Sunil Kumar (1956-2021)

Sunil Kumar was a future fellow, who was supposed to come to Erfurt for three months in 2021. He supported the KFG since its inception and was present at our first annual conference, held in November 2018, where everyone benefitted from his insightful questions and critical comments. He was also supposed to give a paper entitled “The riverine plain of Delhi: beyond the Sultan-Sufi dyad” at a workshop on the use and meaning of water infrastructures in South Asian cities, which will be held in May 2021 in Erfurt. He was in the final year as a professor of medieval history at the University of Delhi and was preparing for his imminent retirement, soon after which he wanted to come to Erfurt.

We learned of his unexpected death on 17 January 2021 in Delhi on the same day through our colleagues in India. The members of the Humanities Centre in Advanced Cultural and Social Studies (Kollegforschungsgruppe, KFG) “Religion and Urbanity” mourn the loss of their colleague, whom they would have loved to see again. Our deep condolences go especially to his wife and son.

Sunil Kumar (last row, on the right) when attending the KFG’s first annual conference

Sunil’s project as part of the KFG: “Reproducing Islam in fourteenth century Delhi: Immigration, Islamicisation and the making of Hazrat-i Dehli”

Sunil Kumar would have completed a study of Tughlaqabad during his time in Erfurt. Tughlaqabad was more in the nature of a redoubt and had a very brief life in the early fourteenth century. But the intention to create such a city, its architectural form, its relationship to other centres of power in the Delhi plain, and the sudden flux in political networks apparent during the period of its construction brings questions concerning urbanity, religion and the early medieval world into very sharp relief. This research was supposed to serve as one of the bookends of his forthcoming monograph since it complicates the way in which Islam should be read as Mongol and Turk emigres from Afghanistan streamed into Delhi. The project sought to answer how all this affected urbanity when the “barbarians” became the new masters and how we can study the processes of acculturation through the fourteenth century in Delhi. The book was planned to look at another site in Delhi, Firuzabad, as a comparison to Tughlaqabad — the other book-end — and to unpack how religion and society altered through the 14th century, and how the morphology and deployment of sacral sites in the cities reflect these changes. All of this also links up with the riverine plain and Delhi’s water bodies. We looked forward to discussing these ideas further with Sunil and are saddened that they will not come to full fruition, as he had planned.

Sunil Kumar and his contribution to history

Sunil Kumar specialised in the history of the Delhi Sultanate, a short but crucial period of South Asian history. The Delhi Sultanate stands for the rule of the Turco-Mongol dynasties from Central Asia over the Delhi plains (13th – early 16th century), and thus represents the embryo of the Mughal empire to come (and other ideas of “India”).

Sunil Kumar’s scholarship on the Delhi Sultanate contributed significantly to challenging the conventional reading of the Delhi Sultanate as a disruptive period, where the allegedly ‘glorious’ Indian past was wrecked by a violent Muslim rule. To decipher this period, Sunil Kumar pointed out the urgency to look at the sources in a nuanced way and in a comparative perspective. Thus, he demonstrated in his monograph The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate: 1192-1286 (2007) how the Delhi Sultanate portrayed itself as iconoclastic and violent, in order to legitimise itself in the eyes of Muslim rulers from Central Asian. Yet this does not necessarily reflect the reality described by other contemporary sources. Writing the history on the basis of chronicles commissioned by Delhi Sultans led to the interpretation of the Delhi Sultanate as a violent rupture, a view that Sunil Kumar deconstructed and clearly opposed in his research. He showed that the Delhi Sultanate can instead be recognized as a period of development driven by cultural and social emulation.

Another of his books, The Present in Delhi’s Pasts (2002), remains an indispensable guide for Delhi and for understanding the complex urban constructions in North India. Alongside these monographs, Sunil Kumar has published numerous articles and chapters, many of which have significantly increased our understanding of South Asian history.

— on behalf of the KFG: Martin Christ, Martin Fuchs, Sara Keller, Susanne Rau


Other Obituaries:

The Wire I: Sunil Kumar Changed How Historians Think About Islamic Rule in Medieval India

The Wire II: Sunil Kumar – Historian and Mentor Gone Too Soon

Scroll.in: Sunil Kumar (1956-2021): A historian who was passionate about reading Delhi’s past from its present

The Indian Express: Prof Sunil Kumar, giant in field of medieval Indian history, no more

Permanent Black: Four Recollections of Sunil Kumar (1956–2021)

DU Express: Professor Sunil Kumar, The Most Acclaimed DU Historian Is No More.

Counter Currents: Bid you adieu ‘Sultan’: Remembering Sunil Kumar

Chiragh Dilli: My Teacher, Sunil Kumar


Suggestions for reading and listening:

Sunil Kumar: The emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2007.

Sunil Kumar: The Present in Delhi’s Past, 2nd rev. ed., Gurgaon: Three essays, 2011.

Video: “The Sanctuary – Delhi: City of Refuge


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