Kocheril Raman Narayanan (Malayalam: കോച്ചേരില് രാമന് നാരായണന്; 27 October 1920 — 9 November 2005), also known as K. R. Narayanan, was the tenth President of the Republic of India. He is the first Dalit and the only Malayali to have been President.
Born in Uzhavoor, Kottayam district of Kerala, and after a brief stint with journalism and studying political science at the London School of Economics with the assistance of a scholarship, Narayanan began his public service career in India as a member of the Indian Foreign Service under the Nehru administration. He served as ambassador to Japan, United Kingdom, Thailand, Turkey, People's Republic of China and United States of America and was referred by Nehru as "the best diplomat of the country". He entered politics at Indira Gandhi's request and won three successive general elections to the Lok Sabha and served as a Minister of state in the Union cabinet under Rajiv Gandhi. Elected as Vice-President in 1992, Narayanan went on to become the President of India in 1997.
Narayanan is regarded as an independent and assertive President who set several precedents and enlarged the scope of the highest constitutional office. He described himself as a "working President" who worked "within the four corners of the Constitution"; something midway between an "executive President" who has direct power and a "rubber-stamp President" who endorses government decisions without question or deliberation. He used his discretionary powers as a President and deviated from convention and precedent in many situations, including - but not limited to — the appointment of the Prime Minister in a hung Parliament, in dismissing a state government and imposing President's rule there at the suggestion of the Union Cabinet, and during the Kargil conflict. He presided over the golden jubilee celebrations of Indian independence and in the country's general election of 1998 became the first Indian President to vote when in office, setting another new precedent.
K. R. Narayanan was born in his tharavaadu (ancestral home), a small thatched hut at Perumthanam, Uzhavoor, as the fourth of seven children of Kocheril Raman Vaidyar, a physician practicing the traditional Indian medical systems of Siddha and Ayurveda, and Punnaththuraveettil Paappiyamma. His family (belonging to the Paravan caste, whose members are assigned the task of plucking coconuts as per the caste system) was poor, but his father was respected for his medical acumen. He was born on 27 October 1920, but his uncle, who accompanied him on his first day in school, did not know his actual date of birth, and arbitrarily chose 27 October 1920 for the records; Narayanan later chose to let it remain official.
Narayanan had his early schooling in Uzhavoor at the Government Lower Primary School, Kurichithanam (where he enrolled on 5 May 1927) and Our Lady of Lourdes Upper Primary School, Uzhavoor (1931-35). He walked to school for about 15 kilometres daily through paddy fields, and was often unable to pay the modest fees. He often listened to school lessons while standing outside the classroom, having been barred from attending because tuition fees were outstanding. The family lacked money to buy books and his elder brother K. R. Neelakantan, who was confined to home as he was suffering from asthma, used to borrow books from other students, copy them down, and give them to Narayanan. He matriculated from St. Mary's High School, Kuravilangad (1936-37) (he had studied at St. John's High School, Koothattukulam (1935-36) previously). He completed his intermediate at C. M. S. College, Kottayam (1938-40), aided by a merit scholarship.
Narayanan obtained his B. A. (Honours) and M.A. in English literature from the University of Travancore (1940-43), standing first in the university (thus becoming the first Dalit to obtain this degree with first class in Travancore).
With his family facing grave difficulties, he left for Delhi and worked for some time as a journalist with The Hindu and The Times of India (1944-45). During this time he once interviewed Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay on his own volition (10 April 1945).Narayanan then went to England (1945) and studied political science under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics (LSE); he also attended lectures by Karl Popper, Lionel Robbins, and Friedrich Hayek. He obtained the honours degree of B. Sc. (Economics) with a specialisation in political science, helped by a scholarship from J. R. D. Tata. During his years in London, he (along with fellow student K. N. Raj) was active in the India League under V. K. Krishna Menon. He was also the London correspondent of the Social Welfare Weekly published by K. M. Munshi. He shared lodgings with K. N. Raj and Veerasamy Ringadoo (who later became the first President of Mauritius); another close friend was Pierre Trudeau (who later became Prime minister of Canada).
