To Be Proud Of
By Mari Marcel
23 April, 2005
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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.)
2005, The Hindu.