Tuesday, 9 November 2021, marks the 16th death anniversary of K.R. Narayanan, India’s first Dalit President.
An illustrious career
Narayanan who was born into a Dalit family in Uzhavoor village in present-day Kerela had an illustrious career in many fields like politics, journalism, academics, and bureaucracy.
He studied in an English medium school at Kuravilangad, some 8 km away, and generally covered the distance to and from school on foot. Narayanan became the first Dalit to obtain a Master’s degree in English Literature with a first-class from the University of Travancore.
After a brief stint with journalism and then studying political science at the London School of Economics, Narayanan began his career in India as a member of the Indian Foreign Service in the Jawaharlal Nehru administration.
He studied Political Science under renowned economist Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, where he went on a scholarship provided by the Tatas. Reports say a letter by Laski addressed to Jawaharlal Nehru helped him get a job at the Indian Foreign Services in 1949.
He had briefly worked with The Hindu and The Times of India in New Delhi between 1944 and 1945. Narayanan also taught at the Delhi School of Economics and was the vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1979.
When he was working as a journalist with TOI in 1945, he had interviewed Mahatma Gandhi, asking him questions on untouchability, social practices, and their political significance.
He served as ambassador to Japan, the United Kingdom, Thailand, Turkey, China, and the United States and was referred to by Nehru as “the best diplomat of the country”.
Narayanan 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 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet.
Elected as vice president in 1992, Narayanan went on to become president in 1997. He was the first person from the Dalit community to hold either post.
During his tenure as President, he joined other citizens at a polling booth to cast his vote during the 1998 general elections. Narayanan was the first President to vote in the general elections. Before him, India’s Presidents refrained from adult suffrage.
Narayanan authored or co-authored various works on Indian politics and International relations, some of his books are India and America: Essays in Understanding (1984) and Non-Alignment in Contemporary International Relations (1981).
While he was in the offices of Vice President and President, KR Narayanan expressed his displeasure over the National Democratic Alliance government’s stance on issues, including the Babri Masjid demolition and Muslim genocide in Gujarat in 2002.
As Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Narayanan had characterised the demolition of the Babri Masjid as the greatest tragedy, India has faced since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
KR Narayanan had criticised the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government for not taking appropriate actions early enough to stop the Muslim genocide in Gujarat in 2002.
Calling the genocide the “most difficult dilemma of his career”, he had later said he did suggest the government to deploy Army, but the government did not follow up with action.
“There has been government participation in Gujarat riots. I had sent several letters to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and also talked to him. But he did not do anything effective,” Narayanan said on 2 March in 2005.
“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,” on the third anniversary of Gujarat genocide, Narayanan said.
In order to pay tributes, many including political leaders and higher offices in the country have taken to Twitter as they remember India’s first Dalit President who made tremendous contributions to the country.
“We pay homage to former President of India Shri K.R. Narayanan, famously referred to as ‘the best diplomat in the country’ by PM Nehru. He was the first Dalit President of the country and always raised his voice for the upliftment of the marginalised communities,” read tweet by Congress’s official Twitter handle.