The imposing mansions of Vedado, a posh area of La Habana, tower over a small house that contains a quaint blue room. It is hard to believe such a modest edifice was once the home of Commander Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the most powerful leader of Cuba after Fidel Castro. But in fact, this famous revolutionary was well known for his self-effacement. The house is now home to the Centro de Estudios Che Guevara, the Centre of Che Guevara Studies, an institution run by Che’s son, Camilo Guevara March.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Centro to gather information about Che’s little-known 1959 visit to India. Since Camilo was just about to leave for Argentina, Che’s motherland, to attend a function on the occasion of his father’s birthday, he instructed Research Officer Lazaro Baccalao to assist me. Baccalao shared a variety of relevant information, such as the names of the delegation members and the follow-up actions taken. He also dug out the report that Che submitted to Cuban authorities upon his return from India and other countries, and showed me a calendar decorated with photographs of Che’s meetings with several major Third World leaders.
One photo showed Jawaharlal Nehru with Che. The warmth of their relationship is documented in Che’s report, and is reflected in Nehru’s gift to Che – a khukuri that Baccalao reverently showed to me. The ivory-handled weapon was sheathed in a walnut scabbard engraved with a depiction of a woman whose identity Camilo, Baccalao informed me, was eager to learn. I told him that it was not a woman but a goddess, probably Durga, the symbol of shakti. When I noted that there was no better gift for a leader as powerful as Che, Baccalao smiled with pleasure.
Che earned Fidel Castro’s resolute admiration when the two fought together against the Cuban military dictator Fulgencio Batista. In February 1959, when Castro’s revolutionary government was established after two years of guerrilla warfare, he declared Che a “natural-born citizen of Cuba”. Six months later, Castro sent Che on an official tour of Asia, Africa and Europe. As an informal sort of foreign-cum-commerce minister, Che’s goal was to build confidence in and goodwill toward the new government, and to explore markets for Cuba’s main commodities, particularly sugar.
‘National leader’ in Delhi
Che left Havana on 12 June 1959. He celebrated his 31st birthday in Madrid, and flew to Delhi via Cairo. His plane reached Palam on the night of 30 June. Since Che had no official position in the Cuban government, this “national leader of Cuba”, as he was described in official communications, was received at the airport by a welcoming committee of one, Deputy Chief Protocol Officer D S Khosla, who later accompanied him to the newly built Hotel Ashok in Chanakyapuri.
The Cuban delegation accompanying Che was likewise small: a mathematician, an economist, a party worker, a captain of the rebel army, and a single bodyguard. Pardo Llada, a rightwing broadcaster, also joined the delegation in Delhi. Though Llada was ostensibly sent to assist Che, it is rumoured that Castro wanted some respite from his popular daily radio programme in Havana. In any case, Che was not happy to have him, and Llada ended up returning home midway through the trip.
On his first morning in Delhi, Che met Nehru in Teen Murti Bhawan, the prime minister’s residence. Nehru had a soft spot for socialist countries, and Che clearly admired the Indian leader. “Nehru received us with an amiable familiarity of a patriarchal grandfather,” Che wrote in his report, “but with noble interest in the dedication and struggles of the Cuban people, commending our extraordinary valiance and showing unconditional sympathy towards our cause.”
Formal talks took place before lunch, and Che explained that Cuba wanted to establish diplomatic and trade relations with India. Though Cuba did have a consulate in Calcutta, India had no diplomatic set-up in Cuba, with the Indian ambassador in Washington instead attending to Indian affairs in Cuba. The two delegations agreed to establish diplomatic missions as soon as possible, and post-lunch plans were made for the Cuban delegation to meet with Indian trade officials.
How tasty the lunch was is difficult to say, but Llada, in one of several half-baked stories about Che’s trip, described the occasion in rather disparaging terms:
Nehru, his daughter Indira, and her young sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were all in attendance. The venerable Indian Prime Minister showed exquisite manners, explaining each exotic dish in turn to Guevara and his comrades, while Che, smiling politely, attempted to display some interest. The banquet went on in this fashion for over two hours, but the only words that came from Nehru’s mouth were about the meal in front of them. Finally, Che could stand it no longer and asked: “Mr Prime Minister, what is your opinion of Communist China?” Nehru listened with an absent expression, and answered, “Mr Comandante, have you tasted one of these delicious apples?” “Mr Prime Minister, have you read Mao Tse-tung?” “Ah, Mr Comandante, how pleased I am that you have liked the apples.”
Those who knew Nehru find Llada’s account difficult to swallow. But even if the mealtime conversation was insipid, things picked up in the afternoon. The delegation visited the Okhla Industrial Area, where they saw wood-moulding machines and met with Commerce Minister Nityanand Kanoongo, which proved to be an important meeting for future Indo-Cuban trade relations. In the evening, Che spent a half hour at the Cottage Industries Emporium.
