K. R. Narayanan

'Untouchable' who overcame persistent prejudice to become India's first 'working president'

By any standards, K. R. Narayanan's journey, from Dalit or "untouchable" low-caste beginnings - often going hungry as a child and borrowing slippers to walk the long distances to school and college - to becoming India's President and First Citizen in the late 1990s, was remarkable. Through tenacity, brilliance and a quiet but determined spirit, the unassuming Narayanan combated centuries of discrimination against India's untouchables and proved to the world as a scholar, diplomat, federal minister and eventually President that he was no less a human being for being born a socially handicapped Dalit.

A one-man intellectual powerhouse - one of Harold Laski's brightest students at the London School of Economics in the 1940s - Narayanan brought gravitas, calm and reason to the varied high-profile jobs he held. But to none more than the post of President, whose scope he enlarged - his predecessors had in the main treated India's highest constitutional post as a ceremonial sinecure.

Narayanan was, as he described himself, a "citizen president" and a "working president". But all the while he took great care to remain neutral and to distance himself politically from playing an obviously executive role at a time when India was undergoing massive sectarian and political upheaval under the Hindu nationalist-led federal coalition.

Uncharacteristically for a president, he gave public vent to his displeasure over the pogrom in early 2002 against Muslims in western Gujarat state, which lingered for several months and in which nearly 2,000 people died. Various investigations by human rights organisations and independent bodies held Hindu nationalists responsible for perpetuating the killings. After leaving office that year, Narayanan claimed that there was a conspiracy involving the state and federal governments in the Gujarat riots and that, if the military had been given powers to shoot down the perpetrators of violence, much of the senseless killing could have been avoided.

As President, he also stymied the Hindu nationalists' agenda to tamper with India's broadly secular education system by opposing the appointment of vice-chancellors with obviously sectarian credentials. But, despite his obvious distaste for their methods, Narayanan was meticulously fair in all his dealings with them, never letting his biases show.

Kocheril Raman Narayanan was born in 1920 in a small thatched hut in the village of Uzhavoor in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the fourth of seven children of a low-caste practitioner of traditional medicine. Like millions of similar Dalit families, the Narayanans experienced extreme social and accompanying economic hardship, crammed as they were into two small rooms and a makeshift kitchen in a low-caste ghetto.

They ate sparingly, had no lavatory, nor electricity nor running water, and depended entirely on the solitary communal tap in their mud-splattered lane, around which fights erupted regularly. Social ignominies too were heaped upon them, which Narayanan, a thoughtful and sensitive young man, refused to accept, like millions of other Dalits, as "Thalayil Aiyath" (karma).

It was unthinkable to anyone at that time that Narayanan would one day occupy the 340-room red-sandstone Rashtrapati Bhavan or presidential palace, possibly the largest official residence of any head of state, complete with its vast Mughal Garden, nine tennis courts, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, cinema, 14-hole golf course, polo ground and even a cricket field. Built by the colonial administration, the palace also has a man-made forest, a massive bakery and a dedicated cavalry, the President's Bodyguard.

Narayanan, determined to be educated, walked more than 10km each day to the nearest school and, after matriculating with distinction, travelled even further, to the Church Missionary Society college in nearby Kottayam, a stylish town populated by Kerala's well-heeled Christian taipans. Early on in life, Narayanan sought escape from social discrimination through scholarship, realising wisely that it was the only vehicle of his advancement.

At college, Narayanan often faced embarrassment bordering on humiliation at the hands of upper-caste officials and teachers, having frequently to stand in the corner of a classroom as a figure of ridicule for the late payment of fees which his father could ill afford.

Fortunately, he won a scholarship at the intermediate level and went on to obtain an honours degree in English from Maharaja's College in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, with the highest marks in the university. As an undergraduate, he was too poor to eat and was taken in by a family friend who fed him for two years, ensuring that he completed his degree.

