Eminent Marxist scholar and popular teacher of political theory Prof Randhir Singh passed away on the night of 31st January in Delhi. He was 95.
Prof Randhir Singh was a founder of the Left student movement in India, during India's freedom struggle. He is best remembered for his unwavering lifelong commitment to popularising and communicating Marxist theory widely, in the most accessible language of the people. Till very recently, he would still travel to Punjab villages and small towns to give talks on political developments as well as on Marxist thought.
In spite of his formidable academic prowess, he was always had the unassuming air that is the hallmark of the activist. He was a close friend of many Left activists, and many in the CPI(ML), young and old, will have fond memories of their rich interactions with him. Prof Randhir Singh inspired many generations to study Marxism and to study society using Marxist tools. Liberation pays tribute to him with memories shared by academicians and activists, as well as excerpts from his writings and speeches.
(CPI(ML) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya reflects on Comrade Randhir Singh’s legacy for the Left movement.)
I did not have the luck of being a student of Professor Randhir Singh. But I consider myself greatly fortunate that I had several opportunities of listening to him and discussing with him and even speaking alongside him in meetings during the last three decades since I moved to Delhi in connection with my political assignments. Had I not moved to Delhi in the late 1980s, I'd have probably known Randhir Singh only through his writings. That would have surely been inspiring and enlightening as all his readers will readily testify, but listening and talking to him was always a special experience, something so fondly remembered and cherished by all who have been his students and comrades.
When I came in contact with him during the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, Punjab was caught in the crossfire between Khalistani insurgency and the counterinsurgency of state terrorism, the RSS, BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal were busy whipping up an aggressive communal frenzy around the Ram Mandir agenda, and the economic policy discourse and direction had begun to rapidly move away from the once dominant rhetoric of socialistic pattern and mixed economy to the glorification of the market and worship of private capital, the desi monopolies as well as foreign MNCs. In such difficult times, Randhir Singh continued to apply his profound Marxist scholarship and sharp analytical gaze to the study of the changing reality around us and help us achieve the clarity of understanding of complex social phenomena and political questions that must guide the thinking and action of every communist.
He urged his comrades to think as Marx would have done - upholding the independent class position of the proletariat in contention with the dominating ideas of the ruling classes. His Marxism was fearless and ruthlessly critical - 'ruthless criticism of all that exists', criticism that is not afraid of its own conclusions, as Marx insisted. The Communist Manifesto principle which asks communists to represent and nurture tomorrow's interests in today's struggles was his consistent point of departure in judging every immediate struggle or tactic. Even as the Soviet Union collapsed and bourgeois ideologues the world over mounted a loud and concerted campaign against Marxism and socialism, Randhir Singh brought his Marxist scholarship to the study of the Soviet collapse and came out with a detailed treatise in defence of his Marxist commitment and the strategic vision of socialism.
In the early years of his communist journey, Randhir Singh was a full-time activist, a professional revolutionary belonging to the then undivided Communist Party of India. Later when he began teaching in Delhi University, the transition only meant for him an uninterrupted continuation of his earlier mission by other means. He brought his Marxist activism into the university teachers' movement too, but most crucially he played the role of a tireless communist educator who popularized the Marxist outlook and analysis among generations of students through his powerful and mesmerizing lectures.
Thanks to his difference of opinion with the CPI and CPI(M), Professor Singh eventually stopped his formal organizational affiliation, but he continued to see himself as an integral part of the communist movement in the country. Never did he elevate his own formal organizational independence from any communist party into any school of partyless communist praxis. His interaction with communist parties and groups was always marked by warm comradely cooperation and criticism. He was readily available to discuss Marxism with young activists. Till his last moment he keenly followed the discussions and debates within the communist movement, even after he had largely lost his ability to speak he wanted to hear reports of ongoing political developments. He had great hopes in the advances made by the CPI(ML) in Bihar and elsewhere in the Hindi belt and the rise and growth of the AISA as the bold voice of revolutionary student movement. In what was perhaps his last appearance in a political meeting, he came to the commemoration of the centenary of the Ghadr movement in Delhi, even though we missed the opportunity to hear him speak on that occasion.
