Founding President of Zambia and a true friend of India, Dr Kenneth Kaunda passed away on June 17 at the age of 97. I was fortunate to have met him on two occasions and would like to share both those experiences. The first was in 1987 at Vancouver, which was the venue for the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meet (CHOGM). I was part of a security complement meant to protect the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi.
On the sidelines of the summit, almost all world leaders were informally meeting each other to discuss bilateral issues. The Indian PM and his entourage were staying in hotel Pan Pacific. All of a sudden, President Kaunda dropped by at the hotel to make an impromptu courtesy call on the Prime Minister. The Indian security man at the reception did not recognize Dr. Kaunda and asked him to wait till he obtained clearance from the PS to PM. This obviously infuriated the Zambian statesman who was prominent with his full sleeved safari suit and a signature colourful scarf. He reacted by reminding the officer on duty about his association with Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and other Indian leaders and kept repeating India’s contributions towards Zambia’s fight for independence.
Incidentally, I came to know about the commotion and intervened. Thankfully, the Prime Minister himself came out and received Dr. Kaunda after offering apologies. While leaving, the Zambian President, told the Indian security detail that Zambia was very crucial to India and vice versa.
The second time I met him was in 2009 when I was in the Zambian capital, Lusaka on a short official assignment and called on Dr. Kaunda who was then leading a retired life. The first thing I noticed was a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the wall and a charkha was also on display. Dr. Kaunda was a strict vegetarian and believed in non-violence.
During my interaction, he recounted how a few years after Zambia attained independence in 1964, the British teachers employed by the Zambian government demanded a salary hike, threatening to quit if they didn’t receive one. He told me, it was a blatant blackmail. As a visionary, Dr. Kaunda was keen to educate the people of his new nation and the first thing that came to mind was to approach India. He rang up the then Indian Prime Minister seeking deputation of a number of English knowing teachers to Zambia. He recalled with great delight how the Indian Prime Minister readily obliged and soon a number of teachers from India arrived in Zambia.
The British teachers’ intimidation didn’t work, red-faced, they left Zambia. The anecdote reiterated the friendship Dr. Kaunda always shared with India.
We will miss you Dr. Kaunda. India will always remember you. Rest in peace.