The life and times of Kocheril Raman Narayanan make for an extraordinary story of struggle, high intelligence, will power, and courage. Born in 1921 into an extremely deprived Dalit family in Uzhavoor village in Kerala, Mr. Narayanan was the fourth of seven children. Just what hardship this meant all those years ago can be imagined from the discrimination and oppression millions of Dalits face even today. Gruelling poverty and anti-human prejudices did not deflect Mr. Narayanan from his mission to educate himself. As a brother noted, "the idea that liberation could be achieved only through education was instilled in him at an early age." Mr. Narayanan passed his B. A. and M. A. with distinction; went on a scholarship to the London School of Economics where he won a B.Sc. (Economics) honours degree in the first division; worked briefly as a journalist in The Hindu before and after that; joined the Indian Foreign Service and, among other things, served as India's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China during a vital phase leading up to the restoration of normalcy in the bilateral relationship. It speaks to the esteem in which he was held that two years after he retired from the IFS, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent him as Ambassador to the United States. The next phase saw him go places from Member of Parliament to Minister of State to Rashtrapati.
The greater achievement of this brilliant man was to retain unto the last a progressive social vision and empathy with millions of India's poor and deprived citizens. He did not flinch from doing what he considered right whether it was joining a queue of citizens to cast his vote (before him, heads of state did not vote) or creatively interpreting and exercising presidential discretion or speaking his mind on issues that mattered. Not all of this went down well with those brought up on the notion that heads of state were figureheads. This deeply reflective man considered himself "not an executive President but a working President and working within the four corners of the Constitution." On August 14, 1998, he broke with hallowed tradition: rather than go on air to address the nation as in the past, he had a televised conversation with a journalist. The conversation captured the despair of a President impatient for "social and economic progress." There had been achievements but "the march of society, of social change, has not been fast enough, nor fundamental enough so far." President Narayanan made an original and far-going contribution to practice in a tricky area: prime ministerial appointment in the context of a hung Parliament. He rejected the notion that the single largest party or coalition necessarily had the first claim to office. In place of the mechanical approach adopted by his predecessors, he established principles and procedures that were transparent and based on sound constitutional reasoning. An acid test came towards the end of his presidency. Deeply disturbed by the genocidal pogrom in Gujarat, the first citizen characterised it as a "grave crisis of society and the nation." The burden of office prevented him from revealing more at the time. The explosive truth emerged later: in an interview given on the third anniversary of the pogrom, he suggested a conspiracy involving the State and Central governments. He also spoke of his unanswered letter to Prime Minister Vajpayee seeking immediate deployment of the Army. 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.
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