In Memoriam: Ajita Kamal, 1978-2011

Written by January 12, 2012 1:53 pm 25 comments


On January 9th 2012, we were informed of the unfortunate and untimely death of Ajita Kamal. Ajita was the founder of Nirmukta. For over a week since December 27th, 2011, we had been unable to establish contact with him. Trusted sources based in Tamil Nadu, India, when contacted, confirmed to our deep sorrow that his body was recovered close to his residence after a search was conducted. A formal investigation by the authorities is underway and further details are not publicly available. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones. Out of consideration for their privacy, we are refraining from pursuing additional details at this juncture.

Ajita was raised in the city of Coimbatore, India. His passion for science and reason went back to early childhood, as he once described in a forum post:

“It is always the best thing when parents encourage freethought. My earliest memories with my dad are of thumbing through stacks of books on natural history, watching David Attenborough documentaries and many hours of footage of the wonders of the Amazon jungles.”

He trained as an evolutionary biologist, and also did a stint as a professional musician in New York. To him, embracing freethought was a moment of homecoming, as he says here in his own words:

“It is a pleasant thought to know that we are not as divided it seems. It’s this common story we share that brings us together to ‘rejoice’ at the idea of existence. This feeling is not new. I had always wondered at the natural universe and have never ceased to be humbled by it. But now, I am starting to actually feel something that I thought I had lost forever. I am starting to feel like I belong.”

Ajita was an active participant in freethought throughout his years in America, forming ties with freethinkers who would become part of Nirmukta’s extended family. Employing his versatile talents, his contributions towards the cause of reason were manifold: as a prolific and edifying writer, as an insightful interviewer, as an adept podcast host, as an energetic community organizer both on-ground and online, and as a welcoming mentor to many freethinkers young and old taking their first steps towards embracing freethought.

In 2008, he started what would later become our organisation known as Nirmukta. Ajita once shared some of his early communication with other Indian freethinkers, a compelling glimpse into how it all started (the extracts are edited for brevity):

A trip back in time.

1. Here is part of Prof. Narendra Nayak’s first communication with me regarding Nirmukta. Context – I had emailed Basava Premanand, not realizing that he was undergoing chemotherapy at the time.

Date: Thu, Jul 17, 2008:

“I am Narendra Nayak. Since Premanand is undergoing chemotherapy for secondaries (the primary was a gastric carcinoma which was removed in January,2007) I am looking after the Indian Skeptic. I also happen to be the president of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. I will send you write ups of mine made for the press and my columns. You could use them any way you like. I am at present in Mangalore, but keep traveling all over. Narendra Nayak.”

2. Here is part of Meera Nanda’s first communication with me:

Date: Mon, Jul 21, 2008:

“Dear Ajita: I am very heartened that you are getting together a blog on this crucial issue of naturalism and humanism, as it relates to India. There are so many issues and events in India that provoke me to think and want to intervene. A blog will be a good place to let loose a bit. I like the idea very much. I am unsure if I will be able to do a good enough job. But I am more than willing and happy to give it a good try.”

3. The conversation between myself and Meera Nanda that finally helped us settle on the name “Nirmukta':

Me, Date: Tue, Jul 22, 2008:

I’m sure you agree that the way to influence cultural evolution is by creating an infectious meme. I was trying to find a Sanskrit word that had a positive connotation. Reason, Rationality, Naturalism! To put this alongside with the marketing angle, I would go back to picking a short pop-sounding word. Niiti still appeals to me. So does apohana. And my new favourite: www.nirmukta.com. Nirmukta: freed, liberated, set free. This has taken long enough, please give me your pick(s) and lets decide and move on. As you suggested earlier we can buy more than one domain name. I am voting for www.nirmukta.com.”

Meera Nanda, Date: Mon, Jul 22, 2008:

Nirmukta — I like that. I really do. It has a certain something in the sound and it does express what we mean. Stroke of genius. So we will be www.nirmukta.com. Sounds good enough to me. Let us go for it…


And that’s how Nirmukta was born. A few months later, PZ Myers of Pharyngula gave Nirmukta a shout-out which acted as a great publicity-boost, and for many of us, it was actually PZ’s post that led us to Nirmukta.

Here is Ajita in his own words:

“The one thing that I ask is an understanding of the distinction between attacking people and attacking ideas. Ideas deserve thorough scrutiny, not respect. Those who are offended when someone else questions or even ridicules an idea that they happen to hold dear (for example, the idea that an invisible magic man lives in the sky) need to have their priorities re-examined. However, people, with their thoughts, feelings, expectations and capacity for foresight, deserve at least as much respect as they exude. I am as unapologetically anti-religious as I am for human rights and freedom of speech. I believe in adopting a pluralistic strategy towards promoting freethought. We need both the “militant” atheists as well as the humanists. Sometimes building a community of freethinkers and creating social alternatives to mainstream culture can be the most effective and satisfying solution for furthering the freethought movement. Other times, simply laughing at these absurd and patently false ideas is the best way to initiate doubt and self-examination and to provoke believers into questioning these dangerous indoctrinated beliefs. Anger, ridicule, compassion and understanding are all necessary and powerful tools to be harnessed at the appropriate time towards promoting science and reason.

