Unique cycle rally to rebuild bridges with Bangladesh

Amidst violence & hate, cycling 2000-km to spread love & peace


November 1, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Unique cycle rally to rebuild bridges with Bangladesh

The rally left Ahmednagar on October 2 on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary (Photo: Snehalaya)

Over 100 persons, mainly children and women, are on a unique adventure trip, cycling well over 2000 km from their hometown of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra to Noakhali in Bangladesh to renew friendship between peoples of two countries on the 50th anniversary of liberation of Bangladesh.

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As Bangladesh celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence, and its unique friendship with India, which helped the country obtain the independence, it would have been normal to expect a series of news reports about the celebrations marking the Indo-Bangladesh friendship and the key landmarks of this 50-year-journey of the South Asian nation.

Instead, there have only been grim reports of alleged attacks on Hindu temples and the recently-concluded Durga Puja celebrations by the Hindus in Bangladesh and the reprisals by rightwing elements, notably in Tripura where some mosques were reportedly attacked recently.

But, away from news headlines and currently traversing through the dense forests of Chhattisgarh, a group of over 100 activists, including children and women, is making its way on a 2000-km journey on bicycles to take a message of peace, love and harmony from India to the people of Bangladesh.

The cycle rally has been organised by Snehalaya, an NGO that works mainly on women’s and children’s issues and is based in Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra. Girish Kulkarni, founder of Snehalaya, says that the rally is part of an effort by Snehalaya and some other like-minded groups to not only reinforce the people to people contact between the two countries but also address issues of sharply rising incidents of hate and violence within India as this year also marks the 75th anniversary of the Indian independence and it is time to remind people of the real reasons why we fought for and got our independence.

Message of peace and love, not hate and violence

“There is a lot animosity and differences that have cropped up amongst people over the past few years and we seem to have forgotten why we fought for our independence. There is literally no tolerance and as a result violence has been rising in our country. So, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our independence, it is vital to remind the people of that societal bond which united us in the freedom struggle and bring back that sense of goodwill towards each other,” Kulkarni tells Media India Group.

The rally left Ahmednagar on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, after offering homage to numerous freedom fighters including Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Gopalkrishna Gokhale, who had been imprisoned together at the Ahmednagar Fort in the city. On the occasion, veterans of the Bangladesh war & their families were invited for flagging off the unique rally, says Kulkarni.

For the rally, the organisers chose about 100 persons from among those who had volunteered. The youngest member of the troupe is a 10-year-old child, Siddharth Ankush Aware and it also has a 62-year-old doctor, Meghna Marathe. Kulkarni says that girls or women make up for over 43 pc of the entire group.

The rally will go all the way to Noakhali in Bangladesh, a historic town which had been torn apart exactly 75 years by some of the worst Hindu-Muslim riots that had rocked the subcontinent in the months leading up to the independence.

“We will go up to Noakhali in Bangladesh. Why did we choose Noakhali? This was the spot where the worst riots between Hindus and Muslims had erupted in October-November 1946. So when Mahatma Gandhi, who was then in Bihar, learnt of these riots, he immediately left for Noakhali to try and restore peace and calm there. So, we want to go there to spread the same message of peace and love 75 years after Gandhiji did,” says Kulkarni.

A discovery of India and of self

Kulkarni says that as the rally progresses through various parts of the country, they make it a point to visit key landmarks of freedom struggle or the bases of key social reformers in order to better inform and educate the group about their own country. It has become a journey of discovery of India as much as of the self.

“We are using this occasion to take our group to various historic sites along the way such as the Sewagram Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi in Wardha as well as Vinoba Bhave’s Paunar Ashram nearby. We also visited Baba Amte’s ashram. These visits not only inform and educate the group but also motivate them to follow in the footsteps of these great leaders and change makers who dedicated their lives for the benefit of the society, a message that has been forgotten in today’s world and needs to rekindled,” says Kulkarni.

He adds that for many, especially the youth, this trip is also about finding oneself and identifying what they would like to do in their lives, as a career or if they find their true calling, if they are inclined towards social work.

“We don’t want this mission to end with the rally. But instead to help the youth who are part of this mission to find their cause in life and there Snehalaya will help them, by hand holding and guiding them towards their true calling in life,” says Kulkarni.

Involving local communities in the peace mission

While the destination of the rally is Noakhali, the troupe spreads its message of peace, love and tolerance all along the way by involving local communities practically in every village that they traverse.

About 100 people are participating in the cycle rally (Photo: Snehalaya)

“We are constantly spreading the message of love and peace and tolerance, through street plays, music and all-religion prayers that we hold in every village where we spend the night and we involve all the locals also in these prayers in an attempt to spread our message,” he says.

