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Fidel Castro was Cuba. Cuba was Fidel Castro. His death is a world event. He was a world figure, known in all parts of the globe. Fidel Castro had been Chairman of the 6th Summit in 1979 in Havana. Indira Gandhi took over from the great Cuban leader in March 1983. I was Secretary General of the 7th Summit.
In late 1982, I travelled to Havana to get guidance from our Cuban friends on how to run a NAM Summit. I had not requested a meeting with President Castro — imagine when on the final day of my stay, a wholly unexpected summons came from the President’s office. Just four words, “Fidel will receive you”. I was at once apprehensive and elated. The uppermost thought in my mind was, “What do I say to him?” I need not have worried. He put me at ease right away by asking, “Who are the Gurkhas, and what were they doing in the Falkland Islands?” I gave the Cuban leader a thumbnail history of the Gurkhas — They were ferocious warriors. Their valour was legendry. Most came from Nepal. They had served in the British India army. Even today, there was a Gurkha regiment in the British Army. This outfit fought in the recently concluded Anglo-Argentine war.
I then asked, “Excellency, your query about the Gurkhas surprised me.” Mr Castro said he had come across them in Herzog’s book, Annapurna, which he had recently read. We then briefly touched on the forthcoming NAM Summit in New Delhi.
On two other occasions, I was given the opportunity to spend some time with the great man. At one of these meetings I asked him, “When did you first meet Jawaharlal Nehru?” What he said was fascinating and gripping. In September 1960, the United General Assembly observed the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the organisation. Many world leaders came to New York. Among the more prominent were Jawaharlal Nehru, Nikita Khrushchew, Marshal Tito, Gamal Nasser, Ahmed Soekarno, Kwame Nkruma, Harold Macmillan, Dwight D Eishenhower and Fidel Castro.
On arrival in New York, Castro, to his dismay and disgust, found that no hotel would put him up. Temporarily, he moved into the tiny Cuban Mission to the UN. Next day, he called on the Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold, to tell him that it was the Secretary General’s duty to find a place where the Cuban leader and his delegation could stay. Failing that, he would pitch a tent in the UN compound and move there. Even for so unflappable a character as Hammarskjold, this was an entirely novel approach by the leader of a member state.
Having shaken up the UN establishment, Castro moved into a hotel in Harlem. This was unprecedented. It made headlines. Castro said to me, “Do you know which leader was the first to come to meet me in Harlem? The great Jawaharlal Nehru. I was thirty-four years of age. I was inexperienced. I was tense. I had never been to any international conference; Nehru boosted my morale, enhanced my self-confidence. I will never forget Nehru’s magnanimous gesture.”
The last time I met him was in September 1988 in Havana along with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The meeting lasted six hours. Castro placed before us his Weltanschauung in soaring language and passion that made a lasting impression on Rajiv. It was a stunning tuition on the most intractable international issues. Granted it was a one-sided view, but Castro made a convincing case.
India will remember him with respect and affection.