Randhir Singh’s long communist journey had begun in the 1930s a few years after the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. The journey continued with the youthful energy, clarity of purpose, great revolutionary zeal and unwavering commitment that Bhagat Singh epitomized in India's freedom movement. If by a quirk of history Bhagat Singh were to get a long life and compelled to become a university teacher, we would have perhaps known him as Professor Randhir Singh.
(Historian Prof Harbans Mukhia remembers Prof Randhir Singh)
As we mourn the passing away of a colossus of an intellectual amongst us, Professor Randhir Singh, who remained faithful to the Marxist ideology and way of thinking about society, politics and culture until his last breath, let me recall a delightful episode as a political activist which I shared with him back in 1967 or 68.
I was among the fortunate ones who could call themselves Professor Randhir Singh’s students formally. In 1958-60 I was a studying for my Master’s in History at Delhi University and one of the papers was of Political Theory. It was Professor Singh, who was then teaching at Delhi College, later renamed Zakir Hussain College, who took this course for us. The delight that awaited us in the class has remained with me more than half a century later. His analysis was forever scintillating and was always accompanied by some brilliantly humorous observations.
1967 in some ways gave India a break from the dull and monotonous politics with the Congress exercising a monopoly of power at the Centre and in the states. Spurred by the rise in general rise in prices, there was a buildup of great resentment against the Governments of the day and this got articulated in the elections in 1967 when, as it was said, “the Congress lost all states from Punjab to West Bengal” except at the Centre. This expression of enormous social anger released some powerful new energies and many of us thought the revolution was just knocking on our door. We just needed to open the doors. One must remember that the late 1960s extending to mid-70s was also the period when Marxism hung heavy in the political and intellectual milieu in the world. This was when Cuba had made its revolution under the very inspiring figure of Fidel Castro and the noble persona of Che Guevara was a source of inspiration especially for the youth around the world. Vietnam’s anti-imperialist struggle was also beginning to occupy the world’s attention highlighting the grossest cruelty and injustice perpetrated on humanity by the most “advanced” country, the USA. Back home this was the period when Naxalite uprising had begun which attracted students from elite institutions like St Stephen’s College in Delhi and Presidency in Calcutta to sacrifice their careers and even life for it. Doubts about the tactics employed by early Naxalites were to arise later.
In this highly surcharged scenario, Professor Randhir Singh, Professor Bipan Chandra (who had both formally joined the CPIM) and I (who was with the CPIM for some years) as the junior member decided to visit some villages in Punjab to spread the word, but more, to listen to the people in the villages and learn from them. We identified a few villages which had a left inclination having elected leftist, mainly CPI pradhans. We were joined by the magnificent street theatre group of the legendary Gursharan Singh who was also Professor Randhir Singh’s brother-in-law, his life partner Mohinder ji’s brother. And to top it the most highly talented revolutionary Punjabi poet, Pash, also came along.
If I were to choose the most memorable 5 or 6 days in my life, it would be those. Professor Singh spoke to gatherings in beautiful, lucid Punjabi. Pash recited some fascinating poems of his and was a cheerful company. And Gursharan Singh was amazing with his short skits: biting in humour and striking at the very root of the exploitative political, economic structures and social values especially the subjugation of women.
We also learnt a great deal from our conversations with the small farmers, landless labourers and other poor sections. The one great lesson we learnt was it was not so much pecuniary or material help in small doses but the quest for dignity which mattered more to them. As one small farmer put it to us in his very rustic language: earlier when we would go out to a dhaba and ask for a cup of tea, we would be served tea in broken cups in which dogs had urinated and asked to sit at a distance; now we sit with you people and have tea in the same cups as you all. This became an abiding lesson for us which we could not have learnt in the class lectures on Marxism or from reading books.
