New Delhi: For most Indians, Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president who died earlier on Saturday aged 90, will be remembered for his participation in the 1983 Non Aligned Movement Summit (NAM) in New Delhi.
Castro, then president of Cuba, was the chairman of the (now defunct) NAM. He was to hand over the chairmanship of the movement to then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Castro appeared ready to hand over the gavel—symbolic of the handing over the baton to Gandhi but when she put her hand forward, he did not give it to her immediately. He first drew Gandhi towards him and embraced her in a giant bear hug before giving her the gavel.
The watching heads of state and representatives of 140 countries present in Vigyan Bhavan applauded the moment as cameras recorded the moment for history.
According to one theory on what prompted Castro to hug Gandhi, the former Cuban president was very impressed with the show put on by New Delhi. Popular lore has it that it was Castro who decided India would host the summit after a scheduled summit in Baghdad in 1982 had to be cancelled because of the breakout of the Iran-Iraq war.
According to former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh who was an Indian foreign service officer at the time, India had not even offered to host the summit—whereas many other countries including Indonesia and the former Yougoslavia had.
Singh recalled in his book Walking with Lions that Castro picked India with just six months to prepare to host more than a 100 heads of state and governments.
That India managed to pull it off was one of the reasons for Castro to show his affection, goes the theory.
If the Castro-Gandhi hug played out in public and is remembered as an iconic moment from the summit, there is another anecdote about the 1983 NAM meet that played out behind the scenes—when Castro intervened to save India from a major embarrassment.
Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was upset when he realised he was to speak after the Jordanian delegation. Ties between the two were not good back then and Arafat threatened to leave the summit without speaking. It was at this point that Castro intervened.
According to an article by Natwar Singh in The Hindu, titled “The one and only Fidel” published in 2008, the matter was brought to Singh’s notice and he immediately informed Gandhi. Gandhi in turn apprised Castro who was yet to hand over chairmanship of the NAM to Gandhi.
“To watch the Cuban leader handle the temperamental PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) leader was an education,” said Singh in his article. “Mr. Arafat reached Vigyan Bhavan in record time. Mr. Castro asked him if he was a friend of Indira Gandhi. The response was something on these lines: ‘Friend, friend, she is my elder sister and I will do anything for her.’Mr. Castro: ‘Then behave like a younger brother and attend the afternoon session.’ It was over in two minutes. Mr. Arafat did as he was told,” Singh recalled his in article.
Castro’s affection for India may have something to do with a gesture Indira Gandhi’s father Jawaharlal Nehru showed towards him.
Natwar Singh in the same article recalled that Castro had narrated to him how in New York in September 1960, no hotel would allow him to stay. Finally when he found a place, the first person to call on him was prime minister Nehru. “I can never forget his magnificent gesture. I was 34 years of age, not widely known. I was tense. Nehru boosted my morale. My tension disappeared,” Castro told Singh according to the latter’s article.
Castro also shared a warm relationship with Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv who succeeded her as prime minister after her assassination in 1984. According to Natwar Singh, one meeting between Rajiv Gandhi and Castro went on for six hours—almost as long as some of the speeches the Cuban leader reportedly gave.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and vice president Hamid Ansari have condoled the Cuban leader’s death.
“Fidel Castro was one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century. India mourns the loss of a great friend,” the prime minister said.
“We stand in support with the Cuban Government and people in this tragic hour,” he added.
In his message, Ansari, who was one of the last Indian leaders to call on Castro during a visit to Cuba in 2013, described the Cuban leader as a “heroic figure and an influential personality on the world stage.”
“In his death, the people of Cuba have lost the architect of their revolution and the developing countries of the world a champion of equality and justice,” said Ansari, who was also chief of protocol in the Indian foreign ministry when Castro visited India in 1983..
“He was a dear friend of India, and would continue to be remembered here, particularly for his role in the Non-Aligned Movement. I had the privilege of meeting him during my visit to Havana in October 2013,” he added.