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November 30, 2000

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K.R. Narayanan is India's first "untouchable" president. With lower castes increasingly restive and vocal, his rise sends a potent message

By Ajay Singh

EVERY YEAR DURING THE harvest festival of Onam, people in the southern state of Kerala pay tribute to Mahabali, a mythic king whose reign was said to be an uninterrupted spell of peace, equality and prosperity. Legend has it that the gods felt so threatened by his popularity that they hatched a cunning plot and killed him. But the king's death created such a public outcry that the gods were forced to allow him to visit his subjects once a year. Onam, which marks Mahabali's brief return to earth, is a time of almost non-stop merrymaking.

The festivities last several days, leaving most people exhausted. Yet a day after Onam concluded in September, many Malayalees, as the people of Kerala are called, were gearing up for yet another party. This time, too, the occasion was the return of a native hero -- a modern-day, flesh-and-blood Mahabali -- whose life also has the elements of a fable. His name: Kocheril Raman Narayanan. Known as Narayanan to some and "K.R." to others, he is a former diplomat and MP from Kerala who recently became India's 10th president. What gives his achievement a unique pan-Indian importance is that Narayanan is the first president ever from the oppressed community of Dalits, traditionally known as the "untouchables" because upper-caste Hindus consider mere contact with them to be ritually polluting.

A politician whose integrity has always been above question, Narayanan was elected by nearly 5,000 members of the federal and state legislatures in July. He won 95% of the votes, inflicting a crushing defeat on his lone rival, former Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan. An arrogant and abrasive high-caste Brahmin, Seshan responded to his drubbing with an angry outburst. He told journalists that Narayanan, who was India's vice-president until his elevation to the highest office in the land, had won "only because he was a Dalit."

Seshan wasn't entirely wrong. Though Narayanan's record speaks for itself, the growing violence between upper and lower castes certainly lends his appointment a whiff of politics. Only one party did not vote for him: the Hindu revivalist Shiv Sena, whose views on caste are well known. Recently, Dalits accused the Sena of direct involvement or complicity in an ugly incident in Bombay. Six days before Narayanan became president, the Dalit residents of a slum woke to find an insulting garland of sandals draped around a bust of Bhimsaheb Rao Ambedkar, a Dalit icon who helped draft the Indian Constitution. Thousands of Dalits went on a rampage. The police opened fire on the protesters without warning. Nine unarmed Dalits died. It is common knowledge in India that upper-caste rioters hardly ever suffer such a fate.

President Narayanan can do precious little to avert, let alone stop, the almost daily victimization of India's 150 million Dalits. This is because he is the constitutional head of a country in which the prime minister and cabinet decide policy matters. Yet there is a powerful message behind the fact that 50 years after Independence India finally has a Dalit president. It is only a matter of time before a Dalit becomes prime minister. In a somber speech to MPs after being sworn in, Narayanan hinted that the political winds were shifting in favor of India's downtrodden. "That the nation has found for its highest office someone who has sprung from the grassroots is symbolic of the fact that the concerns of the common man have now moved to the center stage of our political life." he said. "It is this larger significance of my election rather than any personal sense of honor that makes me rejoice on this occasion."

Little wonder then that this symbol of India's historic social transformation was given a rousing reception in Kerala. It was Narayanan's first visit to his home state since he became president, and people in his ancestral village of Uzhavoor were ecstatic. "We have celebrated Onam," grinned 80-year-old Gowri, Narayanan's elder sister. "But the real celebration is today." As the presidential cavalcade sped along a hilly road, swarms of colorfully dressed villagers waved out to their home-grown Mahabali. They surged forward when Narayanan alighted from a car and walked toward them. Frantic bodyguards threw a security ring around the president and forced him into a jeep, but later Narayanan slipped into the crowds, beaming with pride and happiness. Young and old reached out to touch him. "If I claim any qualities today," Narayanan later said in a speech in the village, "it is because I was born, schooled and brought up here. People of all castes and religions have helped me. Through these experiences I could come up in my life without bitterness."

