Country of contrasts

Print edition : April 23, 2010

July 1959: Che Guevara (left) in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehrus office, presenting him with a gift from Fidel Castro. Che was on an official visit to India. Standing next to him is Antonio Nunez Jimenez, a Cuban revolutionary and academic who went on to become a Minister.-

From Cairo we flew directly into India, a country of 390 million inhabitants, with an area of more than three million square kilometres.

The drama of the land is not felt here as much as in Egypt, given that the conditions of the soil are far more superior than those that obtain in that desert country, but social injustice has resulted in an arbitrary distribution of land where a few have a lot and many have nothing.

India was colonised by England between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. This did not, of course, happen without great struggles for independence, but the military effectiveness of the English proved decisive. The flourishing handicrafts industry suffered from the impact of a colonial structure that was interested in destroying the economic independence of the Indians and making them eternally indebted to the Empire. These conditions prevailed throughout the 19th century and during part of the present one [the 20th century, with] the country sporadically convulsed by rebellions that drowned in the innocent blood of the people.

English colonial power came out of the last Great War with clear indications of disintegration, and India, its passive resistance led by the mystic figure of Mahatma Gandhi, at last achieved the long-desired independence. After Gandhis death, [Jawaharlal] Nehru had to carry the responsibility of public office on his shoulders. He took over a country whose spirit was ill from infinite years of domination and whose economy had been directed to supply at low cost to London metropolitan markets. Land had to be distributed and the country had to be industrialised as a base for future economic development. The leaders of the Congress party dedicated themselves to this task with enthusiasm.

This enormous and extraordinary country has a series of institutions and customs that do not respond to any concept that we may form about the social problems of the times we live in.

We have the same political and economic system, a similar past of opprobrium and colonisation, the same direction in our line of progress; yet, the solutions very similar and geared towards the same objective differ like day from night; while the hurricane of agrarian reform sweeps away the big land holdings of Camaguey in one grand wave and advances unstoppable through the entire country giving free land to the farmers, the great Indian nation treads cautiously with oriental parsimony, convincing the big landlords of the justice of giving the land to the tiller and the farmers of paying a price for this land, thus making almost imperceptible the transition of one of the most noble, sensible and pauperised masses of entire humanity from misery to poverty.

We visited an agricultural cooperative in a place close to the capital, New Delhi. After about 40 km of passage through arid landscapes, in which greenery and trees stood out through their absence, while cows and buffaloes demonstrated their almost singular presence in the plains, we reached a small hutment with mud walls and desperate poverty. The school, a pride for the cooperative, was being run on the extraordinary effort of two teachers who looked after the five classes which it consisted of. Emaciated children with frequent signs of illnesses, sitting on the floor on their haunches, heard the explanations of the teacher.

The great advance had been the inauguration of two wells with a cement parapet for community use, but there were other innovations of extraordinary social importance which give one an idea of the poverty that reigns: the technicians of the agrarian reform are teaching the Indian farmer to change their fuel from cow dung to kerosene.

This small, almost funny change, however allows the freeing of enormous quantities of dried cow excrement, ill-used as fuel, to be used instead as fertilizer. With a loving effort, children and women knead the bovine excreta, putting it to dry under the sun and later forming enormous pyramids of several metres high, quite like huge anthills. Thanks to the efforts of the Indian government, they shall now have their own little kerosene stoves and will fertilize their soil with that important product. One can quite understand that the cow was a sacred animal for the ancient ones: it worked in the fields, gave milk, and even its excreta had the enormous importance of replacing natural fuel, which does not exist here; this explains why their religious precepts prohibited the farmer from killing this precious animal and, for that, the only way out was to consider it sacred; to have such a determining force as religion impose respect for the most efficient element of production which the community counted on.

Years, however, went passing by and turned into centuries, and now, in the age of mechanical plough and liquid fuels, the sacred animal continues to be venerated with the same fervour, and it multiplies freely with hardly anyone committing the sacrilege of eating its meat. One hundred and eighty million cows is what India has, almost 100 million more than the United States, which is the second producer in the world, and Indian leaders apply themselves to the terrible problem of making a people, religious and obedient to cultural commandments, cease their veneration of the sacred animal. In Calcutta [now Kolkata], a premier city of India, six million human beings live crammed with an incredible number of cows that pullulate the streets, interrupting the traffic each time they feel like reclining right in the middle of the street.

In this city we saw a strange example of the complexity of the Indian panorama: alongside the most abject misery, the signs of an industrial development which is capable of creating products of heavy industry that we will take a long time in producing, such as locomotives; and the signs of a technical development in all the fields of research for which Indian scientists are regarded highly all over the world.

We had the opportunity to meet the wise Krishna, one of the most distinguished physicists of contemporary world, who with the simplicity and humility characteristic of his people conversed with us for a long time, emphasising the need to employ all the technical force and capacity of the world to ensure the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and condemning the absurd policy of those who dedicate themselves to amassing hydrogen weapons as an argument of international discussion.

Che being garlanded by a farmer in a Haryana cooperative.-PRENSA LATINA

In India, the word War is so distant from the spirit of people that they did not use it even in the tensest moments of their struggle for independence. The huge concentrations of peaceful discontent forced English colonialism to leave forever the land that they had ruled for 150 years.

It is interesting to note that in this country of contrasts, where misery coexists with the highest refinements of civilised life and state-of-the-art technical know-how, women occupy a preponderant role in social relations and even in politics. The graceful and sweet Indian woman occupies positions such as those of the Congress president and the Vice-Minister of External Affairs, to cite just a few examples.

During the course of our visit, we had interviews with all the important personalities of Indian political life. Nehru received us with the amiable familiarity of a grandfather but with a noble interest in the pains and struggles of the Cuban people, giving us extraordinarily valuable suggestions and assurances of unconditional sympathy towards our cause. I can say the same of [V.K.] Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister and Chief of Delegation to the United Nations, who arranged for us to meet all the military chiefs for an interchange of impressions on the problems of our respective countries.

We had a cordial interview with the Commerce Minister, preparing the ground for future commercial negotiations, which can be of great importance. Among the products that we can supply could be copper, cocoa, rayon fibres for tyres and, perhaps in the near future, our sugar; India can sell us coal, cotton, textiles, jute articles, edible oils, nuts, films, rail material and training aircraft. But the list does not stop here; experience shows us that two countries in the process of industrialisation can go on increasing, in the measure they industrialise, exchange of their manufactured goods. As the level of the 390 millions of Indians advances, their need for our sugar will increase and we can acquire a new and valuable market.

We learnt valuable lessons from our visit, but the most important was the demonstration that the basis of economic development of a country is conditioned by the technological advance it has made, and institutions of scientific research have to be created primarily in the areas of medicine, chemistry, physics and agriculture. All these technical bodies and the general state of these disciplines should be coordinated and directed by a national statistical centre, in which the Indians are masters. When we were leaving the cooperative that I described above, the children bade us goodbye with a litany whose translation was: Cuba and India are brothers. Undoubtedly, Cuba and India are brothers, as all people of the world should be in these times of nuclear disintegration and interplanetary missiles.

Source: The Che Guevara Studies Centre, Havana. The article was published in the magazine Verde Olivo (Green Olive) on October 12, 1959.

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