The following day, 2 July, the delegation met Indian Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon. A national daily’s front-page photo of Che smiling broadly while talking to Menon suggests a cordial meeting, as does the caption: “The daring rebel leader is seen in a mellow mood as he chats with the Defence Minister.” The delegation also met senior defence officers and members of the Planning Commission, and visited the Agricultural Research Institute and National Physical Laboratory. At the latter, Che tested the efficacy of a locally designed metal detector by waving it across his shirt pocket.
The next day, Che visited a community development project in Pilana, near Delhi, meeting with farmers and viewing a school. Later that day, he met with Minister for Community Development and Cooperation S K Dey. On the fourth day, he met Minister for Food and Agriculture A P Jain, as well as additional bureaucrats within the commerce and industry ministries. During this meeting, Che listed the products that Cuba was hoping to import from India – including coal, cotton textiles, jute goods, edible oils, tea, film and trainer aircrafts – and what it wanted to export, including copper, rayon cords for tyres, cocoa and, most importantly, sugar. His comments on the meeting suggest just how astute he had become about the principles of international trade in such a short period of time: “With the Secretary of Commerce we held a cordial meeting that prepared the ground for future trade negotiations. This can be of great importance. As the standard of living of three hundred eighty million Indians improves, their need for sugar will grow and we will be able to acquire a new and valuable market.” Indeed, Castro once said that whatever work this gun-loving doctor was assigned, he would soon become an expert at it.
Che’s keen interest during his Pilana visit is documented in both his report and in several photos. Apart from photographs of official meetings during the delegation’s five-day visit to Delhi, there are several informal snaps, including one in which the Gandhi-cap-wearing farmers of Pilana are garlanding the revolutionary leader. In his report, Che reflects on the poor conditions of village schools in words that still ring true till today: “The school, pride of the cooperative, was based on the extraordinary efforts of two teachers who were taking care of five classes that it was running. Haggard children with visible signs of illness on their faces, squatting on the ground, were listening to the explanations of the teacher.”
The fact that farmers could be so extremely poor while heavy industry was thriving deeply disturbed Che, as did the inequality of landholdings in India. He found it unjust that “a few have much and many do not have anything.” At the same time, he was deeply impressed by how the Hindu religion protected its cattle wealth, which he saw as the backbone of the rural economy. Both of these understandings would help Che define his own ideologies in later years.
The mysterious Krishna
Though Che was known to be an introvert, one who often spent his time reading and writing poems, his stay in India revealed, perhaps even brought about, a far more outgoing and entertaining side. At the residence of the Chilean ambassador in New Delhi, for instance, he demonstrated how to do sheershaasan (a headstand), spontaneously putting his head on the ground and raising his feet towards the sky in the midst of a lively discussion.
His letter-writing in Delhi also suggested Che’s growing extroverted dimension. In this epistle to his mother, Che confesses his nervousness about botching diplomatic niceties, but also confides that his sense of a great calling was giving him the confidence to influence others. “Now India, where new protocolar complications produce in me the same infantile panic”, he writes, referring to deciding how to respond to various official greetings.
Something which has really developed in me is the sense of the massive in counter-position to the personal; I am still the same loner that I used to be, looking for my path without personal help, but now I possess the sense of my historic duty. I have no home, no woman, no children, nor parents, nor brothers and sisters, my friends are my friends as long as they think politically like I do, and yet I am content, I feel something in life, not just a powerful internal strength, which I always felt, but also the power to inject others, and an absolutely fatalistic sense of my mission which strips me of all fear. I don’t know why I am writing you this, maybe it is merely longing for Aleida [his daughter]. Take it as it is, a letter written one stormy night in the skies of India, far from my fatherland and loved ones.
A hug for everyone, Ernesto
On 5 July, Che and his delegation left Delhi for other parts of India. Through the records of Cuba’s Radio Rebelde, we know that they may have seen Lucknow’s Institute of Sugar Investigation, though no other sources confirm this visit. What can be corroborated is that the delegation was in Calcutta on 10 July, as an English-language daily published a photograph of Che’s visit to a factory in Agarpada. A senior officer from Calcutta told me that Che also met with B C Roy, then Chief Minister of West Bengal. Shockingly, the Calcutta communists – at a time when the Communist Party of India had not yet split – completely ignored the presence of this great leader of the Cuban revolution.
