The question in Parliament was land policy. The speaker was Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. And the heckler was Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of Rhodesia, whose voice sliced through Mugabe's sentences like a knife.

"That is not true," barked Smith, cutting off Mugabe's claim that under white rule, the black majority had been consigned to the arid half of Zimbabwe's farmland. "That was their choice," Smith added, interrupting Mugabe again.

The prime minister, a man not known for excessive tolerance when confronted with anything bordering on disrespect, eyed Smith coldly and said in even tones, "That is history."

"Untrue history," shot back Ian Smith, just as coldly.

Later a Mugabe aide would sigh and say,"That's the way Ian Smith is. Had anyone else behaved that way, he would have been put inside jail ."

Nearly four years after he was forced to surrender political power to the black majority, Ian Douglas Smith still carries on with no regrets. At 64, the hair is grayer, the face more gaunt, but the rebel who for 14 years defied the British empire, most of the civilized world and the majority of his own countrymen is unbowed, if not unbeaten.

"I believe there are certain principles in life you have to stand for, and if I wasn't prepared to do that, then I'd get out," he said in a recent interview. "While I am in, I will do the thing correctly."

Some senior statesmen take pleasure in believing history was on their side. Smith, it would seem, takes his pleasure from knowing he defied history for so long. It took a brutal seven-year civil war and intense diplomatic pressure from the United States and Britain--whom he still accuses of betraying Rhodesia and the cause of "anticommunism"--to bring down his government.

"It was a wonderful time to be living, as far as Rhodesians were concerned," he said, recalling the days of white rule. "We had the most efficient economy in the world. We did great things, and when we see how things have deteriorated since then, maybe we were right."

Zimbabwe's problems, he is convinced, can be blamed squarely on Mugabe's socialist government, which he holds responsible for the country's deteriorating economic condition and for the flight abroad of many skilled whites. His biggest complaint, however, is with what he describes as the government's "abuse of power"--the detention without trial, or even after acquittal, of political opponents, and the periodic reports of torture by police eager to obtain confessions.

There is some irony in Smith's complaint for, as government officials are fond of pointing out, their authority for detaining opponents stems from emergency security laws inherited from Smith's time in power.

An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 government opponents were jailed then, some for a decade, many of them now among the highest officials of the present government.

"We were at war then, fighting for our lives, so what else could we do?" said Smith in justifying those measures. He argues that Zimbabwe is not at war now, that claims by government officials that the detentions are necessary to combat South Africa-supported subversion are just "a figment of their imaginaton that they use to suppress opposition."

Smith says his political party, the all-white Republican Front, has been under steady harassment by the government. He and about 20 supporters were picked up for questioning a year ago on suspicion of holding an illegal political meeting when they were attending an art exhibit. A month later, Smith's passport was seized and his house searched following a controversial trip to the United States during which he bemoaned the "rapid deterioration" back home. He says some of his papers and diaries still have not been returned.

Then there is always the possibility of jail, a danger which Smith acknowledges but dismisses by saying, "I never allow myself the luxury of thinking about that" because fear might prevent him from speaking freely. "My family and my friends worry about that; I can't."

Other opposition leaders have faded or disappeared from the scene. Joshua Nkomo, once Mugabe's main African rival, rarely appears publicly or in parliament, apparently resigned at least for now to political obscurity after five months of self-imposed political exile.

Abel Muzorewa, the country's first black prime minister, has been jailed for nearly two months on suspicion that he plotted with South Africa against Mugabe.

Only the plain-spoken Smith seems to have survived intact. Part of the reason, say Mugabe supporters, is because a free Ian Smith is Zimbabwe's best advertisement in the West that its tolerance for dissent remains genuine.

Another reason is that the government is convinced Smith's influence among his own people is fading, that he no longer speaks for the majority of whites. His party, which once held all 20 of the white-controlled seats in the 100-member Parliament, now has only nine. It has lost two parliamentary by-elections in the last year, the first such losses in its history.

There is at least a small dose of grudging admiration for Smith among some blacks, who give him credit for not fleeing to South Africa long ago.

But not from Mugabe.

Earlier this year, Mugabe dismissed Smith's influence saying, "He is growing a little more senile now. He is really an object of pity."

Smith concedes his party has lost some white support, in part because some of his former allies have chosen a more reconciliatory--Smith says "opportunistic"--approach toward Mugabe and in part because some of his supporters have fled the country "because they can't stand what has happened here."

But he insists his party will gain new strength as more whites come to the conclusion that conditions are worsening.

There is still a gut-level feeling of support for Smith among many whites that is difficult to deny. One white liberal who broke with Smith long ago confessed a certain feeling of pleasure at seeing the former leader snipe at Mugabe during a televised videotape of last week's parliamentary confrontation.

All that is enough to keep Ian Smith going. Talk of his political retirement, strong three years ago, has vanished for now. He says instead that he will continue to maintain his farm in central Zimbabwe and rule his party "for as long as I can."