India was one of the first countries to recognise Fidel Castro’s socialist government after the Cuban revolution. Ever since, both countries have maintained close contacts in various international fora, most importantly the United Nations. However, while the warmth and friendship India and Cuba have shared since the tiny Caribbean nation’s revolution serve as a continuing reminder of Castro’s affection for India, it was the legendary rebel Che Guevara, who visited New Delhi and Calcutta in July 1959, who laid the ground for that relationship.
This is the fascinating story of how Che Guevara’s historic visit to India in 1959 brought India and Cuba closer.
The forgotten story of Guevara’s visit to India in 1959 came into the limelight when Om Thanvi, the editor of Hindi daily Jansatta published a series of articles and rare photographs of the visit in 2007. These declassified files revealed an interesting history of India-Cuba relations.
Seven months after Fidel Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista’s authoritarian regime, Cuba’s newest leader decided that the country needed to build ties with like-minded independent nations, including India. He picked the man who had been his top adviser during the revolution, Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, to travel for three months across 14 countriesthat followed an independent foreign policy. As the face of new Cuba, Guevara’s task was to build confidence and goodwill for the country’s new government.
On the night of June 30, 1959, Che Guevara’s plane landed at Delhi’s Palam airport. Warmly welcomed by Deputy Chief Protocol Officer DS Khosla, Guevara and his companions – a mathematician, an economist, a party worker, a captain of the rebel army, a radio broadcaster, and a single bodyguard – were taken to the newly built Hotel Ashok in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri locality.
Next morning, Guevara met Jawaharlal Nehru at Teen Murti Bhavan, the Prime Minister’s residence. In the formal talks that took place before lunch, the two delegations decided to establish diplomatic missions and increase trade as soon as possible.
An admirer of Nehru and his socialist vision, Guevara later wrote in his report, “Nehru received us with an amiable familiarity of a patriarchal grandfather but with noble interest in the dedication and struggles of the Cuban people.” The warmth of their relationship is not just documented in Guevara’s report, it is also reflected in Nehru’s gift to Guevara – an ivory handled khukri in a walnut scabbard. Today, it is carefully preserved at Centro de Estudios Che Guevara in Havana.
The Cuban delegation also visited the Cottage Industries Emporium and the Okhla Industrial Area, where they saw lathe machines. They met the Indian Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, senior defence officers, and members of the Planning Commission. They visited the Agricultural Research Institute and National Physical Laboratory. There is even a famous photo of Guevara checking out a metal detector at the laboratory of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.
A poetry aficionado, Guevara was known to be an introvert who often worried about botching up diplomatic niceties. However, he had an entertaining side too. During a lively discussion at the residence of the Chilean ambassador in New Delhi, he decided to demonstrate an impromptu sheershasana ora headstand by putting his head on the ground and raising his feet towards the sky!
During his time in Delhi, Guevara was also interviewed by journalist KP Bhanumathy for All India Radio. During the famous interview, Bhanumathy bluntly said to Guevara, “You are said to be a communist but communist dogmas won’t be accepted by a multi-religious society.” In reply, Che avoided calling himself a communist and asserted instead that he was a socialist who believed in equality and freedom from exploitation. He also mentioned that Gandhi’s teachings were noteworthy as they had finally brought freedom to India.
Despite Guevara’s close ties to violence, he had a deep respect for Gandhi and satyagraha, the method of resistance that was largely responsible for India’s non-violent struggle during the freedom movement. This reveals his broad-minded outlook towards political struggles with a different historical context as well as his recognition of ideas resistant to revolutionary violence. The report Che Guevara wrote on his return to Cuba documents his appreciation for this aspect of India’s freedom struggle, saying:
“In India, the word war is so distant from the spirit of the people that they did not use it even in the tensest moments of their struggle for independence. The great demonstrations of collective peaceful discontent forced the English colonialism to leave forever the land that they devastated during one hundred and fifty years.”
After his time in Delhi, Guevara left to spend a few days in Kolkata (then Calcutta). However, before he left India at the end of his two-week visit, an earthquake shook Kashmir. In the aftermath of the destruction caused by the natural calamity, Guevara wrote to Nehru, signing off as ‘Che’:
“Being aware of the terrible havoc in Kashmir, and willing to offer solidarity to the brother people and government of India, we wish to place at your disposal the cooperation of our people, to the extent it is possible for us, in order to alleviate the sufferings of the Kashmir people.”
From India, Che went on to Bangladesh and Burma, before travelling on to other countries in South East Asia, Africa and Europe. However, when he began hearing rumours about Castro’s ill health, he immediately returned to Cuba on September 8, 1959.
A man whose vision continues to fire many a revolutionary, Che Guevara’s 1959 sojourn to India was the visit that laid the foundations for what we know today as the India-Cuba relationship. In January 1960, soon after Guevara’s visit, India opened its mission in Cuba. The warmth and mutual respect between the two nations has flourished ever since, with both India and Cuba expressing solidarity for each other on not one, but many occasions.
In the spring of 1983, Fidel Castro hugged Indira Gandhi at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit while handing over the NAM chairmanship to her in New Delhi. More recently, the meeting between Vice-President Hamid Ansari and Castro in Havana in 2013 was the first time in many years that the Cuban leader met a foreign dignitary.
In another instance of bilateral cooperation, when Cuba was passing through an economic crisis in the early 1990s, India donated 10,000 tonnes of wheat and 10,000 tonnes of rice to the country. Castro personally welcomed the vessel that brought the grain and labelled it the ‘Bread of India’ as it was sufficient for one loaf of bread for each one of Cuba’s 11 million people. India also granted aid of $2 million in cash as disaster relief assistance to Cuba in the wake of the massive devastation caused by Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma during August and September 2008.
An interesting yet little-known fact is that Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore is also regarded as an important icon in Cuba. Tagore’s birth anniversary is celebrated every year in the country and there is even a library at Casa de Asia named after Tagore!