When I finished with LSE, Laski, of his own, gave me a letter of introduction for Panditji. On reaching Delhi I sought an appointment with the PM. I suppose, because I was an Indian student returning home from London, I was given a time-slot. It was here in Parliament House that he met me. We talked for a few minutes about London and things like that and I could soon see that it was time for me to leave. So I said goodbye and as I left the room I handed over the letter from Laski, and stepped out into the great circular corridor outside. When I was half way round, I heard the sound of someone clapping from the direction I had just come. I turned to see Panditji [Nehru] beckoning me to come back. He had opened the letter as I left his room and read it. [Nehru asked:] "Why didn't you give this to me earlier?" [and KRN replied:] "Well, sir, I am sorry. I thought it would be enough if I just handed it over while leaving." After a few more questions, he asked me to see him again and very soon I found myself entering the Indian Foreign Service.
In 1949, he joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) on Nehru's request. He worked as a diplomat in the embassies at Rangoon, Tokyo, London, Canberra, and Hanoi. He was the Indian ambassador to Thailand (1967-69), Turkey (1973-75), and the People's Republic of China (1976-78). He taught at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) (1954), and was Jawaharlal Nehru fellow (1970-72) and secretary to the ministry of external affairs (1976). He retired in 1978. After his retirement, he served as the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi from 1978-80; he would later describe this experience as the foundation for his public life. Subsequently he was called back from retirement to serve as Indian ambassador to the United States of America (USA) from 1980-84, under the Indira Gandhi administration. Narayanan's tenures as Indian ambassador to China, the first such high level Indian diplomatic posting in that country after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and to the USA where he helped arrange Ms. Gandhi's landmark 1982 visit to Washington during the Reagan presidency helped mend India's strained relations with both these countries. Nehru, who had also been the Minister for External Affairs during his 16 years as PM, held that K. R. Narayanan was "the best diplomat of the country."(1955)
K. R. Narayanan was elected as the Vice-President of India on 21 August 1992, under the Presidency of Shankar Dayal Sharma. His name had been proposed initially by V. P. Singh, former Prime Minister and the then leader of the Janata Dal parliamentary party. The Janata Dal and the Left Front had jointly declared him as their candidate, and this had later garnered support from the Congress under P. V. Narasimha Rao, leading to a unanimous decision on his election. On his relationship with the Left front, Narayanan later clarified that he was neither a devotee nor a blind opponent of Communism; they had known of his ideological differences, but had supported him as Vice-President (and later as President) because of special political circumstances that prevailed in the country. He had benefited from their support, and in turn, their political positions had gained acceptability. When the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992, he described the event as the "greatest tragedy India has faced since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi".
That the nation has found a consensus for its highest office in some one who has sprung from the grass-roots of our society and grown up in the dust and heat of this sacred land is symbolic of the fact that the concerns of the common man have now moved to the centre stage of our social and political life. It is this larger significance of my election rather than any personal sense of honour that makes me rejoice on this occasion.Golden jubilee of independence
The principal event of the golden jubilee of Indian independence was President K. R. Narayanan's midnight address to the nation during the special session of Parliament convened on the night of 14 August; in this address, he identified the establishment of a democratic system of government and politics to be the greatest achievement of India since independence. The following morning, Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, said:
When Gandhiji dreamt of India's future, he had said that the country will attain the real freedom only on the day when a Dalit would become the President of this country. This is our great fortune that today on the eve of golden jubilee of independence, we have been able to fulfil this dream of Gandhiji. In the person of Shri K. R. Narayanan we have been able to fulfil the dream of Gandhiji. Our President of whom the whole country is proud of, is from a very poor and downtrodden family and today he has endowed the Rashtrapati Bhavan with a new pride and respect. It is a matter of further happiness that the President has a very high place among the intellectuals of this country. This is a feather in the cap of our democracy that the backward sections of the society today are attaining their rightful place in society. All the countrymen today whether they are from minorities, scheduled castes [Dalits], or scheduled tribes [Adivasis]-- are working unitedly for the development of the country.Participation in the elections
