Fidel Castro in the South Asian context

Kadayam Subramanian November 28, 2016 6:37 AM (UTC+8)
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Fidel Castro was the son of a Spanish immigrant in the largest island nation in the Caribbean across the Straits of Florida. He became an icon of the Latin-speaking world and of countries born out of colonial and anti-racial struggles in central and southern Africa.

In South Asia, Fidel Castro and his comrade, Che Guevara, have been icons of the progressive students movement.

Ashok Mitra, the octogenarian writer and former finance minister in the communist-led government of West Bengal and an admirer of Fidel Castro, has stated that the ideal of reducing the gap between the leaders and the led, striven for in many socialist countries, was achieved in Cuba under the leadership of Castro.

Mitra notes that fifty years ago, Washington’s dictates were followed mutely in Latin American countries, but the US is today getting edged out in the region and is failing to revive the capitalist order mainly due to the influence of Fidel Castro.

Like Mao in China, Castro defied rigid Marxist tenets and successfully mobilized the Cuban peasants. Another significant aspect was the social and cultural influence Castro exerted in Latin America, as publicly acknowledged by the celebrated Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In his book length interview to Ignacio Ramonet, Castro has explained his transformation from a student leader to a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary who fought for Cuban (and Latin American) freedom from US domination, though he failed to achieve it fully. He could not export the Cuban revolutionary model to the other parts of the Continent.

In India, Fidel Castro will be remembered, among other things, for his participation in the 1983 Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit (now defunct) in New Delhi

At the 6th NAM summit, Castro as chairman of the NAM was to hand over his chairmanship to Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. Castro was ready to hand over the gavel to her but did not do so immediately. He first drew Gandhi towards him and gave her a giant hug and then gave her the gavel!

The watching heads of state and representatives of 140 countries present in New Delhi applauded. Castro had been impressed by the way India had conducted the proceedings of a conference.

India took up the 7th NAM summit after the cancellation of a scheduled summit in Baghdad in 1982 due to the breakout of the Iran-Iraq war.

Former foreign minister of India and Secretary General of the 7th NAM summit, K. Natwar Singh, has revealed that India had not even offered to host the summit while some others had done so.

In his book, Walking with Lions, Singh reveals that when Castro picked India, it had just six months to prepare to host more than a 100 heads of state and governments.

Castro’s hug of Indira Gandhi was iconic. A similar iconic event in 1983 NAM summit was the way Castro intervened behind the scenes to save India huge embarrassment when the then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was upset on realizing that he was slated to speak after the Jordan’s presentation.

Ties between the two had not been good and Arafat threatened to leave the summit without speaking till Castro intervened.

In The Hindu newspaper in 2008, the former Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, wrote that the matter was brought to Indira Gandhi’s notice who then spoke to Castro who was yet to hand over chairmanship of the NAM to her.

“To watch the Cuban leader handle the temperamental PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) leader was an education,” Singh said.

“Mr. Arafat reached the conference venue 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 said: ‘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 wrote.

Castro had remembered the regard Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi’s father, had shown him back in 1960.

In September 1960 in New York, Castro would be accommodated by no hotel. Finally, when he found a place in Harlem, the first person to visit him was Nehru the Indian Prime Minister.

“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 later.

Castro shared a warm relationship with the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who succeeded Indira Gandhi after her 1984 assassination. Singh reports that Castro’s meeting with Rajiv Gandhi lasted for six hours!

India’s Vice President Hamid Ansari, one of the last Indian leaders to visit Castro in Cuba in 2013 said that the Cuban leader was 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.’

Kadayam Subramanian
Kadayam Subramanian is former Director, Research and Policy Division, Union Home Ministry, Government of India, and former Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage, 2007, and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, 2016
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