By Mari Marcel Thekaekara
23 April, 2005
Interviewing the former President, K.R. Narayanan, was an experience. This scholar and statesman had scored the highest marks in university both for History and English Literature in pre-Independence India, when educational standards were considerably higher and degrees were not dime a dozen. One wanted his personal story to be incorporated into the school syllabus, for Dalit children to have a role model. So that they would be able to dream dreams beyond buckets and brooms…
It was embarrassing to be encroaching on his physiotherapy session. But one had come to Delhi solely for this purpose, so it had to be done.
While scribbling furiously, one was often choking with emotion. It was moving. The flashbacks kept recurring. In front of you was the 84-year-old former President. It was the unfolding story of a Dalit boy humiliated at every step.
“We had to pay fees and father had very little money,” he reminisced. “The management cooperated 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 for non-payment of fees, or stand on the bench.”
Yet there is a complete absence of bitterness. “But they were kind to me and tried to help me often,” is his take on the preceding story — the punishments, standing on the bench or outside the class, notwithstanding.
Later, he moved to Kottayam to study. The problem of poverty remained.
“My uncle knew a government pleader. He wrote him a letter asking if I could take my food with his family. `Can you help my nephew so he can continue his studies?’ my uncle wrote. 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. 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 finally, he graduated with a first in the university. “The Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, summoned me. He said, `You should go to Oxford for further studies. I will send you.’ He asked me to see him on his return from Delhi. When he returned he was a changed man. He said, `I have reconsidered the offer. I will instead give you a job in government.’ I was totally baffled by this sudden, complete change of attitude. I said, `Sir, could you give me a job as a lecturer, instead?’ He was furious. He banged the phone and told me, `In that case leave your address and details with my personal assistant’.”
The young Narayanan discovered that “many of the problems were due to my caste.”
“I often met the Protector of Backward Communities, taking his evening walk. One day he asked me, `What happened with the Dewan? I heard he was not very pleased with you.’ The Dewan had remarked: `Who does this Harijan fellow think he is coming to see me with a silk jibba and a gold watch?’ I replied: `Sir, I do not possess a silk jibba, I never ever have owned one. I wear only khadi, I follow Gandhiji. And the watch is not gold, it is a rolled gold one presented to me. If the Dewan is that petty a person, I don’t want anything from him’.”
This was at a tragic phase. “It was a very bad period in my life. My two older brothers were constantly sick with TB — both died. A very painful period for me.”
As always your blood boils at the injustice. You cannot comprehend his lack of anger and bitterness. “Did you not feel anger at the injustice meted out to you?” you ask.
“The Dewan upset me. I felt angry. His attitude towards me was because I was a Dalit. But I did not feel hatred or harbour bitterness because I was profoundly influenced by the Gandhian approach. I have never viewed myself as an oppressed or persecuted Dalit, as a suffering Dalit. I have been helped by many good people. I prefer to dwell on that.”
The way in which this man quietly revolted against the system was remarkable. Sixty years ago, when the spirit of the times was feudal, and abject acquiescence was the order of the day, refusing to accept his degree from the Maharaja, spurning the Dewan’s offer, were unthinkable options.
Sixty years later, in the same quiet way, President Narayanan transformed himself into “a working President.”
It was the closest to the first President of the Republic who refused the role of a rubber stamp ruler, unlike others who thought that as titular heads they should be seen and not heard.
He has been criticised and attacked for “exceeding” his brief. But the criticism defies logic. How can the protector of the Constitution remain quiet when the very spirit of that Constitution is being violated?
It is clear that while India shines for some, 80 per cent of its population continues to suffer in poverty due to the “criminal neglect” of the constitutional directives, which were so carefully spelt out to take the poor out of deprivation.
He has appointed himself as the voice of the voiceless. If some were angered that he departed from the norm of pompous platitudes in his notable Republic Day speeches, he gave hope to those who cared about justice and decency.
He spoke about the things that matter — the environment, deprivation, alleviation of poverty, human rights and justice. His call for introspection and analysis reminded us that there were still miles to go.
He proved that Dalits can occupy the highest posts in the land on merit, be better than the best, with their heads held high, without patronage or favour or reservation — provided they are given justice and a fair playing field.
(The writer is Visiting Skoll Fellow, Said Business School, Oxford University.)