Ram Narayan Kumar (1955-2009) | Sikh Philosophy Network
  • Welcome to all New Sikh Philosophy Network Forums!
    Explore Sikh Sikhi Sikhism...
    Sign up Log in

Ram Narayan Kumar (1955-2009)

May 23, 2009
by Jagmohan Singh

It was striking that a frail man, a one-time monk, living in the backwaters of Delhi, well informed about world developments should take so keen an interest in Sikh affairs and particularly the human rights violations of the Sikhs in the last few decades. Such was Ram Narayan Kumar.

He is no more. He expired on Sunday June 28 in his house in Kathmandu.

When the powers that be in Punjab and India were ruling Punjab under their jackboots, this skinny activist was running helter-skelter mustering support for the Sikhs. He was seen interacting with lawyers, families of militants and the militants themselves whenever he had an opportunity to do so.

I had a brief association with him. Whenever I met him, he used to say, "your party (Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) has a lot of potential, but somehow is not able to catch the bull by its horns". He wanted me to "come on his side". He wanted me to quit politics and take up serious human rights activism. It is sad, that now that I am keen to do so, he is no more.

Not many people would know that despite having a house in Delhi, Ram Narayan Kumar would live for months in a hotel room so that he could complete his book on the Sikhs without disturbance. I am sure there are a few handful who know what risks he undertook to familiarise himself with all aspects of the Sikh struggle.

On the Passing of a Great Man, True Friend, Inspired Soul
Cynthia K. Mahmood

The WSN presents, humbly and proudly, both at the same time, this tribute and personal remembrance by Cynthia K. Mahmood, celebrated scholar on Sikh issues and one of Ram Narayan Kumar’s co-travellers on the path to seek an egalitarian world. Mahmood is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Senior Fellow, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, US. Exclusive to the World Sikh News...click here to read

Notwithstanding some people's doubts and cynicism, the Sikhs will certainly remember you for the monumental work that you have done in spearheading the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab. Last year, around this time, Ram Narayan Kumar and Ashok Aggarwal of CIIP came to Chandigarh and declared that they would, now “focus on legal research, besides building of clarity and solidarity on the issues like the principles of liability, in understanding aggregated violations, which the matter of cremations encompasses, and in developing standards to legally capture and quantify suffering, damages and losses for the purpose of evolving standards of reparation”.

Contemporary history of the Sikhs will not be complete without reference to your work in action and your academic inputs in the writing of Reduced To Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab co authored by Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur. This compilation at a time when the whole country was not willing to touch the Sikhs with a barge pole and the international community was found wanting in supporting or even taking up the case of the Sikhs, speaks volumes for your commitment to the cause of fighting state impunity.

There will be some who will contest your contention that the issue of Sikh sovereignty was used by the State to divert attention from real issues of democracy, constitutional safeguard and citizens' rights, but there will none to doubt your steadfastness in upholding human rights and the search for truth and nothing but the truth.

Rest in Peace, friend of the Sikhs

The Ultima Ratio

Ram Narayan Kumar

The World Sikh News deeply mourns the death of Ram Narayan Kumar, a friend of the Sikh community and of all those who believed in human beings' fundamental right to a dignified life. His efforts at fighting the brutality of state suppression of armed conflicts in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Northeast India, Nepal and other parts of the subcontinent shall be remembered for ever and serve as inspiration to many. We reproduce here a piece that Kumar wrote as a Preface to his book The Sikh Struggle, published by Chanakya Publications, Delhi, in 1990.

Anti-Sikh riots in Delhi following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination by two of her Sikh body guards on 31 Oct. 1984 gave me the first traumatic insight into the bane which Hindu India could become to its religious minorities. The assassination itself was a riposte to the army assault on the GoldenTemple in Amritsar in June 1984, ordered by Mrs. Gandhi to wipe out the Sikh rebels ensconced inside, under the leadership of Bhindranwale, the apostle of Sikh separatism. Besides taking - according to Sikh estimates - around four thousand lives, the assault had reduced to rubble the Akal Takht, the symbolic seat of Sikh temporal authority inside the temple complex, built by Guru Hargobind during Mughal days in defiance of the Delhi Takht.
The Delhi riots after the assassination were not so much spontaneous as systematically orchestrated. Getting involved with a group formed in Delhi immediately after the outbreak of the mayhem to rescue and rehabilitate the victims, I became acquainted with the organization of the violence which claimed three thousand innocent Sikh lives in six days. I heard eyewitness accounts of how the rioters in gangs of two hundred or three hundred led by Congress bosses, with policemen looking on, had swarmed into Sikh houses, hacking the occupants to pieces, chopping off the heads of children, tying Sikh men to tires set aflame with kerosene, burning down the houses alter sacking them. The “rehabilitation camp’ that I had helped set up in Shakkarpur, a trans-Yamuna locality of Delhi, housed two thousand refugees, among them a large number of widows and children with nightmarish memories.