Uzhavoor means "place of plowing people" -- a testament to the generations of low-caste tenant farmers who were once nothing more than what one Malayalee writer described as "agricultural instruments in the hands of landlords." Narayanan belongs to one of the lowest sub-castes in Kerala, the Paravas, who have traditionally been coconut pluckers. He escaped the tyranny of the caste system in part because his father and grandfather were respected ayurveda (herbal medicine) practitioners. As a youth, Narayanan roamed freely, though he wasn't allowed to cross landlords' porches.

Education in India has traditionally been the privilege of the upper castes, but in Kerala it has been accessible to all for over a century. The credit goes largely to European missionaries whose schools welcomed members of all communities. Narayanan's father valued knowledge tremendously, but couldn't afford to send all his seven children to English-medium schools, where kids learned to cope with the British empire and world at large.

Narayanan's life has had at least two major turning points. The first came when he insisted, against his father's wishes, to study at an English school. He was packed off to one at four -- at least according to official records. Actually, he was slightly younger. An uncle who accompanied him to school on the first day couldn't remember his date of birth, which is Feb. 4, 1921. So he randomly chose Oct. 27, 1920. Narayanan has stuck with it ever since.

Young Narayanan's trips to school were an ordeal. As there were no roads, he walked some 15 km barefoot over narrow ridges of water-clogged padi fields. Often, he was barred from attending classes because his father couldn't pay the monthly school fees on time. But such was the boy's thirst for knowledge that he would listen to the teacher through the classroom window. It was usually good enough, especially if a science lesson was underway. "Imagine this is a test tube," the chemistry teacher would say. Most village schools had no laboratory equipment in those days.

Buying school books was a perennial problem. But in this case, help was always at hand. Narayanan had an elder brother, Neelakantan, who was mostly confined to the house because he suffered acute asthma. He would borrow books from other students, jot down every word in his almost calligraphic handwriting, and give the copies to Narayanan.

Such touching acts left a deep impression on Narayanan. Those who know him say he is a man of great warmth and affection. "You can see it in his smile," says Capt. Deepak Bisht, a presidential aide-de-camp. V.K. Madhavan Kutty, a veteran Malayalee journalist based in Delhi, recently received a phone call from Narayanan. Kutty casually mentioned that a common friend staying with him was unwell. "Within half an hour, Narayanan showed up at my door," says Kutty. Subsequently, a police team came to ensure that Kutty's house was secure. "They said a VIP has to come here," laughs Kutty. "I said the VIP has come and gone."

During his Kerala visit, Narayanan inaugurated a new town hall. As a surprise, two young boys and girls sang a special song for him. As the lyrics filled the hall, says Narayanan, "I suddenly recognized some lines. Then I realized it was my own poem." He had written it while in high school; it was published in 1936 under the title, An Appeal by a Poet. The first four lines echo with tragic sorrow: "Blood freezes in my veins/Voice trembles, O goddess of poets/Where do you hide/Without blessing this poor soul."

It took seven years for the gods and goddesses to notice Narayanan. In 1943, he became the first Dalit student in the then princely state of Travancore to graduate with a first-division B.A. degree (in English literature). In those days, according to custom, outstanding graduates were entitled to become lecturers in their own colleges. But Narayanan was denied a job because of his low caste. Instead, he was offered a clerical post plus a book worth less than $3. He refused to accept either and demanded an audience with the Maharaja of Travancore, who declined to see him. In protest, Narayanan boycotted the college convocation, refusing to accept his degree. (Half a century later, when Narayanan became vice-president, university officials begged him to accept it. He did so gracefully.)

Disillusioned and humiliated by the experience at his college, Narayanan went to Delhi and worked as a welfare officer in an ordnance factory. But finding the work unchallenging, he took up journalism and did stints as a reporter with some of India's top newspapers. Soon, however, he was bored and ready to pursue a long-time goal of attending the London School of Economics.

