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Barefoot

An epic life

HARSH MANDER

The tumultuous life and times of a man who couldn’t bear to witness injustice or turn his face away…


For him, the fight for justice was in the nature of a moral imperative, and arose from a core of great inner compassion.



Inspiring example: Ram Narayan Kumar (1956-2009).

For all who encountered him, it was like looking into the sun. Here was a giant of a man, who could not witness injustice and then simply turn his face away.

On June 28, 2009, the body of Ram Narayan Kumar was found in his flat in Kathmandu, where he worked many months of the year. He died at 53 years, of cardiac arrest. I lost a friend, and the country a hero, who was driven by a fierce life-long commitment to truth and justice. He was a man of undaunted courage, utterly uncompromising in the pursuit of his beliefs. For him, the fight for justice was in the nature of a moral imperative, and arose from a core of great inner compassion. It is a comment on our times that he is relatively unknown, except among those with whom they fought who had suffered grave injustices, and those who were fortunate to fight by their side.

Kumar was born and raised in an Ashram in Ayodhya. His father was the mahant of the sect, and Kumar, the eldest son, was groomed to succeed him. Kumar studied the Hindu scriptures, yoga and Carnatic music. His father died when he turned 18, but by then Kumar was disillusioned by religious faith in his country, by what he saw as its “morbid individualism”, its mechanical ritualism and the “maniacally hierarchical society” it promoted. He abandoned the ashram forever, and set out to learn about — and change — the world outside. He enrolled in college, but withdrew in a year, finding it mediocre and soulless. Although he was never formally educated, he taught himself Indian and western philosophy, many languages, literature and the law, and far surpassed most with formal education in his mastery of each of these disciplines.

Kumar was only 19 when the Emergency was imposed in 1975. He smuggled himself out of the country, flying only as far as Afghanistan because that was the only air ticket he could afford. From there, he hitch-hiked to Europe, where he tried to garner international support against the Emergency. But he quickly saw the futility of this enterprise, and within two months returned to India, risking arrest, to fight the injustice directly. He brought out underground versions of a magazine he had launched earlier: RAM or Righteous Action Movement. He was arrested shortly after, and spent around 13 months in jail.

The Janata government fell three disastrous years later. Under the influence of Socialist leader Yamuna Shastri, he moved to the feudal hinterland of Rewa, to organise the miners in Jhagarakhand collieries. He was appalled by the conditions of the mine workers. They were paid paltry wages to work in unsafe and unhealthy underground mines, and their families were deprived of elementary services like clean drinking water and health services.

Desperate measures

The failure of mine workers’ strikes, and petitions to the local MP, led the young Kumar, now 25 years old, to hatch a desperate plan. He took a loaded pistol to the home of the MP in Delhi, and held his associates hostage for nine hours. The MP escaped, and Kumar was arrested, but he had no regrets: his bravado led to nation-wide attention to the miners’ plight, including discussions in Parliament, and some belated and halting redress.

In court, his lawyers, appointed by PUCL, claimed that the gun was planted by the police in his hands. But Kumar was quick to contradict them, and every other defence that they tried to craft. Kumar was sent to Tihar Jail. Characteristically, he worried far less about his own situation, and instead raged against oppressive conditions in the prison, especially homosexual rape of young offenders, and the large numbers of adolescents who were illegally incarcerated, in the same barracks as hardened criminals. He took the help of a young lawyer friend Nitya Ramakrishna to fight the cases of many of these juveniles and innocent impoverished under-trials.

Kumar wrote an article in jail about their conditions, naming both corrupt jail staff and brutal senior convicts, and tried to smuggle this out with a friend. This was seized by a jail official, and Kumar’s life was now gravely endangered within the prison. Undaunted and fearless, Kumar’s lawyer fought for the release and publication of the article, which was ultimately ordered by the High Court. It created a sensation, and ultimately led to directions of the Supreme Court Justice Bhagwati to order the separation of juveniles from adult inmates, and other prison reforms.

Kumar was sentenced to three years imprisonment, and released on bail after 17 months incarceration, pending his appeal. After his release, he continued to campaign for jail reforms. Then the streets of Delhi flowed with blood following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, and Kumar and his friends organised relief. Later that same year, the Bhopal gas tragedy again drew him into eventually futile efforts for justice.

Both these events darkened further his despair and pessimism about the possibilities of justice from the State as it is presently constituted. In an extraordinary gesture, in 1985, he went to court declaring that it was unethical for him to continue to accept any benefits from a State in which he had lost faith. He petitioned against his own bail, and demanded that his appeal should be withdrawn. He then voluntarily served the remaining part of his jail sentence, for one and a half more years. For a man who rejected Gandhi and argued in defence of violence, it was an act of rare morality, ironically remarkably in the spirit of Gandhi’s Satyagraha, of imposing suffering on oneself to protest against injustice.

In the cause of justice

The remainder of his life was devoted to fighting State impunity, beginning with militancy-torn Punjab. He fought “enforced disappearances” and illegal killings of alleged militants by security forces, including several thousand youth illegally murdered and cremated. He wrote agonisingly of the “disappeared and dead” who have become “black ink” in his “dusty notebooks”, and the imperative to “winnow out” the individual details of how each of them were obliterated, and of the “shipwreck of survival” of their families. He tenaciously fought a marathon for 15 years for truth and justice, for punishing the guilty officers, as well as compensating the suffering families, in the Supreme Court, the NHRC and the CBI. Each institution ultimately failed the cause of justice, but he and his colleagues persevered.

Over the years, he widened his battle against State impunity to other troubled areas of violent conflict: Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Kashmir and recently Gujarat. It was this last which drew me to him, in the remaining years of his life. I recall the many days he spent listening to the survivors of the Gujarat carnage, as also the families of the men detained for long years under terror laws. Their stories of bleak suffering often brought tears to Kumar’s eyes. It is this above all that bound me to him.

He wrote recently to his friends that “India is not incapable of humanitarian compassion and empathy. Its capacities to trample human rights and to pretend that nothing disconcerting happened are also immense”. I differed with Kumar, in that I oppose all forms of violent resistance, and I have not despaired of the Indian State, of the Constitution and of democracy in our land. But like him, I can see the profound ways that these have on many occasions failed us, with impunity, and at great cost of enormous human suffering of innocent people. Kumar’s battle was not completed in his short life. It must and will continue after his passing. By rare men and women who, like Kumar, cannot turn their face away when they witness injustice.

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