In the general elections of 1998, K. R. Narayanan became the first sitting President to vote (16 February 1998), casting his vote at a polling booth in a school within the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex after standing in a queue like an ordinary citizen. He insisted on casting his vote, despite the departure from precedent being pointed out to him. Narayanan sought to change what was a long-standing practice of Indian presidents not voting during general elections. He also exercised his franchise as President in the 1999 general elections.Golden jubilee of the Republic President K. R. Narayanan's address to the nation on the golden jubilee of the Indian Republic (26 January 2000) is considered a landmark: it was the first time a President attempted to analyse, with due concern for growing disparities, the several ways in which the country had failed to provide economic justice to the Indian people, particularly the rural and agrarian population; he also stated that discontent was breeding and frustrations erupting in violence among the deprived sections of society. In his address to Parliament later that day, he praised the work of B. R. Ambedkar on the Indian constitution and cautioned against attempts to change its basic structure, concurring with Ambedkar's preference for accountability and responsibility over the stability of the government. He reiterated this in stronger terms in his next Republic day address (2001); on this occasion, he took exception to certain proposals seeking to abridge the franchise, and pointed out the wisdom of reposing faith in the common men and women of India as a whole, rather than in some elite section of society.
In these addresses, he articulated opinions which departed in many ways from certain views of the A. B. Vajpayee government.
In these decisions, President Narayanan set a new precedent concerning the appointment of a Prime minister — if no party or pre-election coalition had a majority, then a person would be appointed Prime minister only if he was able to convince the President (through letters of support from allied parties) of his ability to secure the confidence of the house. In doing so, he diverged from the actions of his predecessors who had been faced with the task of appointing a Prime minister from a hung parliament, Presidents N. Sanjiva Reddy, R. Venkataraman, and Shankar Dayal Sharma: the latter two had followed the practice of inviting the leader of the single largest party or pre-election coalition to form the government without investigating their ability to secure the confidence of the house.Imposition of President's rule President Narayanan returned for reconsideration the advices from the Union cabinet to impose President's rule in a state, in accordance with Article 356, in two instances: one from the Gujral government (22 October 1997) seeking to dismiss the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh, and the other from the Vajpayee government (25 September 1998) seeking to dismiss the Rabri Devi government in Bihar. In both instances, he cited the Supreme court judgement of 1994 on S. R. Bommai vs. Union of India and exercised his discretion. In both cases, the cabinet honoured the President's reservations. These remain the only occasions when a President urged such a reconsideration, and have set an important precedent concerning federalism and the rights of state governments.Kargil conflict A military conflict was developed in Kargil on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan in May 1999. The Vajpayee government had lost a no-confidence vote in Lok Sabha earlier that year and the opposition failed to form the next government. The Lok Sabha had been dissolved and a caretaker government was in office. This caused a problem with democratic accountability, as every major government decision is expected to be discussed, deliberated and consented by the parliament. Narayanan suggested to Vajpayee that the Rajya Sabha be convened to discuss the conflict, as demanded by several opposition parties (citing the precedent of Nehru convening a parliamentary session on Vajpayee's demand during the Sino-Indian war in 1962 ) though there was no precedent of convoking the Rajya Sabha in isolation during an interregnum. Further, Narayanan was briefed by the chiefs of the three arms of the Indian Armed Forces on the conduct of the conflict. His Republic day address next year began by paying homage to the soldiers who had died defending the nation.
President Narayanan spoke on various occasions on the condition of the Dalits, Adivasis, and other backward sections of society, and the various iniquities they faced (often in defiance of law), such as denial of civic amenities, ostracism, harassment and violence (particularly against women), and displacement by ill-conceived development projects.
