Ram Narayan Kumar, a born human rights activist

The news of the sudden demise of Ram Narayan Kumar reached me just like a bolt from the blue

It was quite shocking when just like a bolt from the blue, the news of the sudden demise of Ram Narayan Kumar on June 29, 2009 reached me. For some time I could not think or talk. The world suddenly appeared to me very cruel. I knew Kumar for the last one and half year. He was a very active and vocal human rights activist, well known for his extensive work on secret killings and disappearances in Punjab. He was 56.

He passed away on June 28 in Kathmandu 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 (www.safhr.org/impunity). I was working for him as regional research associate for the same project.

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 wide spread human rights violations in Punjab. There he co-founded 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.

I got to see Ram Narayan Kumar speak in New York several years ago, and was impressed by how methodical and dispassionate he was as he spoke about his attempt to document extrajudicial killings and cremations of prisoners during the peak of the Punjab militancy period in the 1980s. Many Sikhs have taken up this cause over the years (indeed, activists still show up at local Gurdwaras every June to lecture about it), but too often emotion takes over from empirical evidence and the need to provide rock-solid documentation. Ram Narayan Kumar focused on the latter, not because he advocated any political cause, but because he had faith in the idea of Indian democracy, and demanded that the system he believed in be truthful, accountable, and transparent.

Though he wrote several books, Mr. Kumar’s greatest legacy may be his rigorous documentation efforts of extrajudicial killings by the Punjab Police, which are partially collected in the massive book, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab.

The issue that stood out to me in Ram Narayan Kumar’s quest for justice related specifically to the illegal cremation of 2000+ prisoners who were killed in police custody in Punjab in the 1980s. We may never know exactly what happened to these prisoners, or how they died; a Supreme Court ordered CBI investigation has remained sealed, and its contents unknown. But cremation records were at least kept, and provide an unmistakable record. As a result of the efforts of Kumar and others, in 2006, the Indian government’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued monetary awards to the families of 1245 prisoners who were cremated in the mid-1980s. Below is a brief excerpt from one of Kumar’s more recent books outlining what happened over the decade of legal proceedings that led to a final resolution (albeit a somewhat unsatisfying one) in October, 2006.

He was an eminent writer and a very good 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 Question" 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).

Former Reuters Foundation Fellow at the University of Oxford, Kumar 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 remote of the remotest place and talk to victims to understand people’s sufferings. He was energetic and very studious. He believed ‘home work’ 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. I remember, he was so popular that once in a city in Manipur, a visitor offered a huge water melon. Offering food is considered a highest honour in that place.

It has been about half a year Kumar started visiting north eastern states frequently for documenting human rights violations. He visited extensively in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. His next visit was scheduled on 19th of this month. His mission in bringing out the rights to truth and justice for the people of north eastern states and others remained unfinished. Kumar always lived for others. He will be alive through his works. For me, it will never be possible to wash away his ideology. It will be a legacy in me.

Kumar, may your soul rest in peace forever.

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