Rallying for friendship

Print edition : August 08, 2014

The BCIM rally being flagged off at Kolkata. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Students welcoming the rally in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Two Chinese delegates showing off their Indian pendants. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Women in a Dali village in traditional indigo-dyed bandanas.

Taking the ferry at the Brahmaputra in Assam.

Traditional Manipuri dance in Imphal.

The Kolkata-Kunming car rally, through India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, highlights the need for proper connectivity that would facilitate cultural and trade exchanges between the peoples of these countries.

A TENTATIVE but spectacular initiative was launched last year when 20 cars, emblazoned with messages of goodwill, rallied through remote towns, villages, the countryside, mountains and jungles of Asia to begin a new era of Asian cooperation and friendship. The BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Car Rally traversed more than 3,000 kilometres from Kolkata in India to Kunming in China. Apart from spreading the message of solidarity and goodwill, the rally was a trial run to test the feasibility of connecting the four countries of the region through seamless multimodal infrastructure, one that would facilitate not only movement of people but also exchange of goods and services. That the initiative addressed the landlocked and less prosperous regions of the participating nations speaks volumes about the real objective of the initiative. This was not about the flourishing periphery, capitals or port cities but about the anonymous hinterland, often bypassed by development.

The car rally of 2013 was the latest in a series of projects that first began in 1999 with the Kunming Initiative, which envisaged devising ways and means to awaken the true potential of a region that has lain dormant for centuries, primarily for want of physical connectivity. Sharing a common destiny as well as dreams, this region was trapped in relative isolation, hostage to political compulsions and economic deprivation. One of the ways to inject vibrancy into the region, it was believed, was to facilitate passage through land borders for both trade and cultural exchange. The Asian Highway project, started decades earlier, was supposed to achieve connectivity, but had stopped short of achieving its goal for a variety of reasons.

The Confederation of Indian Industry decided it was time to revive the connectivity project and kick-started it with the car rally. In this endeavour, it received financial and logistical support from India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the governments of all the countries concerned. Tata Motors generously provided 10 vehicles, while another 10 were supplied by the Chinese. Karl Slym, the CEO of Tata Motors who passed away tragically a few months ago, was a participant in the rally, along with his wife Sally. The rally and the opportunities it provided for interaction with the peoples along the way made a valuable contribution in determining the direction and content of the initiative. In June this year, the countries met in Dhaka to discuss the blueprints for specific and realistic infrastructure plans that would provide continuous and seamless connectivity across the region.

I was fortunate to be part of this pioneering initiative. The entire effort was a collaborative venture of the four governments, which greatly facilitated the logistics of conducting such an arduous journey. The members of each country’s team were chosen to make a truly representative group. They comprised foreign policy experts, academics, interpreters, journalists, energy professionals, engineers, cultural representatives, etc. In many senses, the design of the BCIM Car Rally itself set the tone for mutual cooperation and synergy. The 80-strong BCIM delegation had an equal number of representatives from each participating country. Ten Indian-made Tata Safari vehicles were shared by the Indian and Bangladeshi delegations while 10 Chinese-made cars, brought all the way to Kolkata by the Chinese team, were shared by the Myanmarese and Chinese delegations. Mutual respect and equality defined the conduct of the rally, with the participants sharing their expertise and resources to make the rally a grand success. Flagged off by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, the rally ended in Kunming three weeks later, with a celebratory dinner hosted in honour of the delegation by the political leadership of Yunnan province.

The rally was conducted by a professional outfit, Autocar, a team of young rally enthusiasts with their crackling ham radios that barked instructions in rally lingo to the receivers fitted in each car. They cracked jokes and sang songs, providing steady merriment on those tedious, long stretches. Autocar had already conducted a reconnaissance trip a few months earlier to ensure a smooth journey. This team kept schedules, attended to refuelling and repairs when needed, and ensured that the cars were in good shape. I was in a car where all the four occupants were senior citizens. Ravi Boothalingam, a Confucian scholar and former ITC professional, Ejji Umamahesh from Chennai, a veteran rallyist, Victor Bannerji and I took turns at the wheel in our car. Most of the participants were also drivers.

The first leg of the rally covered mostly Bangladesh, entering the country through the Benapole-Petropole border, about 84 km from Kolkata. After stopovers in Jessore and Sylhet, the rally reached Dhaka, where the Shabagh Square was alive with welcoming crowds. A visit to the Banga Bandhu Museum brought back memories of 1971 and the turmoil which heralded the birth of Bangladesh. Our Bangladeshi hosts, starting from immigration officials at the border in Benapole, were unfailingly courteous, and we were treated to lavish feasts and quality cultural performances by local artists wherever we went. In Dhaka, the rally rolled into the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre to a rousing welcome to the tunes of Nazrulgeet, where an advance team of Indian academics and former diplomats had already flown in to discuss the modalities of taking the initiative forward.

The complex geography of the region entailed entering India twice, the second time around from Bangladesh through Sutarkandi in Assam. From Assam, the road stretched to Manipur through Silchar, the toughest part of the journey where the roads were only notional and we just had to navigate through blinding dust. The local administration in Manipur had organised for us not only a lavish cultural entertainment with traditional Manipuri dances, but also a mouth-watering, traditional 62-course Manipuri feast, served on banana leaves. The following day, the Chief Minister of Manipur, Ibobi Singh, waved off the rally, after gifting the rallyists exquisite handmade Manipuri shawls and basketfuls of goodies, which we distributed to villagers along the route.

