“Let us examine if the constitution has failed us, or [if] we have failed the constitution”.
We would do well to remember these memorable words by the late K. R. Narayanan, speaking in parliament on the golden jubilee of the republic. In 2000, the Vajpayee government had sought to revise the constitution, but the former president’s pointed words made the government announce that a Commission would be appointed to review the working of the constitution instead of a direct revision.
Today marks the late president’s birth centenary. It is fitting to remember his leadership not just on this day but also at a time when the constitution seems to be on shifting sands as some in power seek to undermine its sanctity.
‘A man with wide social sympathy’
His brilliant academic record at Travancore (now Kerala) University and the London School of Economics is well known. Professor Harold Laski, who taught him at LSE, called him “a man with wide social sympathy”.
In fact, this trait was a guiding force throughout his life and it is that perspective which enabled him to go beyond the superficial or formally stated, to understand what lay at the heart of a matter. “At the core of our constitution,” he said, “lies the form of social justice and social democracy”.
It was this ideal of social democracy that empowered him to bluntly refuse the offer of upper caste Hindus, who asked him to put on a ‘sacred thread’ so that they could accept him as one of their own. The young Narayanan had topped the university while doing his MA in the early 1940s, but took pride in his own identity and hard-earned merit, resisting any attempt by others to define him based on their terms.
During the infamous communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, President Narayanan issued a press statement describing it as “a crisis of our state and society,” and asked Prime Minister Vajpayee to deploy the army to put a check on the violence. He and his wife took the time to meet some of the victims who had travelled to Delhi to request the prime minister to intervene.
When Narayanan interviewed Mahatma Gandhi
As a young reporter for the Times of India, Narayanan interviewed Mahatma Gandhi on April 10, 1945 in Mumbai. He pointed out that the Congress and stalwarts such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad did not support the cause of the Scheduled Castes enough.
He also asked Gandhi ji how the seemingly irreconcilable Hindu-Muslim issue could be resolved in a peaceful way, to which Gandhiji replied, “That awful situation can only be dealt with properly through Satyagraha.”
These gentle words seem almost anachronistic in the majoritarian, muscular world we see around us today, especially so in our own country.
The Gita in Turkey
Narayanan also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, especially as ambassador to China and the US.
It is less known that when he was posted as India’s ambassador in Turkey in the mid 1970s, he played a key role in lifting a ban on the Bhagavad Gita imposed by that country. A raid on the office of the communist party in Turkey led to the confiscation and proscribing of the Gita, which was found along with other literature on communism.
Narayanan however managed to convince the Turkish authorities to lift the ban, arguing that the Gita is sacred text.
JNU and the art of leadership
His tenure as the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University provided Narayanan with opportunities to guide and take the institution forward in the academic field. He has acknowledged that he learnt the art of leadership during his tenure there.
Today when JNU is being vilified and unfairly targeted for its culture of free speech and dissent, it seems ironic that a former president of India acknowledged a degree of indebtedness to those very environs.
Rejection of Bharat Ratna for Savarkar
While describing the demolition of the Babri Masjid as an “egregious violation of law” in one voice, the Supreme Court saw no dichotomy in handing over the land where the Masjid once stood to those who committed that violation, so that they could build a temple in honour of Ram.
Presiding over the Rajya Sabha in 1992, Narayanan likened the destruction of the mosque as a tragedy similar to the assassination of Gandhi ji. It is indeed tragic and worth keeping in mind that those who rejoiced in the demolition of that mosque are now standing by the assassin of Gandhi ji and even openly upholding the legacy of V.D. Savarkar who led the fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha which was responsible for the assassination.
It is well known that the BJP in its election manifesto for the Maharashtra assembly elections, promised that Savarkar would be conferred the Bharat Ratna. But it is little known that during his tenure as president, Narayanan quietly buried the proposal of Prime Minister Vajpayee to confer the Bharat Ratna to Savarkar.
In 2000, Narayanan proposed the name of shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan to Vajpayee for the Bharat Ratna. Vajpayee agreed, and in turn proposed Savarkar’s name as well. Narayanan did not object, but kept the file aside and maintained a diplomatic silence.
When he went to greet Vajpayee on his birthday in 2001, he was told that Savarkar’s name was being withdrawn. Twenty years after that incident, the possibility of a Bharat Ratna for Savarkar is being used as bait for an election at opportune times.
On numerous occasions Narayanan upheld the idea of India as a living example of the confluence of civilisations. In his Maulana Azad memorial lecture, he persuasively argued that civilisations can come together as a confluence of ideas, values, cultures and creeds.
In these divisive times, it would seem that a confluential approach is the need of the hour.
A special New Year’s card for 2000 was designed by the president’s secretariat, on his instructions. The inner cover had a photograph of Einstein and Nehru, with a quote from Nehru’s Discovery of India which said that in future, there would be an alliance of science and humanism out of which would emerge scientific humanism.
That new year card conveyed his worldview, anchored in science and humanism, both of which are now indispensable if we are to defend the idea of India. It is for his vision, ideas and values that Narayanan’s legacy is of enduring significance.
S.N. Sahu served President K.R. Narayanan as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary.