Former President K.R. Narayanan, the first "untouchable" from India's pernicious caste system to occupy the office, died Wednesday. He was 85. The soft-spoken, scholarly Narayanan was admitted to an army hospital in the capital on Oct. 29 with pneumonia and kidney failure, and died after being on life support system since Oct. 31, said Defense Ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar.
Although the president's post in India is largely ceremonial, Narayanan showed during his 1997-2002 time in office that he was no rubber-stamp executive. He broke from precedent twice to defy the government that appointed him, refusing to sack opposition-ruled state administrations.
"He was a monumental personality. A personality who proved what the Indian Republic stands for," said former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral on private New Delhi Television. "In all the time he occupied the high office, he always upheld his oath to protect the constitution."
Narayanan's rise to the top was remarkable in a country where "untouchables," now known as "Dalits," are the lowest in society, having faced ridicule and hostility for centuries.
The Dalits, literally "broken people", are outside the caste system, a 3,000-year-old hierarchy that divides Hindus into four categories of descending social importance. Because they are without caste, the Dalits, nearly a fourth of India's billion-plus people, are considered unclean and therefore "untouchable."
"Coming from a very poor family, coming up only with the dint of his own effort and labor, he proved ... that neither religion nor caste can come in the way of a person who is able to exert himself intellectually," Gujral said.
Discrimination based on caste was outlawed in 1950 but centuries of entrenched habits have been hard to break, although much progress has been made in social equality in recent decades.
In his public statements, Narayanan never harped on the caste discrimination he faced as growing up, instead emphasizing on the positive, the AP reports.
"In fact, if you can see one consistent tendency in India, one trend in India, from the time of the Buddha onwards, it is the slow, but steady movement of the lower classes among the scale of the class system," Narayanan said in a 1998 interview with state television.
"But it has been very slow. It took 2,000 years. But it is something which is going on," he said.
While most Dalits remain poor, uneducated and underemployed, Narayanan was a symbol of how crushing disadvantages can be overcome with luck and determination.