View from the top
The contradiction confounds you. A Dalit elected to the highest post in the land in a country where every day Dalits are humiliated, raped, tortured and killed. Of course, governments are notorious for tokenism; show-casing their support for minorities through figurehead appointments. In India it’s a fine art.
But in Kocheril Raman Narayanan (or KRN as he is known), India’s first and only Dalit President, they got more than they bargained for. Elected in 1997, he refused to be a rubber-stamp President, confounding his critics by speaking out on a range of issues. India’s 10th President was elected to office in an unprecedented social revolution, winning 95 per cent of the votes of the Electoral College, made up of representatives from both Houses of Parliament and legislative assemblies of the state. He defeated his rival T N Seshan, a formidable, feisty Brahmin Election Commissioner who had put the fear of God into Indian politicians. The defeated candidate angrily dismissed the decision. KRN won, Seshan pointed out ‘only because he was a Dalit.’ Six days before Narayanan became President, police opened fire on a Dalit protest, killing nine unarmed Dalits.
In his acceptance speech, KRN noted: ‘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 [sic] have now moved to the center stage of our political life. It is this larger significance of my election rather than any personal sense of honour that makes me rejoice on this occasion.’
Now 84, he is courteous and charming, giving of his time generously despite a painful, debilitating illness.
From a village hut to the presidential palace in Delhi is a long way. How did it happen?
‘Frankly, I don’t know. I did not really try for these things, aim for anything very big. Most things came by chance, a combination of circumstances, rather than my own effort. I suffered as a Dalit, had my share of humiliation, but I did not view myself as a suffering Dalit. I did not have a feeling of bitterness.
‘Born in 1920 and living in a small village, there was diversity and discrimination. But not of such intensity as the atrocities that one hears of nowadays. How I got out of it was: I always wanted to study. There was a Malayalam primary school in my village. There were several times when I could have dropped out. We had to pay fees and Father had very little money. The management co-operated up to a point, but after months of no fees they sent me home. Father scraped together a little money and sent me back. It was always touch and go. Frequently I had to stand in the corner or on the bench for non-payment of fees.
‘Later, when I moved to Kerala to study, the perennial problem of poverty loomed threateningly overhead. My uncle knew a government lawyer. He wrote him a letter asking if I could eat with his family. I was very shy about going to someone for food. My good friend Mathew came with me. I was outside the door with the letter, saying: “I don’t want to go in.” Mathew pushed me in. Literally physically gave me a push so I fell inside the door. The lawyer said: “Just a minute, let me consult my wife.” He went inside, came back and said: “You can come for lunch and dinner every day.” He was an exceptionally good man. And in spite of all the problems I finished my degree.’
With typical modesty, he does not mention that he got a first, coming top of the whole university that year. There followed a promise by the Maharaja’s Chief Minister, the Diwan, that he should be sent to Oxford. But the Diwan went back on his promise, saying: ‘Who does this Harijan (Gandhi’s term for Dalits, literally ‘God’s people’) fellow think he is coming to see me with a silk jibba and a gold watch?’ KRN replied that he ‘never owned a silk jibba. I wear only khadi (Indian homespun cotton). And the watch is a rolled gold one presented to me by a friend after I passed with a first. If the Diwan is that petty, I don’t want anything from him.’
After failing to procure an interview with the Maharaja, KRN declined to accept his degree, skipping the convocation, an unthinkable act in those feudal times. The British Resident asked, ‘Where is the Harijan boy who came first?’ This caused a furore in Kerala.
‘Revolution has to come from below – through education and through protests from the oppressed people’
‘From then on I was determined to go to Delhi. The Chief Secretary called me, “How will you go to Delhi? It is freezing there. You will need warm clothes. I will give you a loan of 500 rupees”. I replied, “I can’t pay you back.” He insisted. ‘It’s OK. It will be a loan in name only. You need money for clothes, your train fare etc.” So I purchased my first and only suit, a railway ticket, some essentials. And a new chapter of my life started.’
KRN then moved to Delhi and on to a distinguished career which included a degree at the London School of Economics, a period as a journalist, time as a diplomat, an academic, ambassador to the United States, Vice-President and finally President of India. As President, he spoke up on behalf of women, Dalits and tribal people.
Why does India have this paradox, on the one hand the best IT experts in the world, on the other the feudal caste system? And why hasn’t it changed despite a strong Constitution?
‘Fifty years is a miniscule period for the caste system which has survived for thousands of years. The caste system has fundamentally been attacked by very few people. Even the lower castes found it convenient, a kind of safety system to manage, mingle in society. Everyone had someone to exploit. Though there were many challenges, no fundamental revision was ever attempted. There was a great vision at Independence but too many people found it a useful system. The opposition was basically related to land struggles and the feudal economic system in existence. Morally only Gandhi shook the system, but the economic foundations were too strong. So when it came to the question of destroying it, as far as the mind is concerned, everyone would say it is bad and we should destroy it. But the economic foundation of caste had to be uprooted and no-one really wanted to do that. Today, caste is being perpetuated by politics and politicians.’
How can we change this?
‘Revolution has to come from below – through education and through protests from the oppressed people. We need to gather much more momentum, from world opinion, human-rights groups, etc. We need to give up the bitterness and move on. To be proud of being Dalits. Learn from the Black Panthers, the Black is Beautiful movement. Assert Dalit pride. Only then will we learn to express and assert ourselves. I believe that ultimately we will overcome.’