The group also includes some handicapped children that Snehalaya works with, as it runs school for the blind and physically disabled children. Kulkarni says that at most pit-stops the group organises street plays or songs of about 15 minutes to communicate to the locals and involve them in the mission, before moving on. It also encourages the children in each village to join in, for short durations.

“We also encourage people, especially children to start using their bicycles more as it is very good for health as well as environment. So normally, in each village when we leave in the morning about 30-35 local children join us on their cycles and take us to the next village where we stop and then they go back and children from this village join our rally,” Kulkarni says.

Challenge of visas only hurdle on the way

Kulkarni says that all through the planning and organisation, the rally has been supported by all and it was not a big challenge to get this mission underway with the help of a few benevolent supporters. He says that Care International has helped in getting new bicycles for those children who did not have good bikes. Another organisation helping in the rally is the Rotary Club of India and also of Bangladesh who are proactively involved in organisation of the rally.

One of the key persons in Bangladesh helping the initiative and organising the local programme is Sam Showket Hossain. He says that he and his team is also equally excited about the unique cycle rally and the message of peace and hope that it brings with it.

‘‘The cycle rally will mark the peace, fellowship and warm relationship between Bangladesh and India. This year is really special as it marks completion of 75 years of Indian independence and 100 years of the Father of Nation of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well as 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh Liberation War. I recall the great contribution of India during our war of liberation. Each and every Bangladeshi always remembers that India is our friend,’’ Hossain tells Media India Group.

The Rotary Club of Bangladesh is organising activities to welcome the troupe from India by hosting various cultural programmes as well as activities where the people from two countries can come together and rekindle the spirit of friendship that has underlined the Indo-Bangladesh relationship over the past 50 years.

Snehalaya says that if the rally does not get visas for visiting Bangladesh then they will organise activities at the border itself (Photo: Snehalaya)

Kulkarni says that besides bicycles, the entire rally is a very low budget exercise which involves only the cost of fuel and highway tolls for three vehicles, two ambulances and a bus, that are accompanying the rally. Kulkarni says that the total estimated cost for this is only INR 600,000. He adds that the rally has been offered food and shelter by locals in every village where they stop and hence the cost of food and stay is also taken care of.

The only challenge, and a rather big one, before the rally is to get across the border into Bangladesh as they have not yet obtained the cultural visa which is needed for the mission. Kulkarni says that he has been to Bangladesh and met with the ministers and government officials who are very excited and positive about the initiative.

“I met foreign minister and other ministers and they are all very happy with this initiative, but they asked us to get a letter of recommendation from Indian foreign affairs ministry. However, unfortunately we have not yet obtained that, even though I have written to the foreign affairs minister and the foreign secretary. The Indian government says we should not go right now as there are riots in Bangladesh. But our point is that Mahatma Gandhi also went during the riots to spread message of peace, so we also want to do the same,” says Kulkarni.

Hossain of Bangladesh Rotarians says that the cyclists would be welcomed into Bangladesh and there is no fear of their safety or violence. He also dispels the notion that Bangladesh is a violence-prone country.

“Bangladesh is a not a communal country, and the people of Bangladesh are non-communal. Bangladesh celebrates Durga Puja with all the customs and rituals. People of Bangladesh have very good relationship with India and during Durga Puja not only Hindus visit India to celebrate it, but a lot of Muslims too visit India. We have Puja celebration in our country and I too visit the Puja mandaps. In general people here hate such kind of communal tensions,” he says.

Kulkarni says that if the rally does not get the visas for visiting Bangladesh then they will organise activities at the border itself. “If we are not allowed to cross into Bangladesh, then we will go up to the border and hand over the gifts that we have brought for veterans of the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini who fought the war of independence. We will also hand over all cycles to our Bangladesh friends as a sign of our love,’’ Kulkarni tells Media India Group.

But before going to the border or across it, the group will spend a considerable time in Kolkata, which played a key role in the freedom struggle. The group will visit the historic landmark Hyderi Manzil which has now been converted into a museum and renamed Gandhi Bhawan. It was here that Gandhiji did his last fast before leaving for Noakhali and it is also the last address where Gandhi stayed in Kolkata before his assassination in 1948.

Kulkarni says that despite the uncertainties and the problems, the group remembers its key mission and it has met its set of doubters who ask about the objective of the mission and its utility. For them, he has a clear and crisp response.

“A lot of people have asked us why we are going to Bangladesh, whether we are going to be with Hindus or Muslims or whose representatives we will be. For this our response is the same as Gandhiji’s, that we are going as representatives of humanity to help restore peace and love amongst all people,” says Kulkarni.



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