Freethought Activism

My friend Arunachalam Kumar

This is not a biographical sketch of Dr.Arunachalam Kumar, MS, Professor of Anatomy, formerly Dean of KSHEMA,a fabulous teacher, a mentor for many, a research worker, a writer and a genius to put it briefly. It is not an eulogy to him but an attempt to recall incidents of our friendship of nearly four decades and what we did together as rationalists- he a confirmed one with a rational streak bursting out once in a while and me the rationalist crusader taking on all and sundry irrationalists! Not many know that he was one of the founder members of the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association called as the South Kanara Rationalist Association when it was founded in 1976.

It was in 1976 when we first met. Abraham Kovoor the eminent rationalist and campaigner for the movement was on a tour of India and we wanted to invite him to Mangalore. When we contacted the Indian Rationalist Association(IRA) we were told firmly that individuals would not be granted any dates but only organizations. So, hurriedly we put together a body called as South Kanara Rationalist Association, got letter heads printed and asked for a program at Mangalore and the date was fixed. We wanted to organize it at the Town hall but it was already booked. So, we hired the Don Bosco hall (which was owned by the Konkani Natak Sabha -an organization for propagation of catholic faith through drama). But, at the last minute they wanted to cancel the allotment since they came to know it was about rationalism! Those were the days of emergency when a gathering of more than four people was per se illegal! Somehow we got the act together and the crowd was amazing, the hall was jam packed, the compound was full and the road blocked by a large crowd. We had kept tickets for the program as none of us had any money! The police ordered us to put loud speakers outside the hall as they feared that there would be a law and order problem. The program started with an introductory speech with Kumar wearing a blazer throwing around his arms like a windmill and making a spirited presentation about rational thinking, atheism and such matters. There were  several Capuchin priests sitting in the front row (the hall was theirs) with stern faces.( Later on I came to know that they had threatened that one word against god and religion- we would be thrown out!). But, as the lecture went on their stance softened and they were smiling and nodding at Kovoor’s very persuasive lecture! The first program of our association was a great success and I can say that he has been one of our founder members.

Later on we came into touch when he joined the department of Anatomy as a tutor while I was a lecturer in the department of biochemistry. At that time he had been facing a lot of financial problems because of his inter-caste marriage but was quite brave in his attitude towards life. Later on he completed his post graduation and continued to rise in the hierarchy as well as the academic world. We used to meet off and on issues related to rationalism. I was quite active in the field while his involvement in the movement as such was quite minimal. Once in a while he used to participate in some meetings to put in a few remarks. There were some meetings in which both of us were speakers. I can even recall some where we spoke but about different topics one which I can recall at Nitte college in which he spoke about his life experiences while I spoke about consumer activism. As he grew older he started mellowing in his anti establishment stances. I can recall once when he told me, when I was leading a campaign against the irregularities of the administration of the Mangalore University- boss, either you are for or against the establishment. I am not against the establishment. So, it was that he was with the establishment , continued to shine in academic circles and took up administrative responsibilities too.

Despite of his being with establishment, there would be instances when things would become intolerable to a rationalist and then he could not resist reacting. I can recall one such. When the preclinical departments of Kasturba Medical College were shifted to Bijai, there was a Ganesha idol installed there for reasons best known to the management! There used to be pujas performed every morning by a priest at around 8.30 when classes used to be going on. The pujari’s loud chanting and the ringing of bells would cause disturbance to the teacher. But, as to be expected none of them would say anything about it. He and I took the initiative, made a letter to the head of the institution and mentioned clearly that the pujas should not be performed when the classes were going on as they were interfering with the teaching process. The pujari was then ordered to perform the rites before the classes commenced and hence had to come before 8 am for that! We could see his angry looks for quite a few days as he had been made to come early.

As head of administration at another institute he put a complete stop to rituals that were annually performed at college cost – the library was the centre of pujas and loud music and slogan chanting priests ; the best way to realize the true meaning of ayudha pooja or Sharada pooja is respecting the tools of your trade – and in case of medicos, the tool is the book. The library shall remain open he ordered. In another instance when the Malaysian delegation negotiated for twenty admissions from there to a college here, one of the requests was that a room be set apart for the Muslim students who would come – the answer was a flat no. No religious ritual in academic premises, Dr. Kumar opined – the management was quite worried at his stance for they could lose twenty foreign students – but he stood his ground, and the college is still admitting Muslim students from Malaysia and there is no special room for namaaz. So, at another set-up, Dr. Kumar as HoD,  refused to postpone examinations scheduled for medical students on Saturdays, as a fringe radical Christian group, the Seventh day Adventists held sway over management’s diktats. The group was not allowed to get away with their demands at Mangalore section, but the Manipal section held no tests on Saturdays.

