On the occasion of the birth centenary of the former President of India, the late K R Narayanan, the country gratefully remembers him. K R Narayanan was born on 27 October 1920 in a Dalit family in Uzhavoor, now in the Kottayam district of Kerala. Through his education, he emerged as a great scholar like Dr B R Ambedkar. He worked as a journalist in English newspapers in India from 1943 to 1945. He was also writing for some foreign journals.
Later, he joined the Indian Foreign Service and served as an Indian Ambassador in several countries, including China. After retiring from the IFS in 1978, he was appointed as Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in January 1979. He remained in that position till October 1980. Later on, he was elected to Parliament and became a minister in the Union government. He was elected as the Vice President in 1992 and finally the President in 1997.
Today the nation recalls the exemplary role played by him in preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution, which is currently getting severely compromised by the forces representing Hindutva and wedded to hate culture and polarised politics. No Indian President faced as many challenges in defending the Constitution as he did and his role in upholding it constitutes an enduring legacy worthy of replication.
When the Vajpayee government floated the proposal to review the Constitution, he raised the red flag by asking sharply, “Let us examine if the Constitution has failed us, or we have failed the Constitution.” That interrogation, combined with his moral stature, weighed so heavily in favour of the Constitution that the Vajpayee government, instead of reviewing the Constitution, set up a commission to review its working. His defence of the Constitution inspires people to look up to his legacy in these troubled times marked by devaluation, derailment of institutions of governance, and assault on the Constitution and constitutional morality.
In fact, when the farm Bills in the Rajya Sabha were passed in September 2020, many public figures said that if Narayanan had been the current President, he would have returned the Bills for reconsideration by citing that the Constitution and rules of the House were transgressed in announcing the passage of those legislations.
A man actuated by empathy, he set a shining example by meeting the people from Gujarat who lost their near and dear ones in the riots that shook the state in 2002 and caused outrage across the nation. Shocked and distressed victims were denied access to PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but when they met President Narayanan, they felt relieved that at least there was someone at the highest level of the Republic who could hear them and express solidarity.
Narayanan adopted a confluential approach to understand history and historical personalities, and interpret the past and the ongoing dynamics of our society. That confluential approach was demonstrated in his understanding of the enduring significance of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar in shaping India’s destiny, ushering in the process of liberation and empowerment, and generating impulses for progressive social change.
He poetically summed up their extraordinary contributions by saying, “If Mahatma Gandhi introduced a moral purpose, shall one say a moral soul, as well as a mass dimension to the Indian nationalist movement, and if Jawaharlal Nehru introduced a social and economic dimension and a world vision, Dr Ambedkar brought to it a profound social content and a passionate protest against social inequalities and oppression.” In fact, his worldview was greatly shaped by such a confluential understanding of three outstanding leaders of modern India and he got actuated by their common outlook and common touch for the suffering humanity.
Today, those who are in power keep talking about “reform, perform and transform”. But K R Narayanan, with his foresight, cautioned, “The economic reforms through liberalisation and globalisation should not ignore this weaker majority—the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes, the women who toil day and night and make life worth living in our homes.” Narayanan was prophetic and observed, with great pains, that the issues of the caste system and Scheduled Castes and Tribes was an explosive one: “Unless this colossal social and economic problem is tackled within a conceivable period, there might well be convulsions which will disturb the unity and stability of India.” It is very tragic that secularism is being mocked by the people holding high constitutional offices.
In doing so, they are mocking the Constitution, the ethos of the freedom struggle and the ideal of sarva dharma samabhava, the coexistence of all faiths. It is instructive to note that K R Narayanan very insightfully observed: “In the Indian context of a multi-religious society, secularism is the product of history as well as a practical necessity for harmonious living and for the survival of the state.” Therefore, he stressed on the positive task of social modernisation and cultivation of the spirit of secularism at the comprehensive levels of religion, community, politics, culture and patterns of daily life.
Today, when the processes of social modernisation are being stalled in the name of majoritarianism, Hindutva and other narrow identities, we are confronting an existential crisis. The legacy of President Narayanan, rooted in an approach upholding the Constitution and constitutional morality, and affirming pluralistic and secular credentials, constitute the remedy to address the challenges confronted by our Republic in the 21st century.
D Raja General Secretary, CPI