'Untouchable' elected 10th president of India

 

Mr Kocheril Raman Narayanan, an "untouchable" Hindu from the lowest Harijan caste, was elected 10th president yesterday, succeeding a high-caste Brahmin to the country's highest office. Mr Narayanan (75), currently vice-president, defeated Mr T.N. Seshan, a former election commissioner and his sole high-caste rival, in an election in which nearly 5,000 federal and state legislators voted earlier this week.

Mr Narayanan will be sworn in as president for five years on July 24th, succeeding Mr Shankar Dayal Sharma and, in the present era of coalition politics, is expected to dominate Indian political life for some years to come. His responsibilities will be much greater than those associated with what has till now been a purely ceremonial job.

While Mr Narayanan's election was seen as a foregone conclusion, backed as he was by all the major political parties, it is viewed by analysts as victory for India's Dalits or low-caste untouchables, still discriminated against by the high-caste Hindus.

"In the golden jubilee of India's independence," one commentator said, "Mr Narayanan's election marks the fulfilment of Mahatma Gandhi's wish to see an untouchable occupy the highest office."

Nearly 40 per cent of India's population of 900 million are untouchables, existing outside the ancient and rigid caste system, in which the highest or priestly class are Brahmins followed by Ksahtriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders) and Sudras (manual labourers). The untouchables are usually associated with "unclean" jobs,like scavenging and cleaning lavatories. They were rechristened Harijans or children of God by Gandhi, who worked for their welfare.

Born into a poor family in the southern state of Kerala, Mr Narayanan often went hungry as a child. Although a brilliant student, he was once turned away from school for failing to pay his fees. He embarrassed the authorities into rescinding the expulsion by standing outside his classroom for several days, imbibing what was being taught inside.

Several scholarships from Gandhi's Harijan welfare trust helped to educate him and, after graduating from university college in the state capital Thiruvanthapuram with record marks, he became a journalist in Bombay.

Mr Narayanan won a scholarship to the London School of Economics. He so impressed his tutor, that Prof Harold Laski wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru recommending that the brilliant young man from Kerala be "suitably employed" in newly-independent India.

Mr Narayanan joined the foreign service in 1949 and was posted to Rangoon, where he married a local beauty. He also served as ambassador to Thailand, Turkey, China and the US.

After a series of senior academic jobs, Mr Narayanan joined the Congress party and was elected to parliament three times in succession, where he held a variety of portfolios in the ministries of planning, external affairs, science and technology and atomic energy, before becoming vice-president in 1992.

Eight people were killed and 27 others injured in renewed intertribal violence in India's remote far-east, the Press Trust of India reported yesterday. Manipur, which borders Burma, is one of half-a-dozen states blighted by recurring separatist and ethnic violence. Kuki tribal militants are also fighting Naga separatists in the state. - (AFP)