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Friend Of The Sikhs Ram Narayan Kumar Passes Away

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Another friend of the Sikhs shares a few words:

Once again taken from:


Three days after news of his death shocked the civil society, Indian media is yet to even publish a preliminary report about Human Rights activist par excellence, Ram Narayan Kumar. Only a couple of newspapers in Punjab cared to carry the news as late as on July 2. Only Kumar himself would not have been shocked. It just proved the point he held all through. India's polity, media, civil society have to do much more to cross over to the other side called civilization.

The WSN presents, humbly and proudly, both at the same time, this tribute and personal remembrance by Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, celebrated scholar on Sikh issues and one of Kumar's co-travellers on the path to seek an egalitarian world. Mahmood is the celebrated author of many a book on the Sikh struggle and is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Senior Fellow, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, United States. This piece about a "great man, true friend, inspired soul" is exclusive to the World Sikh News

On the Passing of a Great Man, True Friend, Inspired Soul

Cynthia Keppley Mahmood

Amidst the hullaballoo over pop star Michael Jackson, a sudden, lightening-bolt of a news flash. Can it be that Ram Narayan Kumar's flame has been extinguished, that from white to black, from day to night, he so shockingly suddenly no longer walks among us? We who were privileged to know his non-stop passion for justice, his persistent love for all humans, and his full-throated zeal for equality and civil rights can barely imagine a world without him. Even those with whom he argued would acknowledge: in a world in which so many are content to float as mere observers, mere consumers, as merely pedestrian in their aims and impacts, Ram was a presence. If one were in an arena in which he worked or lived, he was un-ignorable. He was always fully there, fully committed, and he prompted others to step into that rushing, living stream as well.

I won't recount, here, Kumar's history of human rights work and publications, done ably by many others. Let me write, rather more personally, of how I knew him (oh! the strangeness of that past tense!) and of some of the things I knew about him that have left an indelible print in my own life story.

I met Ram during the course of the work on disappearances and cremations in Punjab. By then he'd already worked passionately on other issues around social justice in India: the Bhopal Union Carbide disaster, miner's rights, the abrogation of democracy during the Emergency. Ram Narayan Kumar had been born into a Brahminic family; not only that but into a lineage that would slate him for religious leadership. He grew up studying the Vedas, living a spare and clean life in his father's spiritual community. But at a given point in his adolescence, he publicly rejected the janeu and the caste system it supports, turning then to secular education to complement his Sanskritic youth.

Though Kumar's education and wide-ranging reading led him eventually to a Marxist orientation, I've often thought that his childhood discipline must have been critical to shaping the man he became – the man he was able to become. As everyone around him knew, he was indefatigable. He worked through glaring heat, pulsating monsoon rains, dark electricity-free nights, on public buses, in humble village dwellings – as well as in the more comfortable halls of Oxford (where he was a Reuters Human Rights Fellow) and Columbia (where we spoke together at one of the first public announcements of the Punjab disappearances and cremations findings. Working with the Sikhs to investigate the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra and, it turned out, thousands more young women and men of Amritsar district, Punjab, sometimes drove Kumar crazy. A humble man, he was careful not to claim individual credit for what was the work of an entire committee, the CCDP (Coordinating Committee for Disappearances in Punjab). But it was he who, most aware of international human rights reporting standards, designed the form that was used to acquire, record and store case data; it was he who trained the loyal and hard-working field investigators who slogged through the door-to-door, village-to-village collection of information.

As things go in Punjab, there was lots of in-fighting, lots of haggling back and forth, which I as an outsider watched lamely from afar. What I could do was be a sounding-board, a friend to whom Namu could vent his frustrations and an international face for the CCDP. Eventually, Namu and I retreated to the Maine woods, where we together wrote the first [electronic] report on the investigations, "Disappearances and Impunity in Punjab" that became the basis for the later book Reduced to Ashes.

Those were special days of relative quiet and lack of hurry that I now especially cherish, working on the report into the night then sipping drinks by candlelight on our back deck, all the stars of the Milky Way unfurled above. I don't imagine Ram had very many times like this, in his driving, impassioned life. He had to leave his beloved wife Gertie, a neurologist, back in Austria for months on end as he pursued his work, which she unfailingly supported financially and morally. That can't have been easy, to live like that for a lifetime. That too when, at times, the more ardently Khalistani of the Sikhs started accusing him of being a RAW agent – why else would a Hindu (Brahmin at that) be so deeply involved in Sikh rights, at risk of his own freedom and indeed, his life? (Had they forgotten Guru Tegh Bahadur?).

He used to tell me, at these moments, that he fought for all those tens of thousands of Sikhs who had been "disappeared," who had already gone from this earth as ashes up in smoke, those who had and have no voices in the history being written about this time and this place. Sometimes the currently living Sikhs drove him crazy and he'd say, "I'm doing this for those already dead, not for these ignorant _________." But in fact he loved them all, the simpler, the poorer, the more disadvantaged, these were the ones he lived to serve, even as some of them accused him of the worst crimes and tried to push him out of the defense of their own rights! Paradoxically, these events pushed Kumar even further to complete the work, to be certain that the powerful would be held accountable for the fractal chaos they had wrought in Punjab, for the pathology emerging in which every man suspected his brother and no one could effectively raise the clarion call for revolutionary unity.