“I am also an environmentalist and armchair philosopher, poet and musician, writer and nature lover, science enthusiast and sci-fi geek, rationalist and humanist, progressive and moderate, pragmatist and optimist, skeptic and naturalist and many other things. I’m putting all this down on my profile hoping to not have to deal with some of the avoidable mis-characterizations of my positions. I do not fit into a neat little box, and I prefer to stay that way. Thanks for reading.”

Here is a short selection of the numerous articles that Ajita wrote for nirmukta.com and affiliated websites:

He was equally prolific in the nirmukta.net discussion forum, where he clocked almost a thousand posts in little over a year and a half. Ajita’s posts were typically detailed, well-articulated missives that could just as well have been articles in their own right. In some, his commitment to humanism and universalism in approach shone through. In others, he took on complex subjects of naturalism and philosophy which served as great introductions for many of us. His responses in the forum’s Spot the Logical Fallacy section were legendary.

Ajita was a keen producer of videos and podcasts too. When he recently heard about Richard Dawkins’ impending visit to Jaipur, he excitedly reminded us of this little interaction he had with Richard. Watching it again still makes us smile; his enthusiasm is so infectious! It is a sad reminder of what we we lost.

The announcement of Ajita’s death in the Nirmukta Facebook group saw an outpouring of condolences and reminiscences. Others, such as PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson and Aamil Syed, posted the news on their own blogs. Here is a selection of tributes and memories that people shared:

Meera Nanda
I am still having a hard time to come to terms with the news of Ajita’s passing. Hard to believe someone so young, so full of life and with such promise is so suddenly gone. I came to know him at a time when he was planning to launch Nirmukta. We brainstormed over a suitable name, and came up with Nirmukta. I met him in person only once in Connecticut, at the home of a fellow rationalist, Milind Kale. That is when we learned he was planning to return to India. My biggest regret is that I could not maintain the pace of writing that blogging requires and as a result, failed to contribute as much to Nirmukta as Ajita often asked me to. But I deeply admired how Ajita managed to turn Nirmukta into such a lively forum for our community of rationalist non-believers. My heartfelt sympathies for Ajita’s family and for all of us — his extended, worldwide family. I earnestly hope that Nirmukta will live on and grow. That will be be most fitting memorial to our friend and comrade.

Narendra Nayak
When we decided to start Nirmukta I was quite e-illiterate and not much on the www. It is because of him that I have become so communicative and have to thank him for that. He always used to say that he would come back to India and start coming with me during my tours. I was initially quite skeptical about whether a movement can be build though the web but went along with him just for a try! But, today I am surprised by how much we build up through Nirmukta. I shall miss you a lot Ajita.

Tom Clark
I’m shocked and deeply saddened to get this news. Ajita was a good friend from our phone conferences, a tireless exponent of atheism and naturalism, humanistic, imaginative, funny, daring. An incredible loss.

Babu Gogineni
I am shocked beyond words – he was one of the best! I met Ajita for the first time in Chennai just a few months ago and I was able to thank him in person for the great contribution he made to the spread of Humanism and Freethinking through Nirmukta. I will wait for news of how he died – he was so young and it was too early to go … In sadness, Babu.

Richard Francis
The ripples of his words and thoughts travel around the world. I am sorry that I never met him but even more sorry that I never will. My thoughts are with his family and friends and long may his words change the world for the better. There is a very sad man in London because of this news.

Satish Chandra
I came to know Ajita sometime after Nirmukta was started. It was in the Indian Atheists group on the Atheist Nexus site. I was just an ocassional commenter. Later I stumbled onto the facebook group and then the forums. It was after I got onto forums that I got to know Ajita more. I volunteered as a developer and we used to interact frequently in the calls that Sid mentioned above.

He was a natural leader. He made sure that we didn’t feel unappreciated for our work even when we said that we do what we do without any such expectations. Despite being so widely read, so towering over us in intellect, he would always listen to what we have to say. He cared so much about building a freethought community that it was infectuous and it became a driving force for many of us.

I always looked upto him and he greatly shaped my thinking. I still can’t believe that he is no more. Still cannot. I wish this were all a dream and I wake up and see a message from him saying “Hey Satish, what about we change this on the site?”.

Naveen K Murthy
My heartfelt condolences to Ajita Kamal’s family and friends, He was an inspiring and motivating force for all freethinkers.Though i have never met or spoken to him but have just had a few interactions on facebook,i used to love the comments he used give on all the posts–smart and precise.The world has lost a great man, a visionary.