He felt that the policy of reservations for the backward sections in education and the public sector had remained unfulfilled due to administrative distortions and narrow interpretations, and needed to be implemented with renewed vigour and sincerity; apprehensive of what he described as a counter-revolution among some privileged sections seeking to reverse progressive policies, he reminded the nation that these benefits were not charity, but had been provided by way of human rights and social justice to sections constituting a large portion of the population and contributing to the economy as landless agricultural labourers and industrial workers. In his 2002 Republic day address, he drew attention to the Bhopal declaration on the Dalit and Adivasi agenda for the 21st century and spoke of the necessity of the private sector adopting policies to promote equitable representation of the backward sections in their enterprises. In a governmental note on higher judicial appointments (which leaked to the press; January 1999), he observed that eligible persons from the backward sections were available and that their under-representation or non-representation was not justifiable; K. G. Balakrishnan, a Dalit, was elevated to the Supreme court (8 June 2000), the fourth such instance, and the only one since 1989.
He felt that Ambedkar's exhortation to "educate, organise, agitate" continued to be relevant; with the Dalits forming a quarter of the population in a democracy with universal adult franchise, he felt that the ultimate destiny of the backward sections lay in the hands of the backward sections themselves, organised socially and politically.
When the Australian missionary and social worker Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burned alive (22 January 1999), President Narayanan condemned it as a barbarous crime belonging to the world's inventory of black deeds.
Towards the end of his Presidency, communal riots broke out in Gujarat (February 2002). President Narayanan was deeply pained and anguished, and described it as a grave crisis of the society and the nation; he called it the duty of every Indian to strive to restore peace and thus preserve and strengthen the foundations of the state and the tradition of tolerance. Narayanan sought the intervention of the Indian Army to protect the minority Muslim population — a move that was not accepted by the country's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He did not stand the election for a second Presidential term due to the lack of support from the ruling government. After the demission of Presidential office, he lent his support to alternative globalisation movements like the World Social Forum. After he had left the Presidency, and after the Vajpayee government had been voted out of power in the general elections of May 2004, in an interview on the third anniversary of the riots (in February 2005), he said;
There was governmental and administrative support for the communal riots in Gujarat. I gave several letters to Prime Minister Vajpayee in this regard on this issue. I met him personally and talked to him directly. But Vajpayee did not do anything effective.He also stated that constitutional limits on his powers had prevented him from doing anything further. Throughout his Presidency, Narayanan adopted the policy of not visiting places of worship or godmen/godwomen; he is the only President to have followed this practice.
I requested him to send the army to Gujarat and suppress the riots. The military was sent, but they were not given powers to shoot. If the military was given powers to shoot at the perpetrators of violence, recurrence of tragedies in Gujarat could have been avoided.
However, both the state(the Narendra Modi government) and central government did not do so. I feel there was a conspiracy involving the state and central governments behind the Gujarat riots.
As Narayanan's tenure neared its end, various sections of public opinion looked forward to a second term of his Presidency. The NDA had a slender majority in the electoral college. Narayanan offered to be a consensus candidate. The Opposition parties (including the Congress, the Left Front, Janata Dal (Secular), and various regional parties) supported a second term for him, and Sonia Gandhi met him to request his candidature; Vajpayee then met Narayanan, informed him that there was no consensus within the NDA on the question, and advised against his candidature. The NDA then proposed to elevate the Vice-President Krishan Kant as a consensus; this drew support from the Opposition and an agreement to this effect was conveyed by Vajpayee's representative to the Congress. However, within a day, the NDA unable to reach an internal consensus, decided to propose another candidate Dr.P. C. Alexander. Alexander's candidature drew disapproval of the Opposition parties. The Opposition parties approached Narayanan and renewed their request to seek a second term. The NDA then put forth a third candidate Abdul Kalam as their official choice, without seeking consensus; one opposition party (the Samajwadi Party under Mulayam Singh Yadav) dissipated the unity of the Opposition by supporting this proposal. Narayanan opted himself out from a contest at this point.
