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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 46, New Delhi, October 31, 2020

Tribute to President K R Narayanan on His Birth Centenary | S N Sahu

Saturday 31 October 2020, by S N Sahu


On 27th October 2020 President of India late Shri K R Narayanan would have been hundred years old. Born in a small village in Kerala he hailed from a very humble background and had to walk several miles to attend school for education. His father was a Ayurvedic medical practitioner and his meager earning was not enough to support his family and children’s education. So, quite often Shri Narayanan could not pay school fees and had to face the wrath of the authorities who used ask him to leave the class. However, instead of leaving the school he used to stand near the window of the class room and listen to the teachers teaching his fellow class mates. Much later in life he recalled that the punishment meted out to him to leave the class for non payment of fees made him more humble and resilient. That was how he completed schooling and his father did not have money to finance his college education which he pursued with great difficulty. Mahatma Gandhi’ s Harijan Sevak Sangh occasionally give him some financial assistance while he was in college. There was a time when his college education was about to be discontinued because he had no money to feed himself. One Government pleader offered him free food and so he could carry forward his higher studies.

Refusal to Put a Scared Thread

A very bright and brilliant student he proved his worth and his academic performance was of exceptional order. He pursued English literature in his graduation and post graduation in Travanore University and passed his MA in 1941 with a first class first position. It was an outstanding accomplishment and caste Hindus were surprised that he being a student from a humble background could outshine other students. So they told him that they would accept him as one of their own only if he put a sacred thread. He refused to do so and asserted that he was proud of his hard earned success and identity.

A Man with Wide Social Sympathy

He got the Tata scholarship to go to the world acclaimed London School of Economics (LSE) where he did B.Sc (Honours) in Economics and got first class with distinction. He was a favourite student of Professor Harold Laski who also taught India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Mr. Narayanan made a deep impact on professor Laski by his essay on religious tolerance in India. It was rare for an Indian of pre independent India to academically shine in LSE and get acclaim for excellent performance. After independence when he came back to India professor Laski wrote two letters one to Prime Minister Nehru and the other to Mr. Krishna Menon who also studied in LSE and was a favourite student of professor Laski. In the letter to Nehru Prof. Laski introduced Mr. Narayanan as "a man with wide social sympathy" and it is instructive to note that Mr. Narayanan lived his life based on that ideal.

President K R Narayanan served our country as an officer of Indian Foreign Service(IFS) after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inducted him to IFS on his return to India on completion of studies in London School of Economics. Among numerous important posts he held while in Indian Foreign Service his appointment as ambassador of India to China and later after retirement as ambassador of India to America constituted high points of his carrier as a diplomat. After superannuation in 1978 he was appointed as Vice Chancellor of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Later he joined politics and represented as a Congress MP the Uttapalam parliamentary constituency in Kerala consecutively three times from 1984 to 1992. He was a Minister in Rajiv Gandhi cabinet. In 1992 he was elected unanimously as the Vice President of India and later in 1997 he was elected as the President of India defeating Shiv Sena candidate Shri T N Seshan who was Chief Election Commissioner of India.

His wide social sympathy which was referred to by professor Laski became his guiding force in life . When Gujarat riots broke out in 2002 and large numbers of Muslims and a few Hindus were killed mercilessly, some victims came to Delhi to meet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who refused to see them. Then they sought appointment with President Narayanan and he immediately gave them time. That was when I saw in ample measure the dispaly of wide social sympathy by President K R Narayanan. One of the victims was a army official and he lost several of his family members. Mr. Narayanan was deeply moved by their suffering and pain and he was visibly moved and disturbed. First lady of India Shrimati Usha Narayanan arranged clothes, buscuits and fruits for them.

Rashtrapati Bhavan issued a press release on that meeting and media reported that while Prime Minister Vajpayee refused to meet the victims of Gujarat riots President Narayanan readily agreed to do so and spent quality with them to share their grief.
Defender of the Idea of India

The people of India would gratefully remember him for his role as the President of our Republic to defend the idea of India, our Constitution and secularism which faced recurring assaults.

On 15th August 1998 when India completed celebrating golden jubilee of our independence he in an interview to Shri N Ram reflected on the idea of India and the kind of shape it has taken after fifty years of liberation of India from foreign rule. He said " I think the idea still marches on. India has been a cauldron of dreams, ideas and aspirations of the humankind and this is a distinctive character of India, and India in that sense represents the world in miniature. If a system can succeed in India, it will indicate the possibility of such success in the world as a whole."

When Shri Ram observed that "There have been many challenges to this idea of India, some asserting that it is this or that, and yet it goes on ..." Shri Narayanan responded by saying, " There is an over-informing force which ultimately brings all the ideas together, and does not allow one idea alone to run away with India. And, that has been demonstrated again and again in terms of conflicting ideologies, conflicting social systems, political systems, all these somehow have been contained in an overall framework."

Unfortunately in 2020 the idea of India has been gravely threatened by the present ruling regime at the centre. The majoritaraianism imposed on India is constricting the image of our country embodied in what President Narayanan called "world in miniature" which in his own words "does not allow one idea alone to run away with India."