Ram Narayan Kumar, the Hindu who gave up a privileged Brahminic position to serve besieged Sikhs who at times reviled him, was punished also by the Indian state, serving a total of what must have come to several years in India's prisons. I asked him how he got through some of the hard times in these prisons, when even the minimal necessities for life were not provided. He told one very sweet story about nine cats he befriended at one location, and how he made it his mission to keep them alive. He would hoard the bits of food allocated to him and, starving himself, give them to the cats that came to his cell each day. In this self-sacrificing service to creatures more frail than he, Ram found more nourishment than in the meager rations doled out by the guards.

Of course, other causes lured Kumar as well: Kashmir, and as we all know the latest was indigenous rights in the northeast. "Nothing human is alien to me," said Marx (following classical Greek philosophy), and surely Kumar was the embodiment of this ideal as he sought to better the land of his birth no matter which community or locale needed attention. Though I'm sure Delhi viewed him as more than faintly treasonous in his constant social and political critique, Kumar, like all the most passionate revolutionaries, actually yearned for the promise of India, yet unfulfilled in the vast inequalities with their toll of human suffering. He wanted India to be very much better than that. With others, comrades all, he demanded India be much better than it is, that it provide every one of its citizens air to breathe freely, enough food to eat, shelter, and dignity. Kumar never stopped for a moment of rest in his demand that India live up to its promise.

Far away on another continent, I take heart in knowing with all certainty that the baton dropped by my friend Namu will be picked up by others – I'm sure has already been picked up and is being carried along speedily. The momentum of this movement for human rights, swelling up even as any single individual gives up this earthly existence, challenges those who would humiliate, beat down and destroy the lives of others for the sake of power or wealth to do the right thing, the most simple thing in the world – treat another as you would like to be treated.

The divinity in me recognizes the divinity in you, Kumar learned from the tenderest age, perhaps the signal contribution of Hindu social teaching. The human being in me embraces the human being in you.

Oh, I will miss your warmth! And I celebrate your life-well-lived!

Let us pause, remember, then continue.

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by Anjuman Ara Begum

Ram Narayan Kumar was 56 when he passed away due to sudden illness. He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Though based in Austria, he frequented India for researching, investigating and documenting cases of human rights violations. He was working as full-time director of the project Understanding Impunity: Rights to Truth,Justice and Reparation.

Kumar was a born human rights activist. He had engaged himself with human rights activism since 1975, when he was jailed for 19 months for protesting against the imposition of emergency.

Though he belonged to Andhra Pradesh, his conscience dragged him to protest against the widespread human rights violations in Punjab. There he co-founded The Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP) and co-authored a voluminous edition called Reduced To Ashes, a compilation of about 600 cases of human rights violations in the state. This report prompted the National Human Rights Commission to take cognizance of the large scale custodial disappearances and deaths in Punjab during that decade. The case is still pending.

He was an eminent writer and an excellent researcher. Several of his publications are well received and reflect his boldness, clarity of views and his non-partisan approach. Some of his other publications are:

The Sikh Unrest and the Indian State: Politics, Personalities and Historical Retrospective (Ajanta Publications, New Delhi, 1997);

The Sikh Struggle: Origin, Evolution and Present Phase (Chanakya Publications, Delhi, 1991);

Confronting the Hindu Sphinx (Ajanta Publication, New Delhi, 1991);

Four Years of the Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim: Promises and Pitfalls (Other Media Communications, New Delhi, 2002);

"India's Constitutional Discourse: Some Unanswered Questions" and "Rights, Guarantees and Judicial Wrongs: Arguments for an Appraisal" in Recasting Indian Politics, ed. Paul Flather (Palgrave, London);

Critical Readings in Human Rights and Peace (Shipra Publications, New Delhi, 2006).

A former Reuters Foundation Fellow at Oxford University, Ram Narayan had recently released his new book, Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge and Truth (Shipra Publications, Delhi, 2008).

Ram Narayan Kumar was a man of strong conviction, bold and gentle. As a person, he was always helpful and had a big heart to reach out to the victims. He would travel to the remotest places to talk to victims to understand people's sufferings. He was energetic and very studious. He believed "homework" is important before one starts his or her work. He believed any study would remain incomplete without talking to the persons who have experienced violence.

It has been about half a year Kumar started visiting northeastern states frequently for documenting human rights violations. He visited extensively in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. His mission in bringing out the rights to truth and justice for the people of northeastern states and others remains unfinished.

He is survived by his wife Gertie, daughter Cristina, sister Sita and brother Gopal, all living in Austria. He will be cremated in Kathmandu, as per the wishes of his family.

[Courtesy: TwoCircles]

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  • 5 months later...

I just felt I must revive this thread.

Ram Narayan Kumar was such an intelligent and incredibly brave person. His death passed virtually unnoticed. He was such a good soul… he was not only a friend of the Sikhs but a friend to Humanity.



At minimum I hope our quam never forgets his life efforts in giving a voice to victims of injustices.

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