When asked about these events later, Narayanan accused the BJP of scuttling a second term of his Presidency. He stated that the BJP had tried to implement an insidious agenda spread across several sectors seeking to subvert the secular ideals of the nation; he made particular reference to the efforts by Murli Manohar Joshi (the then HRD minister) to secure the reins of education to the cause of spreading the Hindutva ideology of the BJP, and to the illegitimate attempts to secure important appointments in various sectors for supporters of this ideology; he had intervened in these matters within the bounds permitted by democratic and constitutional norms, but the BJP had resented his actions.
In his farewell address to the nation (24 July 2002), K. R. Narayanan set his hopes for social action and progress on the service of the nation by its youth. He reflected on his varied experiences of the essential goodness and wisdom of the Indian people, recalling how he had grown up in Uzhavoor among adherents of several religions, how religious tolerance and harmony had prevailed, how upper-caste Hindus and well-off Christians had helped him in his early studies, and how upper-caste Hindus as well as Christians and Muslims had worked together enthusiastically for his election campaigns in Ottapalam. He said that the credibility and endurance of India's unity and democracy are founded on its tradition of tolerance, and spoke of the need for Hindus, who form the majority, to express the traditional spirit of their religion.
Reflecting on his Presidency, K. R. Narayanan said:
As the President of India, I had lots of experiences that were full of pain and helplessness. There were occasions when I could do nothing for people and for the nation. These experiences have pained me a lot. They have depressed me a lot. I have agonised because of the limitations of power. Power and the helplessness surrounding it are a peculiar tragedy, in fact.
At the World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai (21 January 2004), he lent his support to the alternative globalisation movement. Addressing the forum at its concluding session, he praised the WSF for demanding freedom in its most comprehensive form, and was happy that people had assembled under an important idea, rather than for narrow political ends; after reflecting on corporations displacing governments in various countries, and on how Mahatma Gandhi had fought British colonisers non-violently with the strength of the masses, he predicted that vocal masses the world over would successfully fight by non-violent means the capturing of the world's resources by a few corporations in the name of globalisation. He urged the people to struggle against power corporates and militarism and fight those aspects of globalisation which were against the interests of the people; he hailed people's power as a renascent factor of international politics.
K. R. Narayanan dedicated (15 February 2005) his tharavaadu at Uzhavoor to the Santhigiri ashram in Pothencode for the purpose of establishing the Navajyothisree Karunakara Guru research centre for Siddha and Ayurveda. This turned out to be his last return to Uzhavoor.
K. R. Narayanan died on 9 November 2005 at the Army Research and Referral Hospital, New Delhi, after being briefly ill with pneumonia and consequent renal failure. He was cremated with full state honours at sunset the following day; the last rites were performed by his nephew Dr. P. V. Ramachandran, at Ekta sthal on the banks of the River Yamuna (adjacent to Shanti van, the memorial of his mentor Jawaharlal Nehru).
His daughter, Chitra (Indian ambassador to Turkey), on behalf of her mother (Usha), sister (Amrita), and the rest of his family, expressed her appreciation for the outpouring of grief from all over the country and abroad; she added that K. R. Narayanan would be remembered for his great love for the nation and for his immense moral strength and courage.
Four siblings, K. R. Gowri, K. R. Bhargavi, K. R. Bharathi, and K. R. Bhaskaran, survived him; two elder brothers had died when Narayanan was in his twenties. His elder sister Gowri (a homoeopath, who remained unmarried) and his younger brother Bhaskaran (a teacher, also unmarried) had been living in Uzhavoor. Villagers of Uzhavoor marched silently to the tharavaadu of K. R. Narayanan and paid him reverent homage.From the sidelines of society About his life and its message, K. R. Narayanan said:
I see and understand both the symbolic as well as the substantive elements of my life. Sometimes I visualise it as a journey of an individual from a remote village on the sidelines of society to the hub of social standing. But at the same time I also realise that my life encapsulates the ability of the democratic system to accommodate and empower marginalised sections of society.
Narayanan died in New Delhi at the age of 85.