The demand for an independent Sikh state as the ultima ratio of their frustrated desire for greater autonomy within a genuinely federalistic Indian State will impress us as less unfeasible if we remember that the present array of states in the Indian subcontinent is an artefact whose ephemeral validity is suggested by great fluidity of lines on the political map of the subcontinent in the past.

The Delhi violence has been documented by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties and the Peoples Union of Democratic Rights in their joint report - Who are the Guilty? -which mentions the names of sixteen Congress politicians, thirteen police officers and one hundred and ninety eight others, accused by survivors and eyewitnesses of responsibility for the carnage. Early in January 1985, journalist Rahul Bedi of the Indian Express and Smitu Kothari of the PUCL moved the High Court of Delhi demanding a judicial inquiry on the strength of this documentation. Justice Yogeshwar Dayal kept the petition dangling for a few weeks and finally dismissed it with a comment about “those busybodies out for publicity, who poke their nose into all matters and waste the valuable time of the judiciary!”

When shortly after the pogrom, the Congress party, riding on the wave of Hindu sentiments against Sikhs, had secured an unprecedented popular mandate, the Sikhs understood that the Hindu democratic sanction of the genocide would ensure that the instigators and participants would not be called to account. As if to confirm the point, the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi inducted into his cabinet several of the main suspects of the organization of the slaughter.

The behaviour of the government added moral verve to the Sikh separatist ambitions. The police took to an extra-judicial approach by torturing and killing suspected separatists in their custody, with courts refusing to take action against the guilty officials. The mainstream press too toed the line of the establishment. Anti-terrorist campaigns in Punjab received imprimatur as cover stories, with officials being quoted: “For one innocent person killed by terrorists, the police will kill ten of them.” News on the situation in Punjab consisted of little more than the reproduction of official statements on terrorists killing and alternatively being killed: Investigative journalism conveying critical background information would have been “unpatriotic”.

Knowing from my earlier experiences as a social activist of the chasm that separates Indian reality from Indian make-believe, of the callous disregard of those who count for those who don’t, I decided to document violation of human rights in Punjab, traveling in the state from March 1985 when I became free from other compulsions. The picture of atrocities that emerged before my eyes was so distressing that I found myself overwhelmed to the exclusion of interest in other aspects of the Sikh problem. However, through my personal contact with knowledgeable Sikhs, I came to realize that a report on official atrocities alone would leave little scope for a rational understanding of the roots of the turmoil in Punjab.

Pressed by these considerations, I decided to extend the scope of my intended report by (focusing) on the history of the Sikhs in the perspective of their present struggle. For what at first sight might appear as haphazard, irrational and unjustified in Sikh aspirations and behaviour, acquired new meaning if one read it in terms of the birth and evolution of their community, the distinct features of their religion, and most of all their earlier attempts and ordeals of national self-assertion. The demand for an independent Sikh state as the ultima ratio of their frustrated desire for greater autonomy within a genuinely federalistic Indian State will impress us as less unfeasible if we remember that the present array of states in the Indian subcontinent is an artefact whose ephemeral validity is suggested by great fluidity of lines on the political map of the subcontinent in the past. If there is a recurring pattern in pan-Indian history, it is the cyclic emergence of ultimately self-serving imperial structures again broken by the political self-assertion of vigorous minority-nations. I hope that (my) attempt(s) would promote better understanding of the Sikh aspirations and their struggle among peoples of India and abroad.

1 July 2009



Jun 1, 2004
Ram Narayan Kumar: An Obituary
Pritam Singh Ph.D

Ram Narayan Kumar, one of the finest human rights researcher,
activist and campaigner in South Asia, passed away on June 28 at
his house in Kathmandu (Nepal). His death at a relatively young age
of 54 has sent shock waves among all those struggling for justice
and fairness in South Asia.

