India's first 'untouchable' president, dies at 85

"He was a monumental personality. A personality who proved what the Indian Republic stands for."

india pres 88 (photo credit: )
india pres 88
(photo credit: )
Former President K.R. Narayanan, the first "untouchable" from India's pernicious caste system to occupy the office, died Wednesday. He was 85. The soft-spoken, scholarly Narayanan was admitted to an army hospital in the capital on Oct. 29 with pneumonia and kidney failure, and died after being on life support system since Oct. 31, said Defense Ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar. Although the president's post in India is largely ceremonial, Narayanan showed during his 1997-2002 time in office that he was no rubber-stamp executive. He broke from precedent twice to defy the government that appointed him, refusing to sack opposition-ruled state administrations. "He was a monumental personality. A personality who proved what the Indian Republic stands for," said former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral on private New Delhi Television. "In all the time he occupied the high office, he always upheld his oath to protect the constitution." Narayanan's rise to the top was remarkable in a country where "untouchables," now known as "Dalits," are the lowest in society, having faced ridicule and hostility for centuries. The Dalits - literally "broken people" - are outside the caste system, a 3,000-year-old hierarchy that divides Hindus into four categories of descending social importance. Because they are without caste, the Dalits, nearly a fourth of India's billion-plus people, are considered unclean and therefore "untouchable." "Coming from a very poor family, coming up only with the dint of his own effort and labor, he proved ... that neither religion nor caste can come in the way of a person who is able to exert himself intellectually," Gujral said. Discrimination based on caste was outlawed in 1950 but centuries of entrenched habits have been hard to break, although much progress has been made in social equality in recent decades. In his public statements, Narayanan never harped on the caste discrimination he faced as growing up, instead emphasizing on the positive. "In fact, if you can see one consistent tendency in India, one trend in India, from the time of the Buddha onwards, it is the slow, but steady movement of the lower classes among the scale of the class system," Narayanan said in a 1998 interview with state television. "But it has been very slow. It took 2,000 years. But it is something which is going on," he said. While most Dalits remain poor, uneducated and underemployed, Narayanan was a symbol of how crushing disadvantages can be overcome with luck and determination. The son of a traditional "Ayurvedic" medicine physician, Narayanan was born in a poor household in the village of Uzhavoor in the southern state of Kerala on Oct. 27, 1920. With persistence he obtained education, earning a bachelor's degree from the London School of Economics and working at various times as English teacher, journalist and diplomat. He was once barred from primary school because he couldn't afford the fees, but stubbornly stood outside the classroom to listen to lessons. Narayanan did so well on his final high school exams that he was given a government scholarship to continue his education. He also received help from a fund set up for oppressed Indians by independence leader and social reformer Mohandas Gandhi, and an Indian industrialist later paid for his studies in London. He returned to India in 1948 with a letter of introduction from a prominent economist to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The prime minister personally recommended Narayanan for the Indian Foreign Service. He served as India's ambassador to China and the United States, two of the most important posts in the service. His first posting as a diplomat was to Myanmar, also known as Burma, where he met his future wife, a Burmese woman who had studied social work in India. They married in 1950, with special permission given by Nehru as Indian diplomats are not allowed to marry foreigners. He turned to politics in 1980, winning a seat in Parliament on a Congress party ticket. A politician with a whistle-clean reputation, he served as vice president until he was elected the country's 10th president on July 25, 1997.