Scholar. Diplomat. Minister. Ambassador. President.
K. R. Narayanan served India in many capacities in an outstanding career spanning over five decades, the twilight of which saw him occupy the highest office of the land.
Kocheril Raman Narayanan was born on October 27, 1920 at Perumthanam, Uzhavoor in Kerala, the fourth of seven children of a deprived Dalit family. His father, Kocheril Raman Vaidyar, was a practitioner of herbal and other traditional medical systems.
Narayanan studied at schools in Uzhavoor, often with great difficulty, as his family was unable to pay even the modest fees, and later matriculated from St. Mary’s High School, Kuravilangad, in 1936–37. A brilliant student, he obtained his B.A. (Honours) and M.A. in English literature from the then University of Travancore (1940–43), standing first in the university.
In 1944-45, he did a brief stint in journalism in two leading national dailies — The Hindu and The Times of India. A memorable incident from that phase was when he landed, on his own initiative, to interview none other than Mahatma Gandhi. The interview was, alas, not carried by The Times of India. Though Gandhi’s answers were anything but detailed, the questions give a peek into the issues on the young Narayanan’s mind.
The future President asked the Father of the Nation: “All great men have a passion for simplification. You have simplified the nature of human conflict as between violence and non-violence, truth and untruth, right and wrong. But in life, is not the conflict between one right and another right or between one truth and another truth? How can non-violence deal with such a situation?” And Gandhi’s terse reply? “That is a matter of application” !
Narayanan then went to Britain and studied political science at the London School of Economics. He obtained a degree in B.Sc. (Economics). While in London, he was an active member of the India League.
When he returned to India in 1948, he had a letter of introduction from Professor Harold Laski, who had taught him political science at the London School of Economics. Letter in hand, he approached Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who asked him to join the Indian Foreign Service — and thus began a long career as a diplomat. He worked in the embassies in Rangoon, Tokyo, London, Canberra, and Hanoi. He was the Indian ambassador to Thailand (1967–69), Turkey (1973–75), and, crucially, China (1976–78).
Besides, he did teaching stints at the Delhi School of Economics.
In 1978, when he retired from the Foreign Service, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. In 1980, the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent him to the United States as India’s Ambassador. Here he helped arrange her landmark 1982 visit to Washington, where she met President Ronald Reagan.
Following this, Narayanan contested elections on a Congress ticket and won three successive Lok Sabha polls from Ottapalam in Kerala. He was a member of the Union Council of Ministers in the Rajiv Gandhi Government. In 1992, he became the country’s Vice-President. On July 17, 1997 he was elected the tenth President of India after he defeated his sole rival, former Chief Election Commissioner T. N. Seshan, with an impressive margin of 3,991 votes of the 4,642 votes polled.
When he assumed office a week later, he warned in his speech: “Indian civilization has had the unique honour of demonstrating to the world that man does not live by bread alone. Cultural, moral and spiritual values have always formed the fundamental underpinning of our society. Today there are signs of the weakening of the moral and spiritual fibre in our public life with evils of communalism, casteism, violence and corruption bedevilling our society.”
He dissolved the Lok Sabha twice as President, after consulting a wide spectrum of political parties and determining that no single party or group was in a position to secure the confidence of the House. On February 16, 1998, in an unprecedented and deeply symbolic act, he joined fellow citizens at a polling booth to cast his vote, underlining that he was the President of a democratic country.
President Narayanan did not hesitate to speak his mind when the occasion so demanded. When Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons were killed in Orissa, Narayanan said in a letter to the nation: “That someone who had spent years caring for patients of leprosy, instead of being thanked and appreciated as a role-model, should be done to death in this manner is a monumental aberration from the traditions of tolerance and humanity for which India has been known.”
Similarly, following the 2002 Gujarat riots, he said in a message to the nation that he was “deeply anguished and pained at the violent incidents and killings that have disturbed the peace and communal harmony in Gujarat and elsewhere”.
After retiring as President, he and his wife, Usha, continued to live in Delhi. He died on November 9, 2005 after a brief illness.
Summing up his place in history, in an editorial tribute, The Hindu noted: “History will remember Citizen Narayanan as one who heroically, through sheer merit and hard work, rose to the highest position in the Republic, but never forgot his origins and always stood with the people.” And The Economist had this to say about the boy from Uzhavoor who became President: “Though friends remember Mr. Narayanan as gentle and courteous, he had the stubbornness born of a lifelong fight against injustice.”
Also on this day:
1904 — Jatindra Nath Das, Indian freedom fighter, was born
1966 — Dibyendu Barua, chess Grandmaster from Kolkata, was born
1984 — Irfan Pathan, Indian cricketer, was born
1987 — Vijay Merchant, Indian cricketer, passed away