Kocheril Raman Narayanan (Malayalam: 27 October 1920 – 9 November 2005), also known as K.R. Narayanan, was the tenth President of India. He was the first Dalit, and the first Malayali, to have been President.
Born in Perumthanam, Uzhavoor village, in the princely state of Travancore (present day Kottayam district, Kerala), and after a brief stint with journalism and then studying political science at the London School of Economics with the assistance of a scholarship, Narayanan began his career in India as a member of the Indian Foreign Service under the Nehru administration. He served as ambassador to Japan, United Kingdom, Thailand, Turkey, People’s Republic of China and United States of America and was referred by Nehru as “the best diplomat of the country”. He entered politics at Indira Gandhi’s request and won three successive general elections to the Lok Sabha and served as a Minister of State in the Union Cabinet under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Elected as the ninth Vice-President in 1992, Narayanan went on to become the President of India in 1997.
Narayanan is regarded as an independent and assertive President who set several precedents and enlarged the scope of the highest constitutional office. He described himself as a “working President” who worked “within the four corners of the Constitution”; something midway between an “executive President” who has direct power and a “rubber-stamp President” who endorses government decisions without question or deliberation. He used his discretionary powers as a President and deviated from convention and precedent in many situations, including – but not limited to — the appointment of the Prime Minister in a hung Parliament, in dismissing a state government and imposing President’s rule there at the suggestion of the Union Cabinet, and during the Kargil conflict. He presided over the golden jubilee celebrations of Indian independence and in the country’s general election of 1998 became the first Indian President to vote when in office, setting another new precedent.
K.R. Narayanan was born in a small thatched hut at Perumthanam, Uzhavoor, as the fourth of seven children of Kocheril Raman Vaidyar, a physician practicing the traditional Indian medical systems of Siddha and Ayurveda, and Punnaththuraveettil Paappiyamma. His family (belonging to the Paravan caste, whose members are assigned the task of plucking coconuts as per the caste system) was poor, but his father was respected for his medical acumen. He was born on 27 October 1920, but his uncle, who accompanied him on his first day in school, did not know his actual date of birth, and arbitrarily chose 27 October 1920 for the records; Narayanan later chose to let it remain official.
Narayanan had his early schooling in Uzhavoor at the Government Lower Primary School, Kurichithanam (where he enrolled on 5 May 1927) and Our Lady of Lourdes Upper Primary School, Uzhavoor (1931–35). He walked to school for about 15 kilometres daily through paddy fields, and was often unable to pay the modest fees. He often listened to school lessons while standing outside the classroom, having been barred from attending because tuition fees were outstanding. The family lacked money to buy books and his elder brother K. R. Neelakantan, who was confined to home as he was suffering from asthma, used to borrow books from other students, copy them down, and give them to Narayanan. He matriculated from St. Mary’s High School, Kuravilangad (1936–37) (he had studied at St. John’s High School, Koothattukulam (1935–36) previously). He completed his intermediate at C. M. S. College, Kottayam (1938–40), aided by a scholarship from the Travencore Royal family.
Narayanan obtained his B. A. (Honours) and M.A. in English literature from the University of Travancore (1940–43) (present day University of Kerala), standing first in the university (thus becoming the first Dalit to obtain this degree with first class in Travancore).
With his family facing grave difficulties, he left for Delhi and worked for some time as a journalist with The Hindu and The Times of India (1944–45). During this time he once interviewed Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay on his own volition (10 April 1945).Narayanan then went to England (1945) and studied political science under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics (LSE); he also attended lectures by Karl Popper, Lionel Robbins, and Friedrich Hayek. He obtained the honours degree of B. Sc. (Economics) with a specialisation in political science, helped by a scholarship from J. R. D. Tata. During his years in London, he (along with fellow student K. N. Raj) was active in the India League under V. K. Krishna Menon. He was also the London correspondent of the Social Welfare Weekly published by K. M. Munshi. He shared lodgings with K. N. Raj and Veerasamy Ringadoo (who later became the first President of Mauritius); another close friend was Pierre Trudeau (who later became Prime minister of Canada).
While working in Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar), K.R. Narayanan met Ma Tint Tint, whom he later married in Delhi on 8 June 1951. Ma Tint Tint was active in the YWCA and on hearing that Narayanan was a student of Laski, approached him to speak on political freedom before her circle of acquaintances. Their marriage needed a special dispensation from Nehru per Indian law, because Narayanan was in the IFS and she was a foreigner. Ma Tint Tint adopted the Indian name Usha and became an Indian citizen. Usha Narayanan (1923–2008) worked on several social welfare programs for women and children in India. She also translated and published several Burmese short stories; a collection of translated stories by Thein Pe Myint, titled Sweet and Sour, appeared in 1998. She is the only woman of foreign origin to have become the First Lady. They have two daughters, Ms. Chitra Narayanan (Indian ambassador to Switzerland and The Holy See) and Amrita.