Last week, the world lost a historical icon when Fidel Castro died at the age of 90. Like many other countries in the so-called Third World, Castro’s demise led to mourning and commemoration in India.
A plethora of politicians and commentators offered their condolences with suitably rosy words in honour of the fallen El Comandante.
The event also brought back memories of times gone by, and can, in India’s case, be said to mark a symbolic break with parts of the country’s post-colonial history.
It was especially during India’s period as a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War that Castro made himself known in the country. India was among the first countries to recognise Cuba after the revolution in 1959. Since then, relations between the two countries have been known as close and amicable.
It appears to have been Castro himself who precipitated the “friendship” shortly after the revolution -- he sent his closest comrade Che Guevara with an entourage on a “world tour” of potentially like-minded partner countries, including India.
Guevara met with then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and had fruitful discussions regarding, among other things, the possibilities for trade cooperation. In letters, Guevara showed that he, like Castro, looked up to Nehru as a socialist visionary -- and Nehru showed great sympathy with the small Caribbean island.
Castro himself first visited India in 1973. But there was another visit, 10 years later, that remains as the memorable moment in terms of Castro in India.
Although condolences in honour of the deceased Castro have come from all quarters in India, including Prime Minister Modi, it is, perhaps, not surprising that it is particularly the communist parties that now mark Castro’s demise
The occasion was an assembly in Delhi for the Non-Aligned Movement where Cuba would pass on leadership of the movement to India. During the meeting, Castro gave a real bear hug to his successor and “sister” (as he put it), then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The hug led her to retreat somewhat shyly, reportedly blushing. The assembly of 140 heads of state applauded Castro’s hug.
Since the big hug, there have also been other famous episodes in relations between the two countries. Particularly noteworthy is the Indian aid sent to Cuba in 1992 when the country underwent an economic crisis.
The aid consisted of 10,000 tons of wheat and 10,000 tons of rice, sent from India under the leadership of the Punjabi Harkishan Singh Surjeet, a former General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The aid was embraced by Castro, who described it as “India’s bread.” Since then, India and Cuba have maintained their “friendship” despite the fact that India has established increasingly close ties with the US.
Although condolences in honour of the deceased Castro have come from all quarters in India, including Prime Minister Modi, it is, perhaps, not surprising that it is particularly the communist parties that now mark Castro’s demise.
In the state of Kerala, where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) maintains a strong presence, they declared three days of commemoration. For the communists in Kerala, Castro has been a particularly iconic figure -- painted on thousands of walls around the state -- which marks the cohesion of a larger socialist movement.
There is reason to believe that such icons are important for Indian communism. Castro was a symbol of the ties not only to international socialism, but also to India’s recent past as a leading non-aligned country.
Without such icons, Indian communists can experience greater difficulties in finding sources of inspiration outside of themselves.
Jostein Jakobsen is Research Fellow, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.