Narayanan fought against all odds.


The Times of India, 9th November 2005


NEW DELHI: Self respect was something that defined and drove Kocheril Raman Narayanan's life. Yet he did not have the slightest of arrogance of a self-made man.

Initial days of poverty and hardships posed many hurdles on his way. But he was undeterred and walked the 15 kilometres every day to school. KR was made of a strong resolve and had a lion's heart. Right from the first day, he stood by his principles and never bowed before anything other than reason.

In 1943 the Dewan of Travancore, Ramaswamy Iyer refused to offer a permanent lecturer's position in his own alma mater even when KR held a distinction because he was a Dalit. Even an audience with the then Maharaja of Travancore was denied. As a mark of protest, KR boycotted the convocation and never formally accepted his degree. But his learning kept him in good stead. Fifty years later, he accepted it on the University's request.

Even in the era of globalization, it was considered next to impossible to become the President of India if you were a Dalit. But KR fought against all odds with his first-rate academic credentials and his distinguished career record as a diplomat to rise to the office of the President. He was in office from 1997 to 2002 during the PV Narashima Rao's tenure as the Prime Minister.

He was so versatile that he wore all his hats with grace and poise. Most importantly, he was the only Dalit to rise to the office of the President and he made the Dalit community and all the country's citizens proud.

Born on October 27, 1920 in Uzhavoor in Kottayam district in Kerala, KR Narayanan had to walk long distances to go to school. His family did not have money to buy books. He borrowed them. He later went to St. Mary's School and then to CMS College in Kottayam. He studied English Literature during his Masters and stood first at the University of Travancore.

Before traveling to England on a scholarship, KR arrived in Delhi and worked for a brief period with "The Hindu" and "The Times of India" (1944-45).

KR went to England in 1945 to London School of Economics and studied political science under none other than the revered and renowned Harold Laski. It is during his stint in London he was active in the India League under VK Krishna Menon. He was also the London Correspondent of the "Social Welfare Weekly" published by K.M. Munshi.

Upon his return from London School of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru personally recommended his name to the Indian Civil Service in 1948 and later joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1949.

He had an impressive career record spanning almost thirty years during his Foreign Service stint. KR served as a diplomat in Burma, Japan, Vietnam, England and Australia. It was widely believed that KR's tenure as an Ambassador to China and the United States was of great importance and provided the glint to India's then staid foreign policy.

He even taught at the Delhi School of Economics and years later became the Secretary to the External Affairs Ministry in 1976 and retired two years later. It was during his Rangoon's stint he met his wife Ma Trint and married her in 1951. She rechristened to call herself as Usha and later became an Indian citizen. They have two daughters Chitra and Amrita of whom Chitra walked the path of her father. She served as an Ambassador to Sweden and Turkey.

KR retired from the IFS and then joined politics on the request of Indira Gandhi. Even his political career proved a huge success. He won three successive Lok Sabha elections in the years 1984, 1989 and I991from Ottapalam constituency in Palakkad. It must have been such a sweet success for this Dalit after having won from what was believed to be an Iyers' stronghold. But Narayanan rose well above the trivialities of caste and anything parochial.

KR was unanimously elected to the office of the Vice President in 1992 and when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 he called it as the greatest tragedy after the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, a remark that his predecessors thought was not within the scheme of the President's prerogative. KR Narayanan time and again proved that the President's office had a mind of its own and was not just a puppet in the hands of the ruling dispensation. In fact he brought dignity and respect to the Office. He was sworn in as the President of India with an overwhelming majority of votes in the electoral college. During his tenure as the President, KR worked tirelessly in favour of social action, progress and for tolerance between all religions. He stayed out of even the mildest of controversies yet he spoke what he thought. It is a matter of pride that he was the only President who did not visit any place of religious worship unlike his predecessor R Venkatraman who was believed to be a staunch Tamil Brahmin who wore his religious affiliations on his sleeve. KR must have wanted to prove that the Office of the President is above caste, creed and religion in perfect harmony with the Indian Constitution.

It is also important to recollect that KR Narayanan had then suggested the Prime Minister Vajpayee to send the army to Gujarat to quell the riots that happened in Gujarat in 2002 but alas his voice was not heard that resulted in the deaths of thousands.

KR wrote with unflagging energy during and after his service. He wrote on Nehru, Indo-US relationships and non-alignment.



Encounter/T P Sreenivasan

Narayanan's journey was no less spectacular than Lincoln's

November 10, 2005
K R Narayanan was already a legend when I joined the University College in Thiruvananthapuram to sit in the same class rooms as he did. Stories about his extraordinary brilliance and his career, which broke many barriers, were heard in the corridors of his alma mater.

I had a clearer sense of his accomplishments, once I myself joined the Foreign Service and served in some of the places of his postings like Yangon, Tokyo and Washington. It was when I met him in 1980 in the United States that the man, rather than the legend, came alive in my consciousness and I encountered his intellectual brilliance, his Nehruvian vision and his extreme humility.

