It was in 2007 that I first came across the name of Sunil Kumar while reading an undergraduate course on medieval India at Delhi University. His newly published book on The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286 (Permanent Black, 2007) had already become talk of the town by that time. In fact, he was among very few active scholars working on medieval period who was interested in pre-Mughal Sultanate era. In 2009, when I enrolled myself for a postgraduate course in the History Department of Delhi University, Sunil Kumar was away for a brief stint to School of Oriental and African Studies. Hence, the course on medieval Islamic world which he generally taught to MA (Previous) students was assigned to some other teacher. By the time he returned to the department in 2010, I had opted for modern Indian history as my specialization in MA (Final), thereby limiting the possibilities of any formal interaction with him as his student. However, it did not end the possibility of occasional locking of fate between me and Prof. Kumar in future.
My first interaction with Prof. Kumar was shrouded with unusual circumstances of students’ protest, the prime target of which was Prof. Kumar himself along with a few other teachers of the department. There was an en masse failure of students of my batch in the semester III examinations. Incidentally, it was in Prof. Kumar’s paper that most of my batch mates belonging to medieval Indian history specialization had flunked. It was followed by a massive outrage of postgraduate students on the corridors of the History Department including protest at the Vice Chancellor’s office, of which I remained a witness, demanding re-evaluation of scripts by some other teacher. Prof. Kumar in this entire episode emerged as someone who was uncompromising in granting any leverage to lose answers while marking them.
Another occasion on which I closely watched Prof. Kumar was in October 2011 when the University of Delhi turned into a melting pot of debate over one of the most celebrated essays of A.K. Ramanujan ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’ (1991). These debates were sparked off by the controversial decision of the Academic Council of the University to scrap the aforesaid essay on the ground that it hurts the religious sentiments of certain sections of society. It was seen by many as an attempt to curb the freedom of thought and sacrificing academic integrity under the majoritarian pressure. This time the students of the History Department were by the side of Prof. Kumar against the aforesaid decision of exclusion of Ramanujan’s essay from the suggested reading list. During the course of a procession of students and teachers which ended at the Vice Chancellor’s office demanding restoration of Ramanujan’s essay in the syllabus, Prof. Kumar made a remarkable speech discussing the beauty of Ramanujan’s aforesaid essay.
In between these two incidents, I developed an unknown locking of fate with Prof. Kumar so far as my stint as a research student of the department was concerned. I was initially reluctant to take admission in MPhil and was more interested in taking up the competitive examinations. However, Prof. Kumar as an MPhil coordinator made a formal call few days before the last date of admission enquiring about whether I was aware of my selection for the MPhil course in History. That brief conversation with Prof. Kumar played a significant role among other factors in changing my mind and I eventually took admission in MPhil just a day before the last date. As the MPhil coordinator, Prof. Kumar remained highly organized ensuring timely supply of relevant reading materials and scheduling the classes for the MPhil course work.
Equally enchanting was the concept of ‘Baithak’ initiated by him at the History Department. It was conceived as a site or occasion for discussing a historian’s work through pre-circulated papers. It provided the historian with an opportunity to make an introductory statement regarding her/his past and present research, and a context wherein the pre-circulated papers demonstrate the historiographical concerns of the author. It included the invited lectures of several pre-eminent scholars like that of Sumit Sarkar, Caroline Ford, Daniel Bender, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Upendra Baxi, Phillipe Buc, and others followed by a lively discussion. One can fondly remember even the post-baithak discussions over tea with Prof. Kumar and the invited scholars.
Meanwhile, I came across Sunil Kumar’s much acclaimed edited volume on Demolishing Myths or Mosques and Temples? Readings on History and Temple Desecration in Medieval India published way back in 2008 by Three Essays Collective. It carried wonderful essays by Richard H. Davis, Romila Thapar, Richard Eaton, and Finbarr Flood along with an exquisitely written introduction by Sunil Kumar himself. At a time when history has become so important in the making of the nation’s identity, the articles in this book invite the readers to pause and reflect on the craft of history, the exciting and engaging conclusions to which it can lead and the worrying ends to which it can also be nudged. In this volume, Prof. Kumar emphatically made a claim for delinking political rhetoric and history by taking numerous instances of temple-desecration by the conquerors – both Hindus as well as Muslims – as the case study. A similar retrospection of past through the present can be seen in his earlier monograph on Delhi titled The Present in Delhi’s Past (2002). The essays in this volume are about the layered past of selected monuments and villages in New Delhi over the last millennium.
In 2018, as I approached towards the end of my stint as a research scholar at the History Department, once again Prof. Kumar came into the picture because of some unforeseen turn of events. Immediately after submitting my PhD thesis in March 2017, I lost my supervisor, Dr. Biswamoy Pati, another fine scholar of the History Department of Delhi University in June 2017. After remaining clueless for almost a year about the status of my thesis, I finally wrote to Prof. Kumar who had now been heading the History Department. His short yet convincing reply, amidst his heightened administrative as well as academic responsibilities, was good enough to ward off my post-submission anxieties. The text of his reply ran as follows:
The press of duties had made it difficult for me to respond to your letter and your reminder. This short note is to reassure you that I have not forgotten about you or your request. I’ve had a talk with OSD examination and written to him as well for further information regarding the status of your reports. I will have information later this coming week and will keep you informed.
Apologies for the delay and with my best wishes.
Prof. Sunil Kumar”
Prof. Kumar not only formally assigned a new supervisor to take care of my thesis but also took himself a keen interest that I reach the final destination in terms of defending my thesis in viva-voce. I would remain forever grateful to him for this gesture.
One last chance when I witnessed the professionalism of Prof. Kumar was in the role of his being the editor of reputed journal Indian Economic and Social History Review (IESHR). He happened to be in the editorial board of this journal since 1990s and was the main guiding figure of it after the demise of its founding editor Dharma Kumar in October 2001. He carried the major part of burden of this journal on his shoulder for almost two decades. After the defence of my thesis, I sent an article to the aforesaid journal for consideration. Prof. Kumar showed much enthusiasm and suggested some preliminary revisions in order to make it more substantive before it could be sent to the reviewer. His efficiency as the editor of this journal was such that the final version of the article came in less than one year, the shortest duration I ever experienced for any of my published articles.
In Prof. Kumar’s unexpected demise on 17 January 2021, just a few months before his superannuation, the discipline has not just lost a very fine teacher, but also a scholar sensitive to contemporary relevance of history as a discipline and a well organized editor and administrator.
Saurav Kumar Rai is a Senior Research Assistant at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi. He has done his PhD on aspects of social history of health and medicine from the Department of History, University of Delhi.