Sundeep Peswani
Like the good ones, Ajita left us too soon. He was a single-minded freethinking force of nature, a man who transformed a far-flung group of volunteers into the Nirmukta movement. He’ll be forever remembered by those of us whose lives he touched personally and the movement lives on carrying the torch he lit. My condolences to his loved ones. We miss you already, Ajita

Saravanan Dhakshinamurthy
I was very shocked to hear his demise. I am very much grateful for the platform he had built that let me interact with many freethinkers. Though I did not have the opportunity to interact personally with Ajita, I had always admired his intellect and leadership in running a well oiled Nirmukta. My deepest condolences to his family and friends who are grieving at this juncture.

Suresh Jain
Since I discovered the Nirmukta site three months ago, I have come to appreciate deeply the quality of thought that has gone into creating this community. His posts were so relevant to my own life experiences that I developed deep respect and affection for him even though I never knew him. This is a shocking loss for me. My condolences to all his friends and family.

Sunil D’Monte
My first ever interaction with him was when I sent him a message complaining about why so-and-so was banned from a group. His answer – well reasoned as always – not only set me straight, it also won me over. Classic Ajita. I’m going to miss him terribly. I only spoke to him on the phone once and never got a chance to meet him.

Ajita’s lasting impact on me will be twofold I think. The first is with regards to his humanism. I learnt about questions of “oughtness”, of rightness and wrongness – how should we live? What is the right thing to do? I will always smile when I think of the many moderation discussions we had, where he talked about “our humanistic values”. The second involves learning. I realised that ignorance is not an option, and standing still is not an option. By my bedside lies a book called The Story of Philosophy. I bought it precisely because in discussions with him, I realised “There is so much I don’t know about Philosophy. Must change that.” I’ll think of him every time I read it now. In addition, it feels like a personal loss, because I think we could have been friends in real life. It’s hard enough in this world to find people you “connect” with. To find someone like that and then have them snatched away from you before you have a chance to develop a proper friendship, feels like a horrible injustice.

Aditya Manthramurthy
I met Ajita online after I stumbled onto Nirmukta. I was very impressed and inspired to see such a carefully thought out group that pursued the same goals that I held dear and I quickly volunteered to work with him to build a community of freethinkers. Our numerous conversations over Skype increased my respect for the man with an inspiring vision of a freethinking India. His tireless work towards this goal has been the single greatest inspiration of my entire life. His eloquence and articulation of complicated ideas are things of legend. Only he could have brought together such a varied group of people from all over the world to Nirmukta. As is well known among those who worked with him, he was always generous with appreciation for the efforts of others. We have lost a towering intellectual, an inspiring force and a dear friend, but he will be immortal because his memory lives on in our minds! I can think of no better tribute to him than to redouble my efforts for our shared vision.

Debayan Sinharoy
I really don’t know what to say. From those early days at the rd.net website to all those unfinished debates in the hangout sessions, Ajita was one of the best friends I had. Here’s to the common dream we shared. I’ll miss you, mate. I seriously will.

Priyabrata Mahapatro
I’m yet to meet a person who has inspired me so much , within a span of two months , in my life. I must tell here that I haven’t even met him in person ; only the brief interchanges here were enough for me to become a fan of him. Whenever he ‘liked’ my posts here , I used to have a satisfactory feeling that I’ve said something useful and that used to cheer me up and energize me . My mind still refuses to believe that he is no more …

Siddharth S.
Although I had known Ajita for over two years, my biggest regret is that I could never meet him in person. I often thought to myself that we would meet someday and discuss science and philosophy over a few drinks. That dream will forever remain unfulfilled. I never had a doubt that he would forever be the man I would go to when I wanted some clarity in my mind. He is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent persons I have known; probably the most intelligent. He was a teacher, colleague and most importantly, a dear friend to me. He died too soon, with too many things unsaid and too many tasks undone. The world is indeed poorer without him.

Lalit Mohan Chawla
I always wanted to meet him in person. I don’t easily open up to people, but when i talked to him we would chat for hours. Over a short span i had grown really close, I can just scroll through my messages with him and see myself maturing under his guidance, he was my mentor. He had so much to do, he was so ambitious. He used to talk about his dreams like a child and then work on his goals tirelessly, no wonder he was able to bring Nirmukta to where it is today. He was so full of life, it was a privilege knowing him.

Gayathri Iyer
My sincerest condolences to his family. I still have a very hard time processing this. It feels like I just spoke to him yesterday. I don’t really know or understand how this could happen. He was so young, so full of passion and light. A terrible loss not just for his family and us here at Nirmukta, but also for the world. A brilliant mind gone, a great human gone, just like that.