In fact the Constitution of India which celebrates the idea of India as a "world in miniature" and which represents a confluence of civilisations was defended by him when attempts were made by Vajpayee regime to revise it. The Vajpayee Government put the idea of reviewing the Constitution in President Narayanan’s address to the Parliament and he had no option but to read that text.

Defender of Constitution

But later he challenged the Government and pointedly asked "Let us examine if the constitution has failed us, or [if] we have failed the constitution”. It was so forceful that the Vajpayee Government abandoned the idea of review of Constitution and instead appointed a Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution. Rarely in the history of our Republic one utterance of the President forced the Government of India to drastically change its stand. In thus saving the Constitution President K R Narayanan lived upto his oath he had taken to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Truly he was a stout defender of the Constitution of India.

13th December Terrorist Attack on Parliament and Historic Significance of 13th December 1946 in our Constitutional History

When the Parliament of India was attacked by terrorists on 13th December 2001 he in his Republic Day eve speech on 25th January 2002 explained the historic significance of 13th December in the annals of constitution-making and educated the nation by saying that the terrorist attack took place on the anniversary of the day in 1946 when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru moved in the Constituent Assembly the Objectives Resolution "declaring the resolve of India to become an independent sovereign Republic and outlining the democratic, secular and social fundamentals of the Constitution we were proposing to give to ourselves" . Veteran media personality late Inder Malhotra while analysing that speech of President Narayanan cheerfully said that none ever knew the historic significance of 13th December and it was for the first time President of India sensitised the nation about its importance in the context of constitution-making.

Democratic Response to Terrorism

In the same speech he also outlined an approach to deal with terrorism and very profoundly suggested "...democratic answer to the evil phenomenon of terrorism that we in India and the world in general are facing to-day".Then he added that, "Alongside we will have to build up the economic strength and the defensive capacity of our country to its fullest potential".

In the troubled world of twenty-first century marked by mounting terrorist activities and equally violent response of the Governments to contain terrorism the "democratic response" which was underlined by President Narayanan is lost sight of. It is, therefore, important to reiterate the democratic response which can provide enduring solutions to terrorism.

Representation of Dalits and STs in Private Sector

He would go down in our history as the first President of our Republic who gave a clarion call in the aforementioned speech for giving representation to the Dalits, Scheduled Tribes and women in the private corporations and enterprises. His call for that representation was in addition to the representation which they already had in the Government. He said, "Indeed in the present economic system and of the future, it is necessary for the private sector to adopt social policies that are progressive and more egalitarian for these deprived classes to be uplifted from their state of deprivation and inequality and given the rights of citizens and civilized human beings. This is not to ask the private enterprise accept Socialism, but to do something like what the Diversity Bill and the affirmative action that a capitalist country like the United States of America has adopted and is implementing". The issue of representation of Dalits, Scheduled Castes and women that he took up in 2001 has now become a major theme commanding attention and discourse in public domain and in several representative bodies such as parliamentary committees.

Republic Must Protect Green Earth and Tribals

It is worthwhile to recall that President Narayanan stood for the cause of tribals and environment when some major corporate houses ruthlessly exploited minerals in the tribal belt of southern Odisha and there was huge protest organised by them against extractive industries which were responsible for their suffering. Some of them lost their lives in police firing. Swami Agnivesh and other leaders met President Narayanan in the third week of January 2001 and apprised him of the plight of the tribals. He was so receptive to their concerns and narratives centering around plight of tribals and police firing on them that he elaborately articulated their sufferings in his Republic Day eve speech delivered on 25th January 2001 and observed, " While the nation must benefit from the exploitation of these mineral resources, we will have also to take into consideration questions of environmental protection and the rights of tribals. Let it not be said by future generations that the Indian Republic has been built on the destruction of the green earth and the innocent tribals who have been living there for centuries. A great Socialist leader has once said that a great man in a hurry to change the world who knocks down a child commits a crime. Let it not be said of India that this great Republic in a hurry to develop itself is devastating the green mother earth and uprooting our tribal populations. We can show the world that there is room for everybody to live in this country of tolerance and compassion". .

What was said by President Narayanan constituted brilliant expression of the ideal of social sympathy which always guided his action and worldview. Swami Agnivesh who passed away on 11th September 2020 had told me that the way President Narayanan took up the cause of tribals just two days after he and his colleagues met him 2001 to make him aware of the exploitation and exclusion of tribals made them realise that he was very responsive to the cause of suffering humanity. At a time when the Ministry of Environment and Forests of the Government of India has framed a set of rules which many feel are highly detrimental to the interests of tribals and cause of environment we need to recall the wise words of President Narayanan, "Let it not be said of India that this great Republic in a hurry to develop itself is devastating the green mother earth and uprooting our tribal populations".

Such is the legacy of President Narayanan who remained wedded to the idea of India, ideals of the Constitution of our country and championed the cause of the suffering humanity. All those who are entrusted with the responsibility to shape the destiny of our Republic should learn lessons from his legacy and deepen and enrich it.

(Author: S N Sahu served President K R Narayanan as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary)

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