It happened in March 1983. The scene was Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi, India, where the seventh Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was in progress.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the star of the summit, rose to hand over the chairmanship to the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

He told the heads of states and representatives of 140 countries assembled that he was proud to pass the conference gavel to his “sister” Indira as she extended her arm to receive it. But suddenly he drew her to him and gave her a bear hug before handing over the gavel.

Indira, a very reserved person, was surprised and she could not hide her blush as cameras captured Castro’s brotherly act, which drew a thunderous applause.

What made Castro hug Indira?

Maybe, he was impressed by the way she organized the summit after being given just six months to prepare. Initially scheduled to be held at Baghdad in 1982, the summit had to be cancelled after war broke out between Iran and Iraq.

Or, as India’s former Secretary K Natwar Singh recalled in one his columns in the Hindu, it could have been an indication of their closeness after they conspired to prevent Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat from walking out.

Arafat was threatening to leave the summit because he felt slighted by being asked to address the opening session after the leader of the Jordanian delegation. Indira contacted Castro and told him about the embarrassing situation they may soon be facing.

Singh recalled:

To watch the Cuban leader handle the temperamental PLO leader was an education. Mr Arafat reached Vigyan Bhavan in record time. Mr Castro asked him if he was a friend of Indira Gandhi. The response was something on these lines: `Friend, friend, she is my elder sister and I will do anything for her.’

Mr Castro: `Then behave like a younger brother and attend the afternoon session.’ It was over in two minutes. Mr Arafat did as he was told.

Or perhaps it was simply Castro’s style. The former Cuban leader has an impressive photographic record of giving bear hugs to assorted world leaders. If nothing else, he was a force of nature.

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