“Victory Becomes the Defeat of the Good”: Ram Narayan Kumar

I recently learned of the death of Ram Narayan Kumar, an Indian human rights activist, in Nepal. Kumar, who died of natural causes, is well known in the Sikh community as the staunchest non-Sikh advocate of human rights in Punjab. What drove Mr. Kumar, as far as I can tell, was a pure, principled belief in human rights and democracy, not self-interest or any sense of loyalty to the Sikh community. After 20 years of investigating primary sources and personally documenting thousands of human rights violations in Punjab, in the past few years Kumar shifted his focus to India’s northeast — places like Nagaland and Assam — where human rights intervention may be most urgently needed now.

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. For those who are interested, that book has been posted in its entirety here (PDF, 4.9 MB). I would particularly recommend the documentation section, starting around page 205.

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. For reference, here is the National Human Rights Commission’s order related to its Punjab human rights investigation, dated October, 2006. The report is on an Indian government website (Nhrc.nic.in).

And below is an abbreviated version of Ram Narayan Kumar’s account of his investigation, quoted from Kumar’s 2008 book Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge, and Truth. I’ll pick up the account after the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the human rights activist who first discovered the record of the mass cremations, who was himself disappeared by the Punjab police in 1995:

On 6 September 1995, Khalra himself disappeared. That morning, Punjab police officers kidnapped him from his Amritsar home. In November 1995, the Supreme Court instituted two inquiries to be conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The first inquiry aimed to determine what happened to Khalra. The second inquiry intended to establish the substance of the allegations that Khalra had made. In July 1996, the report of the first inquiry [I think he means, the second inquiry] categorized 2097 cremations into three lists of 585 identified, 274 partially identified and 1,238 unidentified corpses.

After receiving the CBI’s report, the Supreme court, in its order dated 12 December 1996, noted that it ‘disclosed flagrant violations of human rights on a mass scale.’ Instructing the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly progress report, the Court appointed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to determine and adjudicate all other issues and to award compensation. The court’s order clearly said that ‘since the matter is going to be examined by the NHRC at the rquest of this court, any compensation awarded shall be binding and payable.’


After 10 years of litigation, exhausted mainly in futile legal wrangling and denials by the State agencies, the National Human Rights Commission disposed of the matter with its 10 October 2006 order, awarding arbitrary sums of monetary compensation to 1245 victims. The order divides 1245 victims of illegal cremations into two categories of ‘deemed custody,’ meaning those who were admitted to be in police custody prior to their death and cremation, and others whose police custody prior to their death and cremation was not admitted. The categorization is based on admissions and denials by the State of Punjab without further inquiry or verification and without the victim families receiving a chance to be heard. Under the first category, 194 families receive ‘the grant of monetary reief at the rate of Rs. 2.50 lakhs’ . . . Under the second category, the Commission’s order awards a grant of Rs. 1.75 lakhs . . . to 1051 victim families on the ground that the police cremated their relatives without following the procedure prescribed by the Punjab Police Rules.

[... ]

When the Supreme Court designated the NHRC to examine and determine ‘all the issues’ connected with the matter, it also entrusted the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly status report on its progress. Ten years later, nothing is known about the progress the CBI has made in its investigations. The quarterly reports, if they have been submitted, remain sealed and unseen. Yet, the NHRC’s final October 2006 order affirms faith that the State of Punjab and the Union of India will take appropriate steps to ensure taht violations do not recur. The faith is misplaced, to say the least, when the NHRC, through the procedure of investigation it followed, barred all ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. How can there be a guarantee of non-recurrence when there is no knowledge of what occurred? These failures constitute a major blow to more than 10 years of work, and a hopeful engagement with the legal process for justice, reparation and accountability, which a small voluntary group of individuals attempted to develop.