His first major confrontation with state power was in 1975 when he
opposed the authoritarian Emergency regime in India and was
imprisoned for 19 months for his political act of defiance to defend democracy. He
came from the Indian socialist tradition influenced by JP Narayan and R M Lohia but
had the courage to oppose the overemphasis on the caste dimension in somewhat
opportunistic politics of some of the followers of JP and Lohia. It was, perhaps, this
disenchantment with his erstwhile comrades, which attracted him to the more
universalist appeal of human rights work.

By family background, he came from a distinguished religious family of India. His
father was the head of a math/peeth in Ayodhaya with a very large following. Ram
was groomed until his teenage years to succeed his father as the head of the math but
Ram revolted and joined the secular world of socialist politics. However, the large
following of the math in Austria resulted later on in Ram marrying an Austrian

Although he worked on almost all regions of India where human rights violations
took place such as Kashmir, North East, Gujarat and Eastern India, and even in the
Middle East against US interventions and Israeli aggression, his most remarkable
contribution to human rights practice and documentation was in Punjab. Coming from
a South Indian Brahmin family, he had no personal link with Punjab. However the
massacre of the Sikh minority in Delhi in 1984 pushed him into the study of Punjab
and its troubles. He never abandoned Punjab after this in spite of his many time
demanding pre-occupations elsewhere. It is a reflection of his deep humanity that he
spent about 15 years of his life studying and documenting human rights abuses in
Punjab, a state with which he had no other relation except the bond of humanity. He
traveled to remote villages of Punjab to hear the painful stories of victims of human
rights violations, expressing solidarity with them and bringing their plight to the
attention of concerned Indians.

I met him for the first time in 1988 when during one of his visits to the UK; I invited
him to speak in Oxford on the crisis in Punjab from a human rights perspective. Our
friendship grew and since 2008, we were involved in a joint project to write a book on
Punjab. His death means the death of that project also.

He had phenomenal knowledge of Punjab’s history, politics, geography, culture, civil
and police administration and Punjab’s troubled relationships with the federal Centre
in Delhi. He was meticulous in his research to the point of obsession, never
compromising on the empirical evidence of his claims. His work
on disappearances in Punjab Reduced to Ashes is destined to
become a classic in the literature on disappearances and the
brutality of state power. He published a pioneering paper on the
institutional flaws in human rights law and practice with
reference to Punjab in the International Journal of Punjab
Studies. On the invitation of the Association of Punjab Studies
(UK), he presented a paper on the constitutional and institutional
rigidities in defending human rights in Punjab at the
Association’s bi-annual conference in Oxford in 2003 where he
received standing ovation from the conference participants for
the rigour of his analysis and his towering moral integrity.
His last book on Punjab was Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge and Truth
(2008) and it is some solace to me that my review of this book was published in the
June 2009 issue of Himal South Asia magazine (Kathmandu) and Ram was able to see
this review.

Ram Narayan Kumar was directing a major project on studying the culture and
practice of immunity that the state officials involved in human rights abuse enjoy in
India. The project covering four critical regions of India- J & K, North East, Gujarat
and Punjab- and involving joint collaboration between Kathmandu-based South Asia
Forum for Human Rights and Canada’s International Council for Development
Research (ICDR) has the promise of path breaking output in bringing transparency,
accountability and justice to human rights practice in India and South Asia.
Ram, as he was affectionately called, was an inspiration to human rights activists not
only in India but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Some of the key
dons of Harvard Law School recognised from an international perspective Ram’s
contribution to furthering the cause of defending the vulnerable and the weak in India
and South Asia.

He worked too hard, was too pure in his heart and was too demanding of himself.
That took its toll on his health. Though he has gone, his insights and dedication will
forever remain a source of inspiration to those who want to unearth truth and bring the
powerful to accountability.

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.

About the author
Dr Pritam Singh took his BA and MA degrees from Punjab University, Chandigarh, MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi and DPhil from University of Oxford. He teaches development and environmental economics at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK where he is the Director of the Postgraduate Programme in International Management and International Relations. He is currently a Visiting Professor at JNU and is writing a book on Economic Interests and Human Rights. His most recent book is Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab economy (Routledge, London/New York, 2009). Dr Singh is a Research Associate of the Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford and is on the editorial boards of a number of journals including Journal of Punjab Studies.

Create an account or login to comment

You must be a member in order to leave a comment

Create account

Create an account on our community. It's easy!

Log in

Already have an account? Log in here.

Shabad Vichaar by SPN'ers

Happy Vaisakhi to all!! It was hard to pick something to discuss this week as Vaisakhi is all about commitment to the ShabadGuru and theforefore the entire Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji is relevant...

SPN on Facebook