Narayanan's extraordinary achievements as a diplomat receded into the background when he entered politics and rose to the highest office of the land. But it should be remembered that he was chosen for two key assignments at the end of his diplomatic career, first in China and then in the United States. He was the one chosen to re-establish ambassadorial relations with China. We owe it to him that he laid the foundations of India's new relationship with China.

Having been chosen as ambassador to the United States at a crucial moment, he did pioneering work to set a new tone in bilateral relations. But the Indian position on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan presented a severe challenge to his efforts. He worked hard to convince his hosts that India was opposed to the presence of foreign forces in any country and sought correctives in our own statements to help him fortify that position.

He was naturally outraged when the United States stopped the supply of fuel to Tarapur on the ground that all the nuclear installations in India were not under safeguards. In an uncharacteristically harsh statement, he pointed out that the United States had the right only to insist on placing Tarapur under safeguards, not the other installations. Like in human relationships, a contract with one does not apply to others similarly placed, he said.

Narayanan's sense of humour was earthy, but subtle. I recall his conversation with a senior colleague, who wondered whether graying or balding was preferable as one grew old. "One consolation is that one can't do both at the same time," the graying Narayanan told his balding friend.

Once at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the mike failed when he rose to speak. He turned to me and said that if this had happened in Uzhavoor (his native village), Third World technology would have been blamed. Here it was just a systemic failure! I remembered his remark years later when a NASA telephone failed at the very moment when a conversation with Kalpana Chawla was set up for the Indian delegation, which had gone there to witness her first space journey. Nothing had happened to the link, but someone had pulled out the wire from the wall outlet.

My mother visited Rashtrapati Bhavan to witness an Arjuna award ceremony as my daughter-in-law Roopa Unnikrishnan was among the recipients. My brother T P Seetharam was the President's press secretary. In a short chat, Narayanan asked my mother where she lived. When she replied that she stayed with her doctor son in Pune, Narayanan said she was wise to live with her doctor son rather than with her two diplomat sons.

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation chose to recognise Narayanan as the World Statesman of 1998. Dr Henry Kissinger persuaded Narayanan to accept the award. When we discovered that the Foundation was using the dinner in his honour to raise funds, we decided to alert the President. I asked my brother to gently broach the subject and seek his reaction. "Well, we have to accept American ways. It was a hundred dollars per plate when Panditji went there. It must be a thousand dollars now," he said, much to our relief.

Narayanan was a nationalist and an internationalist, but that did not erase his Kerala identity. His homecomings to Kerala were memorable for him and for Keralites. His sister and brother kept away from Rashtrapati Bhavan, but the Rashtrapati came to see them often. On one occasion, he broke down when he recalled how his sister had to give up schooling to save resources for his education. She would have accomplished much, if she did not have to make that sacrifice, he said in a broken voice.

Narayanan was a catalyst for the creation of the Federation of Kerala Associations of North America (FOKANA) to bring the Malayalees in the United States and Canada under one umbrella. FOKANA, now a strong association, is a monument to his thoughtfulness. He also readily agreed to be the chief patron of the Thiruvananthapuram University College Alumni Network even as the President of India. He gifted his home to the Shantigiri Ashram and it is now known that he had wanted that the priests from that Ashram should perform his last rites. No wonder Kerala treats him as one of its greatest sons. His picture occupied the whole front page of the Malayala Manorama newspaper on the day after his death.

Narayanan's journey from a humble cottage in Uzhavoor to Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi was no less spectacular than that of Abraham Lincoln from the log cabin to the White House. Perhaps, it was even more sensational as Lincoln did not have to fight centuries of caste prejudices that Narayanan had to overcome. It is said that if the Maharaja of Travancore had not advised him to make a living outside his home state, he would not have reached the dizzy heights of political life. But a man of his talents and integrity would certainly have risen to great heights wherever he lived and worked. Life may be full of lucky and unlucky accidents, but when talent and good fortune meet, the right man reaches the right place at the right time.


Indian American community pays tributes to Narayanan

December 05, 2005 14:28 IST

Rich tributes were paid to former President K R Narayanan at a meeting organised by leaders of the Indian American Community and diplomats in Washington who described him as an "outstanding statesman."

Indian American community leaders characterised Narayanan as a person who not only posssessed a wealth of knowledge but was always one who was down to earth and in touch with the masses. "Looking back at the late President Narayanan, I was struck by his multi-faceted achievements," India's Ambassador to the United States, Ronen Sen said at the meeting on Sunday. "He became President on the basis of his own merits, his own accomplishments, not because he was a Dalit," Sen stressed, going on to make the point that Narayanan was an "outstanding scholar with a breadth and depth of knowledge on a range of issues."

"India has lost one of its most illustrious sons, an outstanding statesman who did not lose touch with the people of India," the Indian Ambassador said. India's former top diplomat T P Sreenivasan who has served in Washington as the Deputy Chief of the Indian Mission said Narayanan was a product of a system that he had to fight; but he was not a fighter - he was benevolent.

During the course of the lengthy meeting which was compered by Dr Sambhu Banik and John (Sunny) Wycliffe, a message by President George W Bush to the President of India A P J Abdul Kalam was also read out, "President Narayanan's journey from humble beginnings to become India's first Dalit President was an inspiration to people around the world," Bush said in the letter.