The outcome is very disappointing. Yet, I am not taken aback. The atrocities and their denial, which I observed all these years, occurred in a climate of impunity and its surreal celebration, which is very aptly echoed in India’s ancient war epic, Mahabharata: ‘Yudisththira sat on the high summit of a mound of human skeletons. There, in a state of visible contentment, he ate his rice pudding out of a golden bowl.’ (Source: Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knoweldge, and Truth)

In light of the life of Ram Narayan Kumar, a second quote from the Mahabharata seems appropriate:

To those who fall in war, victory or defeat makes no difference. All the good people — the courageous, the upright, the humble, and the compassionate — die first. The unscrupulous survive. Victory becomes the defeat of the good. (Mahabharata, Udhyoga Parva, Chapter 72, 15-72; link)

57 thoughts on ““Victory Becomes the Defeat of the Good”: Ram Narayan Kumar

  1. @@Rahul

    How do you know that it is or isn’t judicious? And that these targets of rape/murder/disappearance/mutilation are actually involved in insurgency?

    Lets say, these two were insurgents and were arrested and produced before a court of law and the judge sentenced them to a life term. Would we know then that they were actually involved in the insurgency? We wont, in principle, we would know that they are guilty beyond reasonable doubt, in practice they may have been framed or just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Even in the ideal case, they may well be innocent, but unable to prove it to a reasonable degree.

    In an insurgency, the regular ways of delivering justice don’t work any more. There is no police, no lawyers, no witnesses and no judges. If you loose, you can be sure that there will be violence on a scale thats beyond comprehension. In such a case, what would you do?

    The govt. of India has taken a position (though they wont say it out loud) that they will kill these insurgents once they are sure that they are involved. This policy has a lot of support from the people in India, who really just want peace more than anything else. They want a good legal system as well, but they want peace now. Its not really just a bunch of soldiers with guns running amok.

    As for judicious or indiscriminate, govt. of India has fought insurgencies for the past 60 years. They know indiscriminate doesnt work. Past policies and incidents also point out that GoI is fairly judicious in its application of force. More the rapier than the sledgehammer.

  2. @@Rahul

    This is going around in circles. My understanding of the issue is simple, a judicious use of encounters, assassinations and ‘disappearances’ is a practical, though morally unsatisfying solution to putting down an insurgency. Its a vital step in ensuring that saner minds can prevail and a political solution can be found. Other than this, there is no known way to defeat an insurgency.

    If you oppose these means, you must at least try to come up with a theoretical framework or practical solution that have been shown to work. If you want these to stop, that is the best you can do. You wont get far railing against the govt. of India or the Indian security forces.

  3. My understanding of the issue is simple, a judicious use of encounters, assassinations and ‘disappearances’ is a practical, though morally unsatisfying solution to putting down an insurgency.

    While I agree with this, after the insurgency is put down and the threat is removed you need some way of accounting for the moral costs paid. Truth & reconciliation committees are good for this as they don’t mete out punishment but offer closure nonetheless.

    It is often necessary when times are ugly that a political leader will need to get his hands dirty. But while we accept that our leaders may have to accept that they will take on this burden of sin, we don’t want them to be happy about it and we certainly don’t want them to do it too often.

    The preceding context to the line Amardeep quoted sums up this dismal fact nicely. Alas, such sinful practices are the duties of the Kshatriya order! Ourselves have taken our births in that wretched order! Whether those practices be sinful or virtuous, any other than the profession of arms would be censurable for us. A Sudra serveth; a Vaisya liveth by trade; the Brahmana have choosen the wooden bowl (for begging), while we are to live by slaughter! A Kshatriya, slayeth a Kshatriya; fishes live on fish; a dog preyeth upon a dog! Behold, O thou of the Dasarha race, how each of these followeth his peculiar virtue.

  4. Amardeep @ 8

    I do think the mass cremation issue is shocking enough by itself that it is worth sustained attention by Indian citizens, without reference to ‘balance’ (nothing the other side did was ever on this scale)

    I agree your concern abt shocking human right violations by govt. On purely academic argumentative grounds I don’t agree with this line of reasoning abt balance and scales of comparison. Sikh terrorism, Murder of Indira Gandhi e= Innocents killed in Iraq/Afghanistan in retribution of 9/11 = Hindus burnt in the train in Gujarat = Muslims murdered in Godhra riots = Violations of human rights by Punjab Police.

