|Indira Gandhi & Fidel Castro|
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Too many obituaries will be written about Fidel Castro. So, I won't use this space for another obit. Let me just recount a vignette about the great revolutionary's India visit, more than 35 years ago.
Castro visited India to participate in the 1983 Non-Aligned Movement summit in New Delhi. Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her imperial (and impervious) reign of India. Following her triumphant return to power in 1980, after the post-Emergency debacle of 1977, Mrs. Gandhi was eager to acquire a global image.
To help build that image, India hosted the Asian Games in 1982, and later that year (1983), after the NAM Summit, India would host the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Goa.
Indira Gandhi was aspiring for a prominent place in history, comparable to the one her father had, and was not going to settle for anything less.
However, the Indian print media, experiencing a grand resurgence and an awakening after its censorship during the Emergency (1975-1977), had different ideas.
Arun Shourie, a World Bank economist, who was emerging as the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, had already changed the rules of the game for a media. His grand expose of Abdul Rehman Antulay, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, (Indira Gandhi as Commerce) had set new benchmarks in investigative journalism in India.
The NAM Summit in Delhi was telecast live, and for the first time, one saw world leaders from the movement, led by the charismatic trio of the movement – Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Mrs. Gandhi.
NAM was happening live on TV. It was a moment for all Indians to be proud. Arun Shourie had different ideas. Coinciding with the NAM Summit, Shourie (and Shekhar Gupta) pieced together the story of the Nellie massacre in Assam.
India Today published it and timed it to coincide with the NAM Summit to create maximum havoc. The Summit was inaugurated on March 12 and India Today's cover on Nellie hit newsstands on March 15. Globally, the media gave precedence to the Nellie massacre and not the NAM Summit.
One wonders whether the Nellie massacre was discussed at the NAM Summit (it’d have been unlikely). I remember the Summit for the bear hug Castro gave to his “sister” Indira, and for his long speech (six hours or thereabouts).
I’m reproducing a paragraph from a piece by K Natwar Singh, a foreign service veteran, an Indira lackey, and India’s foreign minister a decade ago, wrote in the Hindu remembering Castro (The one and only Fidel).
“The opening day of the summit produced a crisis. S.K. Lambah, the Deputy-Secretary General, came to me during the lunch break. “Sir, we have a hell of a problem on our hands. Mr. Yasser Arafat is most upset — he says he felt insulted by being asked to address the opening plenary session after the leader of the Jordanian delegation. Mr. Arafat has already alerted the crew of his aircraft and will leave New Delhi this evening.” I immediately informed Indira Gandhi. I also told her that President Castro, till the afternoon session, was still the Chairman and that she should take him into confidence. She acted promptly. She arrived at Vigyan Bhavan in a few minutes. She had also spoken to President Castro.
The great man arrived in no time. I narrated the melancholy tale to him. He asked Mr. Arafat to come to Vigyan Bhawan to confer with the outgoing and incoming Chairmen. To watch the Cuban leader handle the temperamental PLO leader was an education. 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.”
In 1983, I was just out of college. I had graduated in commerce, just because those days the conventional wisdom was that a college degree in commerce would get one a clerical job. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Journalism was developing into a keen interest, and I avidly followed MJ Akbar’s Sunday magazine every week. It became a vocation soon after I abandoned my futile attempts at becoming a chartered accountant. My father Meghnad’s trade union activism, and my home in Teli Gali, had made me by then into a committed secularist, if not a leftist.