When crises struck him in his personal life there were some of us who stood by him and helped him out. I was one of them and despite of being literally with the clothes on his back, saddled with heavy loans he managed to come out of them and get on with his life. At that critical time there were two who took great care of him and continue to even today- Lakshmi and Ravi. We had to help them with their marriage and a few problems at times. But, till now they are like his family taking good care of him. He resigned from Kasturba Medical College and joined the Nitte group where he worked as a professor of anatomy and later became the Dean.. As he says even as the head of such an institution he tried to cut on the irrational things like lighting of lamps, performing Saraswathi puja in the library and so on. After his career there, he joined the Kanachur Medical College as a professor of anatomy and continues to work there.
Last March he slipped, fell and when taken to the hospital was discovered to be suffering from a particularly virulent form of  lung cancer after a series of investigations and was given not very long to live. He faced this terrible diagnosis with courage. He has been given the best available medical treatment and has been writing about it in his blogs on When his students came to know about his problems they set about collecting funds for his treatment. When I visited him last month he expressed that despite of all his problems he refuses to believe in any supernatural power and remains a staunch rationalist. During the course of our conversation he wanted to speak about it to all those interested to clear any misconceptions that people may have about him having changed his convictions. So, we organized a meeting and this is a part of the proceedings which I had reported:

He spoke about his development as a rationalist came about because of his mother who he said had a rational streak in her. He recalled as to how she would go to temples not to worship the gods therein but to give alms to the beggars. At the same time she would not allow a lower caste maid to enter the kitchen! He also mentioned that despite her liberal views how she classified people into Brahmins and shudras- according her anyone who was not a Brahmin was a shudra! He mentioned about his childhood days which started the process of questioning the norms of the society. He also recalled incidents from his career as a medical student and how his long hair had brought trouble to him as a student. Going back to those days he recalled how he was soundly ticked off by his surgery professor Dr.C.R.Ballal for cutting the finger of his glove two times, trying to help him with surgery! Incidentally Dr.C.R.Ballal was in the audience and laughed at this incident. He also recalled incidents from his student days when some of the professors had sworn not to pass him till he had his hair cut and how he had resisted those attempts! In fact he jocularly mentioned that the main aim of those treating him for cancer was to see that his hair fell off and they had not succeeded to date.

He expressed his gratitude towards his students who had stood by him during times of crisis and recalled even one who was no more who had instructed his sister who is now in Canada to remit a certain amount to his account as he had been sure that he would not have any financial resources after retirement from service! His students had undertaken a drive to collect funds for his treatment and it had grown to a substantial sum and keeps growing. He recalled instances of how rational thinking had made him undertake research into various topics and had stood him in good stead throughout his life. But, he said that his role in the movement was limited to occasional talks. However he expressed his appreciation for those working for the taking the movement to the people to make them think and question. To add something which was not in the press note, I would like to mention that he was quite frank and open about the details of his personal life too. But, I would not like to mention those here.

Just before writing this I had called him and he sounded cheerful. When I told him so, he said that actually he was feeling miserable with his body aching all over. But, one has to admire his courage to face the odds. He has a very supportive family to take care of him- Lakshmi, Ravi and their little daughter Bimbli who shower affection on him, scold him to take food and medicines on time, cater to all his whims and fancies. Ravi drives him around and accompanies him on his trips for treatment. As he has gifted all his possessions , savings and belongings to the worthy and needy, they are truly living up to the trust he has on them. Yes, he has not given up smoking! Still puffing on his favourite brand he says there is no point in giving up at this stage- jo hogaya, so hogaya.  So, from one rationalist to the other- Boss, though both of us do not believe in miracles I fervently hope that one should happen now and you should get totally cured.

About the author

Narendra Nayak


  • I am a past student of Dr. Kumar and Dr. Nayak, a couple of decades ago. I am saddened to hear of the diagnosis. Dr. Kumar is no doubt facing his ordeal with Epicurean courage and dignity.

    While I heard in passing of Dr. Nayak’s activism back then, I had no clue of Dr. Kumar’s rationalistic activism.

    Even without a mention of his rationalistic side, Dr. Kumar was quite well-known in the campus. He taught us embryology. The students loved him and had stories about him, dating as far back to his student days. I did not have much personal contact with him, but heard frequent mention of him through a friend of mine, who was quietly mentored by him, who rapidly went on to AIIMS and MIT, soon after MBBS. I’d say that was pretty good mentorship, and that he no doubt touched countless student lives personally to great impact over his long career.

  • Dr. Arunachalan Kumar. You were a year senior to me in Kmc. Although we did not have a close association I watched you in awe and wondered what made you so different. You are precious so do take good care of yourself. Want to see you around for many years to come. Miracle will happen!!

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