Unfortunately, we had misread the euphoria created by the defeat of the Congress in elections: there was no revolutionary upsurge embedded in it; it was a self-corrective manoeuvre within the by then well-established system. The system soon reassert itself and our hope for an imminent revolution subsided. Professor Bipan Chandra even changed his mind about the left and became a champion of the Congress some time in the 1980s. The Naxalites had to bear the brunt of the state’s repression.
Yet, as the inequalities inherent in the system get more and more accentuated, the idea of a more humane world with a greater degree of equality still remains a powerful force.
(Historian and feminist scholar Uma Chakravarti remembers a colleague and comrade.)
When I first began to teach in Miranda House, a women’s college in Delhi University in 1966, Professor Randhir Singh was a teacher of political science in Delhi College, as Zakir Hussain College was then known. In the late 1960s Delhi University was a vibrant space where discussion and debate were nourished and cherished. Randhir Singh was perhaps the most popular and most stimulating teacher on the campus. His classes were legendary. Once he began to teach in the University--- as many college teachers then did regardless of their primary location in a college, his classes were jammed with students trying to attend his class, even getting in through the windows while other teachers found the same route was used to get out from dull and boring lectures delivered by them. A whole generation of young students which included Arvind Das and Dilip Simeon were among his students because Randhir Singh’s classes were attended by students of history, and philosophy, not just political science and were shaped by the famous lectures that he delivered. Ironically Randhir Singhji once shared with me how under the petty institutional tyrannies that we all were forced to work with he was never given Marx to teach, even though he was a well known Marxist—or perhaps because he was one. So he just began to teach his officially allotted classes on Plato and Rousseau and the classics via Marx which worked very well as far as he was concerned.
The legendary teacher however had not wanted to be a teacher to start with. He set out to be a revolutionary and was a full time activist of the Communist Party, a party he naturally gravitated to in Lahore, then a hub of idealistic revolutionary activity. In his famed essay titled “in Lieu of a Bio Data”, a personal favourite of mine he describes his childhood days. Shy and sensitive he took to a life of books and reading. He had a room on the first floor which was full of books and his space. On one of my trips to Lahore I was able to go and see this house and I reported back to him that his room was it had been even though he didn’t have his books. In the brief memoir that he has left us he also recalls a most moving account of the day Bhagat Singh was executed and the surge of emotion in Lahore that he witnessed. There was no way he could be anything but a revolutionary after that.
Randhir Singh’s father warned him to do anything but not join an illegal organisation. That is precisely what he soon did. At school he had studied sciences to perhaps be a doctor—like his father but that would divert from his political activities so he dropped that path and took to what he calls a ‘soft’ discipline—the easiest subject according to his teachers, and dismissed by him as the poorest among the social sciences in his memoir. Be that as it may he became the best teacher of his time perhaps teaching the subject in his own inimitable way. Earlier in Lahore he did full time political work, went to jail and lived in the same jail in which Bhagat Singh was kept, took special classes for other students and even wrote poetry till the Partition came sweeping away many well charted paths along the way. The vibrant political group in Lahore in pre partition days was never the same on either side of the border. Randhir Singhji began to teach in the camp college and gravitated towards teaching as a way to practice his politics in the classroom as well as outside it. As he writes “for me the comforting rationalisation was that in our society, after revolution making, teaching perhaps holds the maximum for a non-alienated life”.
Well said Randhir Singhji, he would have seen the attack on JNU today (and other universities too across India) in similar terms, as a battle of ideas as the finest response to trying to live a non-alienated life by students, teachers and workers. He would have said lal salaam to them by raising his hand as he always did in recent years when he couldn’t speak anymore and he said goodbye each time we left after meeting him.
Lal salaam to him too as he leaves behind a rich and inspiring legacy for all of us to carry forward.