Renowned Historian Professor Sunil Kumar’s Passing Away – An Acute Loss To The Academic World
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By Adam Rizvi, TIO: India lost a renowned historian, a good human a family man. I was fortunate to have known him, my neighbor 4th house down the hill on Kuchery Road, in Lucknow, India for at least four generations. This news was heart-wrenching as I had been in touch with his daughter Shefali in New York and I had planned to visit them in Delhi at the family’s invitation.
Professor Sunil Kumar was an expert on medieval Indian history, especially the Delhi Sultanate, last Friday, when professor Sunil Kumar, Delhi University, passed away, after complaining of breathlessness, in his South Delhi home. He was only 64 and due for retirement in March this year. Despite being athletic and having played basketball actively till four years ago, he was recently diagnosed with a chronic lung disease, which got aggravated because of the pollution in Delhi.
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Prof. Sunil Kumar, son of retired Director General of police in Uttar Pradesh, Naresh Kumar IPS, and Suniti Kumar hailed from Lucknow and is survived by his wife Anjali, daughter Shefali and son Sikandar. Born in Jaunpur, with ancestral roots from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, the family had moved to Delhi, while he was still in school.
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Sunil Kumar, who had worked extensively, documenting the Delhi Sultanate authored two books in his lifetime, ‘The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286’ and ‘The Present in Delhi’s Pasts’. These books talk about the political and administrative history, social formations, architectural past, and religious-mystical networks of the Mughal era and have been recognized for their significant contributions to the history of the Mughal period, changing how historians view the Islamic rule in medieval India.
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Missed by the academic community, Sunil Kumar finished his BA at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, before finishing his MA at the University of Bridgeport and his Ph.D. at Duke University, in the US. He was the Head of the Department of History, Delhi University, School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, served as the Townsend Professor in Residence, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley, and was also a visiting professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sorbonne, University of Paris.
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Most of his course content taught at Delhi University was shaped during his stint as a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University, where his dissertation research on the early history of the Delhi Sultanate was supervised by an influential revisionist scholar of Mughal history, John F. Richards.
Kumar’s love for Delhi was evident in his passionate accounts of the city’s history. His son Sikandar was named after Sikandar Lodi of the Lodi dynasty — the name his wife chose during a stroll through the Lodhi Gardens.
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His book The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate: 1192-1286, talks about how North India’s earliest Islamic Sultanates in the 12th and 13th centuries defined themselves and constituted authority mainly through their oppositions and differences, In the book, he recounts how he cycled to these sites first in the 1970s with his wife, and later revisited them in the 1980s when he was a teacher, first at St Stephen’s College and then at DU’s history department.
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“Many of the sites that I visited were in relatively obscure villages. I wondered if it was possible to interweave their histories in my classes, bring my subject more alive to a body of students falling fast asleep with a surfeit of lectures on Sultanate campaigns and Mughal revenue and administrative systems,” he wrote in the introduction to his book.
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Sunil Kumar who insisted that he be addressed by his first name, instead of ‘sir’ is now being remembered fondly by students and colleagues alike, who remember him for being a dedicated teacher, constantly revising the course material, to make it more relevant and interesting.
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Pankaj Jha, a history teacher at the Lady Shri Ram College, knew Kumar both as a teacher and friend say. “He hasn’t written too many books, but he has left behind three generations of students whose work he invested in. He would tell me to never differentiate between a young scholar and an emeritus professor when it came to working. He could be very close to you and still not agree with you publicly. So many of us have learned our lessons on integrity from him,” said Jha.
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