Geetha Tg
I was standing outside the Conference hall during Thinkfest – the first session was extending beyond tea time and I was a bit worried talking to the hotel staff. I turned to see Ajita Kamal walking towards me – I smiled, pointed at him and said ‘Ajita!’ He did the same and said ‘Geetha!’ We shook hands warmly – I was elated to have him with us. I had somehow imagined him to be tall – I smiled remembering it was probably because in his profile picture he was standing next to Randi.

Throughout the day he contributed to the sessions with nuggets of wisdom, especially on the topic of Evolutionary Biology. I particularly remember him animatedly explaining how dinosaurs would possibly have acquired flight and later told me that he should not have assumed that everybody would know that birds had evolved from dinosaurs. That was Ajita – with towering intellect he also exhibited a rare sensitivity to others around him – he was never condescending when he chose to teach. During lunch I saw him walking around talking to people. I asked him ‘Are you happy that Nirmukta has grown so much and that it was all your idea?’ He said ‘All I did was just plant a seed. Nirmukta has grown so much because of so many people.’

Arvind Iyer
In the all-too-brief time of a little over a year that I knew him, he offered so much in terms of learning and inspiration and I am unable to come to terms with this news that it is only memories that we will have now. In the many whom he has inspired, he has earned a place that is his alone, and so much is owed to him…

Murthy Avn
I stumbled upon one of many Ajita’s articles on nirmukta in Dec 2009. His writings changed my life in ways that month I find it hard to articulate. I remain indebted to his efforts on nirmukta in bringing together Indian freethinkers from across the globe and creating a community of activists. Mate, we carry forward. We shall surge ahead from where you left. We are poorer without you but your legacy will enrich our efforts. You were a teacher, friend and a towering intellectual giant.

Faheem Hameed
May Ajita’s demise never diminish the incandescence of his thoughts, words and deeds. Let us all continue to fight the good fight that he fought with the one weapon which united us all and the only weapon that will help us ultimately win – conversation. Journey well my friend, for you will be immortal in the many minds that you freed.

Bala Bhaskar
It is not often that someone comes into your life out of the blue and influences the very way you look at the world, and in turn, changes your life for the better. One such person was Richard Dawkins, and standing right next to him is Ajita Kamal. Dawkins showed me the power of reason and the beauty it revealed. Ajita gave me a community that agreed. Without Ajita, and in turn Nirmukta, the intellectual thirst infused in me by Dawkins would have eventually fizzled out as life went on, and I would have been just another apathetic believer who went through a “phase”. It was Ajita and the community of Nirmukta that helped me sustain this inner fire.

I met Ajita in person only once and that day will forever be a cherished memory. After Thinkfest 2011, Ajita, myself, Balu and Anbalagan went out to have dinner. He expressed his ambitions for the movement and we just listened in awe. After a lively discussion, I dropped him at the bus stop. As I drove away I felt honored to have met the man, but was also bewildered. Is this guy for real? Not once during the day did he show any sign of being the guy who almost single-handedly started the movement. He was mostly invisible during the entire meet, standing at the back of the room, except when he would occasionally answer audience question with his trademark articulation. Never did I imagine, that when I drove away that October night after dropping him, that it would be the last I see him.

In my first ever mail to Ajita, I said, compared to him, I have done next to nothing to help promote science and freethought in India. Nearly two years later, the feeling still remains. He did everything he could to make me feel appreciated for the work I did. But looking back now, at the amount of work he has put in, I am just a silent spectator. As the grief of his tragic demise sets in, I can think of no better way to salute this brave soldier than to continue his amazing work with renewed vigor and dedication.

Farewell my friend and mentor. We will take it from here.

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25 Comments

  • I haven’t visited the Nirmukta site in months and only just learned of his passing through trying to catch up on my Skeptics Guide To The Universe podcasts. I’m sadden deeply for the losing of such a mind, but ever so grateful to have been exposed to his critical thinking via the internet here in Utah, USA.

  • I am keep thinking some of few rationalist known to me like Vallalar, Nandanar, Osho….. I am deeply sadden on reading this news!

    • Quoting from the About section of this website, one of the goals is…

      To promote a naturalistic life philosophy as a moral and fulfilling alternative to religion and spirituality.

      The ongoing project here is driven by a reason-based vision for society devoid of faith claims, unlike those of mystics such as Vallalar, Nandanar and Osho. A list comprising of Nehru, Gora or Periyar would be more plausible, though not entirely defining, since the ongoing initiative in its focus and outreach is less parochial, more collaborative and more diverse than any previous attempts.

      • Ok, I should withdraw the word “rationalist” and I think, I can use reformist. What I meant to say is, The demise of Ajita kamal reminds me of mysterious death of Vallalar, Nandanar, Osho etc….

  • Shashi Kiran

    I am really shocked. I didn’t really know Ajita personally but knew him from the Long Island Atheist Meetup before he came back to India. One of the strongest force for Freethought in India is lost and making up for void it will be our duty.