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Obituary: KR Narayanan
KR Narayanan
KR Narayanan: India's first Dalit president
KR Narayanan, who has died aged 85, was India's 10th president, and the first "untouchable", to hold high political office in the country.

A bookish and thoughtful figure, KR Narayanan was as much an academic and diplomat as he was a national figurehead.

His rise to the presidency was all the more remarkable as he came from a Dalit - untouchable - family.

The Dalits, who comprise nearly one-quarter of the Indian population, are often looked down upon and are generally the poorest and least-educated people in the country.

Kocheril Raman Narayanan was born in October 1920 - some reports say 1921 - in Kottayam, in the south-western state of Kerala.

His father was a traditional healer and the young Narayanan thrived in what is traditionally the most literate part of India.

Though often unable to pay his school fees, he matriculated with the help of his brother, who borrowed and copied text books for him.

He often listened to school lessons while standing outside the classroom, having been barred from attending because tuition fees were outstanding.

President Narayanan with Cherie and Tony Blair
President Narayanan with Cherie and Tony Blair
After being awarded a scholarship, he gained a First in English literature from the University of Travancore.

But Narayanan came into conflict with the university authorities, who offered him a clerk's job instead of the lectureship his abilities merited.

As a consequence, he refused to receive his degree in protest, a situation which was rectified only half a century later.

Leaving academe, he worked as a newspaper journalist in Delhi and, in 1945, interviewed Mahatma Gandhi. Later that year Narayanan travelled to Britain, where he studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics.

Communal violence

Returning to India in 1948, and armed with a letter of introduction from Laski to the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Narayanan became a civil servant.

For the next 30 years he worked as a diplomat in embassies from Tokyo to London and capped his career with postings as Indian ambassador to Thailand, Turkey and the People's Republic of China.

It was Nehru's daughter, prime minister Indira Gandhi, who brought the nominally-retired KR Narayanan into the political sphere.

After appointing him ambassador to the United Nations in 1980, she persuaded him to stand for the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha.

President and PM: KR Narayanan and Atal Behari Vajpayee
President and PM: KR Narayanan and Atal Behari Vajpayee
Narayanan represented a Kerala constituency as a Congress party member and held a number of cabinet posts under Rajiv Gandhi.

Having been elected vice president in 1992, Narayanan became President of India in July 1997.

At his inauguration, he spoke of his own humble origins, saying that "the concerns of the common man have now moved to the centre stage of our social and political life".

As president, he presided over the golden jubilee celebrations of Indian independence and threw precedent out of the window by queuing up to vote in the country's general election in 1998.

But it was during 2002, his final year in office, that President Narayanan was drawn into political controversy after inter-communal rioting in Gujarat left at least 1,000 Muslims dead. He had wanted the army to intervene to protect the minority Muslim population.

In an interview earlier this year, he complained that this plan had been scuppered by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which he also accused of blocking his second term as president.

KR Narayanan married a Burmese woman, Ma Trint Trint, in 1951. The couple had two daughters, one of whom has served as India's ambassador to Sweden and Turkey.

Ex-India President Narayanan dies
09 Nov 05 |  South Asia

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