But Narayanan refused to accept his BA degree, as he was denied the lecturer's job at his Alma Mater that should have been his for the asking, simply because of his low caste. The university chancellor offered him a clerical post and books worth 100 rupees, and the livid Narayanan demanded an audience with the Maharaja of Travancore who then ruled the province. The Maharaja, however, refused to see the low-caste man.

Consequently, Narayanan boycotted the college convocation, causing an apoplectic British resident at the Maharaja's court who was giving away the degrees to remark "Where is the Harijan [Dalit] boy who came first?" Fifty years later, when Narayanan returned as India's president to the university to address a gathering, the authorities implored him to accept the degree. He did.

After working for a while as a part-time teacher after graduating, Narayanan borrowed 500 rupees and left for Delhi in 1944 to seek his fortune as a journalist with The Hindu and later The Times of India. But his hunger for learning persisted and, keen on studying abroad but unable to sustain himself financially, he wrote to J.R.D. Tata, then India's best-known industrialist, asking for a scholarship. The philanthropic Parsee came to Narayanan's aid and paid for him to attend the London School of Economics where his intellectual merit was almost instantly recognised by Laski, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship.

Narayanan completed his three-year economics degree in two, being awarded a First in 1948, and returned home with a letter of introduction from Laski to Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of newly independent India. Arrogant diplomats, some of whom were Brahmin, interviewed Narayanan at Nehru's request, but their caste prejudices got the better of them and he was rejected on specious grounds. Nehru, however, saw merit in Narayanan and sent him in 1949 as a junior diplomat to Burma, then in the midst of a civil war. In Rangoon, Narayanan married Usha Ma Tint Tint, a Burmese.

Thereafter he served in Tokyo, London, Canberra and Hanoi, becoming India's envoy to Thailand, Turkey and China before retiring from service in 1978. A fluent Chinese-speaker, Narayanan was specially selected for the Beijing job in 1976, as the prime minister Indira Gandhi considered him ideal to initiate a breakthrough when the world's two most populous neighbours reopened the diplomatic relations which had been suspended since their 1962 border war.

Narayanan was then appointed Vice-Chancellor of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, but two years later, in 1980, Indira Gandhi dispatched him as ambassador to Washington at a time when relations between Delhi and Washington were frosty. It was the apogee of the Cold War and India, though ostensibly a leader of the non-aligned world, was squarely in the Soviet camp, a Moscow "groupie" and one of the few countries that had declined to condemn the Soviet invasion and military occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

Four years later, after Narayanan left Washington, its relations with Delhi had improved considerably; at least the two sides were on talking terms. Soon after returning home, Narayanan was elected to parliament on a Congress Party ticket from his home state and returned twice from the same constituency in 1989 and 1991. He served in turn as junior minister for Planning, External Affairs and Science and Technology.

In 1992 Narayanan was elected India's Vice-President, largely a ceremonial post, before becoming the country's 10th president in 1997, winning 95 per cent of the votes in the indirect election in which MPs and members of state assemblies vote. Ironically, he trounced a feisty, high-caste Brahmin who explained away his defeat by claiming that Narayanan had been elected merely because he was a Dalit in times of political correctness.

In his acceptance speech Narayanan noted, "My elevation to high office should not be seen as a personal achievement, but as an instance in history where a person becomes a symbol of the hope and aspirations of thousands of people in the country" - speaking for tens of millions of fellow Dalits still living wretched lives.

He was constantly reminded of his Dalit background even abroad. On an official visit to Paris in April 2000, a visibly shaken Narayanan was shocked to find his humble beginnings the tactless and mocking subject of the country's media. The French establishment grudgingly apologised, but only after it threatened to erupt into a major diplomatic row.

A simple and humble man, Narayanan constantly spoke up for the rights of Dalits, of India's vast tribal population and of women, and was revered by all those who worked with and for him. In 1998, the US House of Representatives honoured Narayanan with its Statesman of the Year award, citing his "great respect for human rights in general, the rights of minorities in particular".

Kuldip Singh