There weren't many scholarships for overseas education in those days. So Narayanan approached industrialist J.R.D. Tata, a member of the progressive Parsee community. Tata agreed to send him to LSE. In 1948, a little over a year after Indian Independence, Narayanan returned from London. He was looking forward to a career in journalism or academia, but then he met Jawaharlal Nehru.

Narayanan had long wanted to meet Nehru, India's first prime minister. Now he had a letter of introduction from one of Nehru's British friends, the renowned LSE professor Harold Laski. The letter marked the second turning point in Narayanan's life. Nehru interviewed Narayanan for a full 20 minutes. Narayanan left the meeting overawed by the encounter and was walking in the corridor outside Nehru's office when he heard someone clapping. It was Nehru, evidently intrigued by the young man. "You did not ask me what you wanted," he said. "What you wanted to do." When Narayanan hesitated, Nehru told him to leave his résumé.

Not long after, Narayanan was off to Burma. Nehru had offered him a job in the elite Indian Foreign Service -- and long before untouchability was outlawed and India erected its affirmative-action programs. Burma was in the midst of a civil war and young officers were needed to help repatriate the Indian community. Narayanan almost didn't make it to his first post. He was flying to Rangoon when his plane rocked slightly. On landing, he learned Karen rebels had shot at one of the engines.

Shortly after Narayanan settled down in Rangoon, he met a young Burmese woman named Usha. She would steal Narayanan's heart, marry him and move to India. Narayanan is too modest, and perhaps bashful, to recount how they met. "In a natural diplomatic way," is how he puts it. But his wife tells quite a different story. "Oh no," she says gleefully. "I'd heard he was a very brilliant man -- Laski's favorite student." Her voice drops a register. "Oh God, I said to myself, I can't understand Laski's books and here is his pet pupil."

Wherever he went, Narayanan charmed practically everyone he met. In 1976 he was named ambassador to China, a considerable acknowledgment of his abilities, given the tense relations between New Delhi and Beijing at the time. Four years later, as ambassador to the U.S., he was busy building bridges with the Reagan administration. A.K. Damodaran, a retired upper-caste diplomat from Kerala, can't say enough good things about his old friend. "What I am trying to swim against," he emphasizes, "is the received wisdom that Narayanan became president because he is a Dalit."

India's first "untouchable" head of state lives in a 340-room palace of pink and cream sandstone with his wife and eldest daugher Chitra, who is married and works in the foreign service. (A second daughter Amitra, is also married and lives in the U.S.) The British-built Rashtrapati Bhavan, or President's Palace, is one the largest official residences for a head of state, replete with a six-hectare garden, nine tennis courts, a 14-hole golf course, polo ground and cricket field. Not to mention the man-made forest. "It is too big to feel that it is part of you," says Narayanan, "or that you are part of it." Usha nods in agreement. "Some friends ask if we've come across any ghosts." Narayanan's real lament is all the security and protocol. "I try to assert my freedom whenever possible," he says. During Onam, for instance, Narayanan had 200 people to the palace for dinner. Everyone sat on the floor and ate from banana leaves.

The Dalit community has one of its own in the presidential palace. But if anyone thinks Narayanan will put caste politics ahead of the nation, they don't know this particular president. Last month, a lower-caste party in Uttar Pradesh state withdrew its support for the ruling upper-caste party. When violence erupted in the state assembly, the national Cabinet asked Narayanan to impose federal rule in the state. The president phoned the attorney general and reportedly said: "I don't want to know anything else -- nothing about politics. Tell me what is the law." The attorney general said there were no grounds to impose so-called president's rule -- and Narayanan became the first Indian head of state ever to turn down such a Cabinet recommendation. This was also unusual because Narayanan ruled against parties who supported him for president. "He is seen as a shy, humble person but he is really a man of courage," says Damodaran. "He is steel in a velvet glove." And there is no better proof of that than the story of his life.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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