yatra, and those joining it along the way.

Mohammad had been waiting at Delhi's Northeast Maujpur area, to catch a glimpse of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. He owns a garment shop in the area and told The Citizen that he supports Gandhi and hopes he becomes the Prime Minister in 2024.

"Politics of hate has engulfed our country with the coming of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and we have to bring a leader who believes in development," he said. Upset that no party had come out in support post the Delhi violence, Mohammad said that it is the time to think about a solution. "Aam Aadmi Party did not say anything during anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, nor did they ever support Muslims after the violence. We are equally a part of this country and since BJP and even AAP have come into power, we have felt otherwise," he said.

When asked whether he is a cadre of the Congress, Mohammad refused and said he looks at Gandhi "as a ray of hope for this country". Hundreds of people had come out in support or just to catch a glimpse of the Opposition leader who has been walking in an attempt to "unite the whole country against hate".

Launched by Gandhi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin on September 7, 2022, the main objective of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is to fight against the politics of "fear, bigotry and prejudice" and the economics of livelihood destruction, increasing unemployment and growing inequalities. Gandhi had reached Delhi on December 24, 2022.

Meanwhile, at Jaffrabad, a group of women were excited and had come from Maujpur to see Rahul Gandhi. "We have been Congress supporters for a long time, and feel that he has potential, even if the party has not been able to win," Santosh, who has a government job, told The Citizen.

She said her whole family is in government services and also serve in the Delhi Police. When asked whether Bharat Jodo Yatra is a fruitful attempt, she smiled and said no one has witnessed something like this. "Although BJP won from our area in MCD elections, we have always rooted for Congress. I still feel there has never been a leader as strong as Indira Gandhi. Rahul is still young but he has potential," she said.

Mala, her neighbour, said that Gandhi has successfully spoken about important issues such as rising prices, unemployment and development. "I accept Congress lost its zeal this past year, but Bharat Jodo has surprised us all," she said.

While many were not staunch Congress supporters, but Gandhi's zeal had attracted them to come out and witness this. "Look at the crowd here, I am so amazed," Alishan, a resident of Jaffrabad said.

Locals in large numbers stood on roads and cheered as Gandhi walked and waved to them. "I have never witnessed something of this level," a local at Maujpur, standing beyond the barricades said.

When asked whether Congress could become as strong as BJP in the coming elections, many agreed. Politics aside, locals spoke in one voice to say that no more communal violence must be allowed to happen in their neighbourhood.

A recent citizen's report by former civil servants on the 2020 Northeast violence stated that "the current government engineered anti-Muslim narrative and propaganda led to violent signals and with how when amalgamated with hate messaging in public discourse, it actually led to incidence of violence.

After covering areas like Shastri Park, Gandhi Nagar, Dharampur, Seelampur, Jaffrabad, Maujpur and Gokalpuri, Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi led the Yatra into Ghaziabad's Loni area where more people awaited their arrival.

Sheela Devi had been waiting for the past two hours to catch a glimpse of Gandhi. "We support Gandhi and feel this could push Congress towards a better position in 2024," she told The Citizen.

When asked whether she was on board with Bharat Jodo, she smiled and said this was the reason she had been standing there for the past two hours. "I left everything at home to witness this," she added. The mood at Ghaziabad was more upbeat, loud BJY themed music played on "DJ Trucks" popular in the area. There was plenty of media presence too, and scores of cameramen and journalists rode ahead of the Gandhis in an open truck.

Priyanka Gandhi who is All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh spoke at Loni and said she was proud of her brother who had marched on foot for 3,000 kilometers so far. According to news reports she also said "the government spent thousands of crores of rupees to destroy your image, but you did not back down. Adani ji and Ambani ji bought leaders, bought PSUs, bought the media, but couldn't buy my brother. They can't buy him either. I am proud of him."

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief minister and National Conference president Dr Farooq Abdullah also joined the 'Bharat Jodo Yatra' on Tuesday. He walked along with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi near Ghaziabad, his party stated, sharing images on their social media pages.

Earlier in the day, the former Research and Analysis Wing (RA&W) chief A.S. Dulat also joined the Yatra on Tuesday, reported The Hindustan Times. This was then commented upon by BJP's IT cell boss Amit Malviya who took to Twitter sharing a photo of Gandhi and Dulat with the comment: "Controversial former RAW chief AS Dulat joined Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra. No one ever accused Dulat of being committed either to his job or the country he was meant to serve, supped with secessionists and Pakistan's deep state and has a monumental role in Kashmir fiasco…"

However, the BJY has so far not let any controversy become a speed breaker so far and will travel to key areas in Uttar Pradesh including Baghpat, and Shamli districts which had been most affected in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. According to news reports, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi will be walking in the yatra as it passes through Uttar Pradesh.

The yatra is expected to return to Haryana on January 6, and will reach Punjab on January 11, and Himachal Pradesh on January 19. It is reportedly expected to reach Jammu and Kashmir on January 20.