Robert Mugabe’s tryst with India explained

Mugabe is seen with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi in 1983.Jean-Claude Francolon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Throughout his rule, Zimbabwe’s longtime leader Robert Mugabe shared close ties with India’s leadership. He visited India seven times, his last visit being in 2017.

Mugabe became the first prime minister of newly independent Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, in 1980. He held office for over three decades before being deposed in a coup in 2017.

Last week, Zimbabwe’s longtime leader Robert Mugabe died at age 95. Mugabe led the nation for 37 years, first as Prime Minister between 1980 and 1987, and then onwards as President until 2017 when he resigned.

Although many accounts describe his rule as despotic, he is also held in high regard for being one of the important personalities who led Zimbabwe to its independence in 1980.

Throughout his rule, Mugabe shared close ties with India’s leadership. The condolence message released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs upon Mugabe’s passing reads: “H. E. Robert Mugabe was a true friend of India and contributed immensely to India-Zimbabwe friendship. He was an icon of liberation, and emerged as a great leader of Africa, who gave voice to African issues. He devoted his life to the betterment of his people. In his demise, the world has lost one of the tallest leaders of our times.”

Mugabe and India

Mugabe was among the rebel leaders who took part in Zimbabwe’s armed struggle for independence. The white-minority government in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, sent him to prison for 10 years between 1964 and 1974. In confinement, Mugabe acquired several degrees which shaped his political thought, and came to appreciate India’s freedom struggle and the role played by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

Rober Mugabe with Indira Gandhi, April 17, 1980. (Express archive)

The Non-Aligned Movement, of which India was a key member, supported freedom movements in Africa, including Zimbabwe’s, by recognising their liberation struggles and accepting their provisional governments. The NAM gave legitimacy to new states that were leaving behind colonial rule and entering world politics.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was invited to attend the country’s Independence Day celebrations held on April 18, 1980. In 1986, Zimbabwe under Mugabe succeeded India as the Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement at the Harare summit.

According to the website of the Indian Embassy in Harare, since 1980, four Indian Prime Ministers (Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narsimha Rao, and H D Deve Gowda), and two Presidents (R Venkatraman and S D Sharma) have visited Zimbabwe. President Mugabe visited India seven times, his last visit being in 2017.

Indians in Zimbabwe

Indians first arrived in Zimbabwe as plantation workers around 1890 after they moved here from South Africa.

The current Indian-origin residents predominantly hail from Gujarat, and number close to 9000. Notable figures include former Senator K. G. Patel, a member of Zimbabwe’s Politburo who was accorded ‘Hero’ status in 2012 after his death the previous year, Justice Bharat Patel, a retired judge of the country’s Supreme Court, and Justice Ahmed Ebrahim, who was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2004.

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