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K.R. Narayanan, 85; Diplomat Who Became President of India

November 10, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

K.R. Narayanan, a former president of India who brought a deeper meaning to the largely ceremonial position when he rose from the bottom of the country's ancient caste system to become the first "untouchable" to hold the office, has died. He was 85.

Narayanan, who had been suffering from pneumonia and kidney failure, died Wednesday at an army hospital in New Delhi, a spokesman for India's defense ministry announced. He had been on life support since Oct. 31.

His elevation to the presidency in 1997 -- three weeks before India marked 50 years of independence from Britain -- fulfilled the vision of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the founder of independent India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement.

Gandhi believed the election of an untouchable as president would mark a symbolic end of the degradation of Hindus on the lowest rung of the 3,000-year-old caste system.

Commonly used a century ago, the term "untouchables" has been replaced by the more politically correct Dalits, which literally translates as "broken people." It applies to nearly a quarter of India's billion-plus population.

At his inaugural, Narayanan condemned "caste-ism" and said the election of "someone who has sprung from the grass-roots of our society ... is symbolic of the fact that the concerns of the common man have now moved to the center stage."

During his presidency, which ended in 2002, the soft-spoken Narayanan showed he wasn't afraid to take a stand. He broke from precedent twice to defy the government that appointed him, refusing to sack opposition-ruled state administrations. (The prime minister is the head of India's government.)

"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," former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral said on private New Delhi television.

Kocheril Raman Narayanan was born Oct. 27, 1920, in a thatched hut in a village in the southern state of Kerala, the fourth of seven children of a traditional village healer.

Barred from elementary school because his family could not afford to pay for it, he learned by standing outside the classroom window.

A fund for oppressed Indians set up by Gandhi helped Narayanan attend a local college, and a grant from a local industrialist allowed him to graduate from the London School of Economics.

After working as an English teacher and journalist, he returned to India in 1948 with a letter of introduction from a prominent economist to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The prime minister waved an age limit so Narayanan could join the foreign service and later granted another exemption so he could marry a Burmese woman.

"Caste wasn't such a big issue or obstacle in Narayanan's life; the big issue was poverty," Madhavan Kutty, a former editor from Kerala told the Washington Post in 1997.

He served as an ambassador to several countries, including the United States from 1980 to 1984, and was elected to parliament three times before assuming the vice presidency in 1992.

When India's equivalent of the American electoral college elected him president, one of his opponents was a granddaughter of Gandhi.

As India's 10th president, Narayanan avoided criticizing caste discrimination and emphasized the "slow but steady movement of the lower classes." Discrimination based on social caste was barred in 1950.

In 1992, Narayanan recalled that when he was growing up he was not allowed to walk past the verandas of upper-caste homes in his village.

"I learned to develop a thick skin," he said. "It helped me as a diplomat later."

Narayanan is survived by his wife, Usha, and daughters Amrita and Chitra, who is India's ambassador to Turkey.

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