  5. @@Wunderbar

    The article is worth quoting in full. FWIW, Praveen Swami is one the best journalists ‘The Hindu’ (or any newspaper in India) has. His reports are authoritative and well researched.

    Media misrepresented key facts on Shopian rape-murder

    Praveen Swami

    Journalists share responsibility for fanning south Kashmir violence, judge says

    For the most part, Justice Jan found, the media misrepresented forensic evidence

    NEW DELHI: Ever since May, when the bodies of two women washed up near Shopian, journalists have chronicled the multiple failures of administration and policing that allowed the tragic deaths to spark off some of the worst street violence ever seen in Jammu and Kashmir.

    Following the release of the findings of the Justice Muzaffar Jan Commission of Enquiry on Friday, the Jammu and Kashmir government has announced that it intends to prosecute four police officials for some of those failures.

    But both journalists and the Jammu and Kashmir government have maintained a stoic silence on one institution blamed by Justice Jan for spreading falsehood and inciting violence: the media itself. Stories fabricated?

    Justice Jan’s report highlights disturbing evidence that some journalists may have fabricated elements of their stories.

    Early in June, several Srinagar-based journalists reported that one victim’s husband had received a call from her at 7 p.m. on May 29. During the call, the accounts said, the victim reported that she was being chased by CRPF personnel.

    In their testimony to the Jan Commission, though, the victim’s husband and her brother made it clear that she had never owned a mobile phone, a fact first reported in this newspaper. Jammu and Kashmir police investigators attached to the Commission studied 32,686 cellphone calls made in Shopian on May 29, and were able to establish that none was made to or from any phone that may have been in the victim’s possession.

    Efforts were also made by sections of the media to suggest that the local police may have sought to hush up the case on the orders of their superior. Journalists in particular turned on Constable Mohammad Yaseen, who was reported to have made several phone calls to superiors even as a search for the victims’ bodies was underway — evidence, it was argued, of the unusual interest of his bosses in the case.

    In fact, the Commission found, Mr. Yaseen had made only four calls during the whole day and none between 10 p.m. on June 29, when the search for the victims began, until 6 a.m. on June 30, when the bodies were found.

    Local resident Jamal-ud-Din Wani, claimed by the media to be an eyewitness to the killings, was alleged to have been abducted after the bodies were found. The Jan Commission found him living in a tent at the hamlet of Dehgam, close to Shopian, where he works as a watchman at a local seminary.

    For the most part, Justice Jan found, the media misrepresented forensic evidence. Media accounts insisted that both women appeared to have been badly beaten and gang raped. However, the Jan Commission states, pathologists found no evidence to support the proposition of gang rape. Moreover, only one victim’s body was found to bear visible external injuries. Claims that one victim was pregnant at the time of her death, Justice Jan states, were also wrong.

    Perhaps in order to buttress claims that the two women had been raped before they were killed, some journalists asserted that their clothes were torn. However, witnesses interviewed by the Jan Commission said that the women’s Feran and shalwar were intact.

    Most disturbing, though, is Justice Jan’s finding that the media incited hatred by broadcasting communal propaganda.

    Based on the accounts of individuals claiming to be eyewitnesses, newspapers said that one victim’s forehead had been smeared with sindoor — an allegation that suggested that the rapists were Hindus, and the rape itself macabre religion-driven hate crime. However, the Commission noted, the red marks on her forehead were in fact blood from a head wound. “The flow of blood,” the report states, “was shamefully distorted and projected as a mark of sindoor.”

    Noting that this kind of reporting has fuelled violence in Jammu and Kashmir, Justice Jan has suggested that “firm guidelines are made to ensure that, before publication of any news, the authenticity of the news be verified.”

  6. The women may not have been raped after all.

    Ok. Murdered, and not gang rape, “just rape” (see the full report here Pg 7, 15, 19 of Part I, among other things, if you have the stomach for gruesome details).