In Calcutta, Che met a mysterious though influential figure, to whom he refers as ‘Krishna’ in his report. Though there is no clue to Krishna’s identity, it clear that the meeting had a great and long-lasting impact on Che, particularly with regard to his thinking about nuclear weapons:
We had an opportunity of meeting a wise person called Krishna, who seemed like a person far above our world of today. He with his simplicity and humility, a characteristic of his people, talked to us for quite some time, stressing the need for using the entire resources and technical capacity of the world for peaceful use of the nuclear energy. He strongly condemned the absurd politics of those who dedicate themselves to storing hydrogen bombs in their international discussions.
Several of my friends have suggested that ‘Krishna’ could have been J Krishnamurti, but I feel that this is unlikely, as Krishnamurti had left Delhi in May 1959 for a three-month visit to Kashmir. Whoever Krishna was, an hour after Che returned to Havana from his 17-country visit he held a press conference, at which he gave the following account of his visit to India:
People of India were sympathetic toward the Cuban people and we saw that they are trying to solve the problems of too little cultivable land and the large estates. While talking with Krishna, the learned Indian, we became aware of the evils of the means of mass destruction and when we saw the frightful truth at Hiroshima we felt ashamed for having been glad at times when the atomic bomb was dropped on that city by the democratic powers during World War II.
An anecdote shared by one of the delegation members sheds further light on the extent to which Che continued to value what he learned from Krishna. Apparently, when the Cuban ambassador in Tokyo told Che that they would visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay homage to the Japanese soldiers who died in World War II, Che angrily retorted, “No way I’ll go! Where I will go is to Hiroshima, where the Americans killed 100,000 Japanese!”
The practical revolutionary
Che’s newfound respect for Mohandas K Gandhi and the satyagraha movement also merits special mention. When Che was in Delhi, journalist K P Bhanumathy interviewed him for All India Radio. Bhanumathy, who still lives in Delhi, told me that Che used to speak like an astrologer – thoughtfully, with long pauses. “If we ignore his military uniform, heavy boots and Monte Carlo cigar,” she recalled, “then his simplicity and politeness was like that of a holy priest.” During the 1959 interview, Bhanumathy bluntly said to Che, “You are said to be a communist but communist dogmas won’t be accepted by a multi-religious society.” Che’s reply is telling:
I would not call myself a communist. I was born as a Catholic. I am a socialist who believes in equality and freedom from the exploiting countries. I have seen hunger, so much suffering, stark poverty, sickness and unemployment right from my very young days in [Latin] America. It is happening in Cuba, Vietnam and Africa – the struggle for freedom starts from the hunger of the people. There are useful lessons in the Marxist-Leninist theory. The practical revolutionary initiates his own struggle simply fulfilling laws foreseen by Marx. In India, Gandhiji’s teachings had its own merit which finally brought freedom.
According to Bhanumathy, Che expressed great respect for both Gandhi and Nehru. At one point, Che noted, “You have Gandhi and an old philosophical heritage; in our Latin America we have neither. That is why our mindset has developed differently.” In his report, Che also mentions Gandhi and the role of non-violence in the Indian struggle for Independence. Perhaps alluding to what Krishna said to him in Calcutta, Che observed: “In India, the word war is so distant of the spirit of the people that they didn’t resort to it even at the tense 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.” Ultimately, it was the understandings that Che came to about social justice while in India, rather than those about non-violence, that would significantly affect his final years.
From India, Che went on to Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, and onward to Burma, before travelling on to Indonesia and Japan. On his return journey, he swung through Singapore and stopped in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. After pushing on through a few countries in Africa and Europe, however, Che began to hear rumours about Castro’s ill health. Being unable to establish telephone contact, he returned to Havana on 8 September 1959. Though Castro immediately gave Che several significant responsibilities, including the post of industries minister, Che quickly tired of the office work. He also became fed up with the Russian type of socialism, which he disparaged for using the methods of capitalism to exploit Third World countries for the financial and strategic gains of Russia.
Leaving his government office, Che returned to the jungle and to his guns. Even in India, he had been dreaming about fomenting revolutions in other parts of Latin America. According to one of the members of the Cuban delegation, Che had said one night: “There’s an altiplano [a high plateau] in South America. There is Bolivia, Paraguay, an area bordering Brazil, Uruguay, Peru and Argentina … where if we enter a guerrilla force, we could spread the revolution all over South America.” Back in his revolutionary guise, Che attempted to bring about socialist revolutions in the Congo (now Zaire) and Bolivia.
Why these exploits failed constitutes another story altogether. Nonetheless, Cubans and other Latin Americans continue to see Che Guevara as no less than a heavenly prophet. His aspirations prompted him to abandon the corridors of power, thrusting him instead onto the minefields of a violent fight for the freedom of others. Though Che was executed on 9 October 1967, his ideas have since inspired untold thousands to rise against tyranny. Forty years after his death, his vision continues to fire many a revolutionary.
~ Om Thanvi is editor of Jansatta, and lives in Delhi.