As the convoy passed through, the landscape served up a panorama of mountains, swamps, rivers, lakes, paddy fields and jungles. From densely populated Bangladesh and India, the landscape changed into the vast wilderness of Myanmar. The ethnic, linguistic, cultural transformation along the route, though gradual, became pronounced. Facial features changed from the familiar to the more exotic, often defying slotting. Despite these gradual differences, what unites the people of this region is the desire to partake of the fruits of prosperity that seem to elude them primarily because of the lack of proper connectivity.

The rally entered Myanmar through the Moreh-Tamu land border lined with cheering crowds from both countries. From Tamu, the convoy rolled through pristine Myanmarese jungles into Ka Lay, a small town in Chin State. From here, we drove to Mandalay, the once imperial capital of Myanmar. In Mandalay, we lined up our cars near the palace walls and were flagged off by local officials. Having reached Mandalay very late the previous night, we did not have time to explore this ancient town. Our journey through Myanmar was enlivened by the presence of three beautiful Myanmarese film stars who were mobbed wherever we went. How the three of them, a man and two women, managed to look so chic and stylish even after such a dusty journey was a wonder.

After Mandalay, we were headed towards Ruily, on the Myanmar-Chinese border. While most of the hinterland was rural, Ruily was an exception. A casino town like Khorgos on the Kazakh-China border, Ruily has many highrises, excellent infrastructure, a thriving market and many gambling houses. From then on, the road got smoother and smoother and was world class in many stretches. On the Chinese side of the border, not much work needs to be done in terms of physical infrastructure.

As we drove through Yunnan province in China, the route got more and more spectacular and mountainous. There were arched bridges, steep precipices, tunnels and caves and even a Dinosaur Valley, so called because some dinosaur remains were believed to have been found here. Tengchong, a resort town in Yunnan, is famous for its lovely jade, and there were innumerable shops stocking a profusion of jade jewellery.

Dali, our next stop at the foot of the Cang Shan mountains, was breathtakingly beautiful. Dali predates modern China and is home to the Naxi people, a proud race with a distinct culture. They decided to build a new town 30 km away and preserve their old town intact. All the buildings in old Dali, be they shops, houses or factories, or even auto repair shops, were built in Dali style with local slate roofs and marble slabs adorned with Chinese paintings, mostly herons, storks and swans. In the entire old Dali town, there was not a single piece of discordant architecture. As I strolled through the cobbled alleyways criss-crossed by quaint bridges, a gurgling canal accompanied me. It was kept flowing by a wooden waterwheel. The water itself was sparkling clean. In the market, the shopkeepers, most of them belonging to the Bai tribe, were all in traditional costume—flowing indigo print gowns and outrageously big headgear—and I wondered if I had strayed into a Yunnanese period film. We stayed in Dali for a couple of days, visiting the 200-year-old Chong Sheng temple and its three serene pagodas and racing each other on the banks of the ear-shaped Er Hai lake.

The rally terminated in Kunming, 18 days after it was flagged off. The participants were received with great warmth and friendliness by the political leaders of Yunnan who hosted a lavish banquet in our honour. Shouts of “ganbe” rang out as Chinese rice wine was replenished repeatedly and the tables were groaning with mounds of Chinese delicacies. Incidentally, in China, provinces with an international border can conduct their own diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries to further trade and economic relations. The Yunnan provincial government has a full-fledged foreign relations bureau which is actively engaged in relations with neighbouring countries. However, the province is precluded from encroaching on policy matters over which China’s Ministry of External Affairs has jurisdiction. This dual track system enables the province to go ahead with economic, trade and investment relations and social and cultural exchanges. Thus, Kunming was a fit place to end the rally in. Perhaps, one day the initiative will extend further to include South-East Asian nations so that an Asian Union on the lines of the European Union need not remain a distant dream.

The journey was not without hiccups though. Some car or the other broke down every couple of hours, some sprang punctures, others broke an axle or bent an oil pipe. The Kukis in Manipur had threatened to block the rally before it reached the border near Moreh, but, with literally scores of armoured cars escorting the rally from Imphal and six army helicopters on standby in case of an untoward incident, the convoy rolled along smoothly. The local newspaper in Manipur reported that explosives hidden on the route were defused well in time, much before the rally passed the spot, by an alert patrol vehicle. In Manipur, the administration had mobilised the entire paramilitary, police and armed forces to provide security.

The cars had to make their own roads in quite a few stretches. It is a matter of concern that the roads on the Indian stretch were far more challenging than the roads in the other countries. The stretch from Silchar to Imphal, a distance of about 270 km, took 15 hours to negotiate. Invariably, every single day, the rally reached its destination only by 10 p.m., stopping frequently not just to attend to breakdowns, but also to interact with the villagers who had turned out along the route to wish us a safe journey. The reception was as spontaneous as it was overwhelming.

Bridging cultures

What set this journey apart was that it was not about metropolises and mega cities like Mumbai, Beijing or Dhaka, but about relatively obscure places and less-noticed peoples. It was about Benapole, Jessore, Sylhet, Karimganj, Silchar, Imphal, Moreh, Tamu, Ruily and Tengchang and hundreds of villages on the route whose names are not marked even in Google maps. The rally was about bridging all those faceless villages and inconspicuous towns where, more often than not, man-made political boundaries have riven apart people of a common heritage. It was about the hope that one day, sooner rather than later, the patchy roads will metamorphose into paved macadam, providing easy access to each other. The rally was also about breaking down political barriers to ensure seamless connectivity for the common good.