Our country has rarely witnessed an individual as diverse and skilled as the first and the only Dalit President of India, Kocheril Raman Narayanan.
Narayanan’s fascinating journey - coming from a socially, politically, and economically backward segment of the society to serving as President of the world’s largest democracy from 1997-2002 - is a great lesson.
Political commentators have often viewed the office of President of India as one that is subservient to the real executive regarding decision-making. The Rashtrapati Bhawan at the iconic Raisina Hills is usually synonymous of a “rubber-stamp head” or a “symbolic custodian of Constitution of India”. Barring a few examples in the legislative history of our nation, we have not seen Presidents venturing beyond the requisite mandate. Of course, the missile man of India, our late President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was an active President.
In Narayanan’s case, we had a President who rose from the ranks armed with education. This education-led vision helped him understand that in a diverse democracy like India, social justice is equally important as economic progress.
K.R. Narayanan was born as the fourth of seven children to Kocheril Raman Vaidyar and Punnaththuraveettil Paappiyamma. His family was extremely poor and belonged to the Paravan castes, who were required to pluck coconuts according to their placement in the caste hierarchy. However, his father was highly respected since he was a learned physician of traditional Indian medical systems of Siddha and Ayurveda. His father’s vision and foresight were the primary factors behind the decent education that a young K.R. Narayanan received.
Growing up as a Dalit in the communist state of Kerala, he was exposed to the brutal realities of social distinctions and the implications of social interplay. In one of his significant interviews, he admits that our parliamentary system could function “only in an atmosphere of social and economic progress, and equality. There had been achievements but the march of society, of social change, has not been fast enough, nor fundamental enough so far.”
This, in fact, brings us to the moot point of not acknowledging and recognising that India continues to be plagued by the evil of casteism and therefore it becomes an imperative need to weed it out. Are we sensitive to this reality? Does India discuss this in a free, frank, and an open atmosphere? Are we aware? These are important questions which should serve as constant reminders of our day to day lives.
For many aspiring politicians, K.R. Narayanan symbolises empowerment. He is seen as someone who defied odds to silently but efficiently work towards achieving representation in unseen and unimaginable areas where Dalits were denied their rightful place.
Like Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ayyankali, and many other stalwarts, Narayanan understood the importance and vitality of education in achieving social integration. As it is said, to bring change, change begins with you. It is with this determination that Narayanan set foot to be well educated. After completing his school education in his village near present day Kottayam district in Kerala, he attained his BA (Hons) and MA degrees in Literature from University of Travancore (now University of Kerala), with distinction in the University. With this, he became the first Dalit to earn a degree with first class from Kerala.
EDUCATION AS A TOOL OF EMPOWERMENT
Narayanan then, went to London to study Political Science at the prestigious London School of Economics in 1945 after getting financial assistance from JRD Tata. He was honoured to study under the guidance of renowned scholar Harold Laski, famous British political theorist, economist, and author. His camaraderie with Laski was to play a defining role in the life of the subaltern Hero. His initial stint as a journalist back home with The Hindu and other newspapers helped him in becoming the London correspondent of Social Welfare Weekly that was published by the iconic K.M. Munshi. He shared his room with K.N. Raj and Veeraswamy Ringadoo (who became the first President of Mauritius). He even befriended Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada.
INITIATION INTO PUBLIC LIFE
He returned to India in 1948, with a letter of introduction from Laski to Jawaharlal Nehru. Jawaharlal Nehru known for his deep-rooted affection for western academics got him a job in the diplomatic service, where he flourished, becoming ambassador to Thailand, Turkey, China and—as a political appointee after his retirement—to the United States of America.
In 1984 he entered the Parliament from a Congress ticket and in 1992, he was nominated as the Vice-President of the country.
A WORKING PRESIDENT
On February 16, 1998, he joined other citizens at a polling booth to cast his vote. It caused a furore in the media as to how can a President be exposed to this level. He remained committed to his vision and always acted in the interest of the common citizenry of the nation.
The Bhagavad Gita has a verse which translates as “Yoga is skill in action”. Here was a President who symbolised this verse.
Narayanan used to say that he was “not an executive President but a working President, a citizen President working within four corners of the Constitution.” One of his landmark contributions was to set a new precedent whereby it became mandatory for a political leader staking a claim to the Prime Minister’s office to produce letters of support from alliance partners that reflected the will of the Parliament.
K.R. Narayanan also epitomised that there is no one idea of India, there can and will exist many ideas of India, and that one should respect this reality. At several junctures during his Presidential tenure, Narayanan spoke about this in detail. “India has been a cauldron of dreams, ideas, and aspirations of the humankind and this is a distinctive character of India, and India in that sense represents the world in miniature,” he once said. “If a system can succeed in India, it will indicate the possibility of such success in the world as a whole.”
For him, India was a beacon of tolerance. In one of his eve of Republic Day speeches, he mirrored what Swami Vivekananda once said in America: “We can show the world that there is room for everybody to live in this country of tolerance and compassion. I have no doubt that through the firmness of our determination and the exercise of our traditional tolerance; India will triumph in the end.”
In all certainty, youth today can take inspiration from the life of K.R. Narayanan whose remarkable transformation from a humble social origin to the highest office of the country testifies the endless resonance within the individuals to grow from and transcend conflicts. As candidly observed by himself, “My life encapsulates the ability of the democratic system to accommodate and empower marginalised sections of society.” This hope is needed in both the times of despair and resurgence.
Social science academics in India and globally sight representation of Dalits in sectors such as media, politics, industry, judiciary, polity, bureaucracy, university, civil society as an essential component in contributing towards real time empowerment. In the field of polity, K.R. Narayanan can be a great example to emulate. If India has to ensure that the rights which have been denied to the Dalits for centuries be given back to them, representation can certainly be a useful step forward.
(The writers are Research Fellows at India Foundation. Views expressed are strictly personal.)