By Amar Farooqui
Professor Sunil Kumar, eminent historian and a distinguished teacher of the subject, passed away on 17 January at the age of sixty-four. He had been unwell for some time but there was nothing to indicate that the end was so near. Sunil Kumar had recently relinquished charge as Head of the Department of History, University of Delhi, successfully steering the Department through a very difficult time during the last six months of his term when functioning in a virtual mode presented almost unsurmountable challenges. He was due to retire in a few weeks.
Sunil was born in Jaunpur, and spent part of his childhood in Lucknow. My impression is that, if there was a city other than Delhi with which he identified himself, it was Lucknow. He studied at St. Xavier’s School, Delhi; St. Stephen’s College; and the University of Bridgeport (Connecticut). Unlike many medievalists in Indian universities, he had formally studied medieval European history at the postgraduate level. He started his teaching career in 1984 at St. Stephen’s College, and moved to the History Department of Delhi University where he taught for thirty-five years—since 2005 as Professor of Medieval Indian History. Sunil Kumar completed his Ph.D. in History at Duke University (1992).
Sunil was a leading authority on the history of medieval India, especially the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. His book, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate (2007), is an important study of the early phase of the history of the Delhi Sultanate, covering the period from the Second Battle of Tarain (1192) to the end of the thirty-year long reign of Balban in 1286.
It has been difficult to undermine the influence of conventional historiography which represents the thirteenth century as marking a violent break with a glorious past, disrupted by Muslim rulers. This is something the book manages to achieve. It demonstrates how a sophisticated history of the Sultanate can and should be written by shunning crude interpretations which view the period through the prism of tensions among people professing different religious faiths.
In an essay he contributed to the Festschrift for Professor Romila Thapar published by The Book Review Literary Trust, he referred to the close connection between such unrefined interpretations and the ‘communal’ periodization of Indian history: ‘When we frame our textbooks or our teaching courses, the chilling spine of the state appears as the most convenient prop, but it runs the risk of dragging with it, its alter-ego, the much discredited but still omnipotent divisions of Indian history into its Hindu-Ancient, Medieval-Muslim, and Modern-British periods.’
Sunil was a skilled practitioner of the historian’s craft. This enabled him to engage with sources in ways that were novel. He despised narratives based on stereotypes, particularly communal stereotyping. At the same time his scholarship reflected a deep commitment to secular, democratic and progressive values.
All this has a special meaning in the context of the history of medieval India since many of the building blocks for communal propagandist arguments about India’s past have been formed by distorting the history of that era. The beginnings of supposed animosities between Hindus and Muslims are, in this kind of historiography, traced back to the Delhi Sultanate. If there was no shared past, how could there be a shared present. The damaging implications of such an understanding for the discipline were explored in his book The Present in Delhi’s Pasts (2002).
Sunil was a historian of the city as well. He regularly took his students for walks to historical sites. In the 1980s he was actively involved with the Conservation Society of Delhi, and represented the Tughlaqabad Fort which he knew so intimately. His knowledge of the city’s past and present, and his profound understanding of Sufism and the Sufis of medieval Delhi came together in his exploration of the landscape of the Jamuna floodplain and its association with Shaikh Nizam al-Din Auliya. He elaborated upon some of these themes in his Presidential Address to the Medieval India Section of the Indian History Congress at Jadavpur University (2017), ‘History and the Fourteenth Century Chishtiyya’.
Sunil’s ashes were immersed in the Jamuna, at a spot close to the shrine of the Sufi saint.
Amar Farooqui is with the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.