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India: Prof Randhir Singh - an inspiring Marxist intellectual

by Pritam Singh, 5 February 2016

print version of this article print version - 5 February 2016

Prof Randhir Singh (born on January 11 1922), an internationally renowned Marxist scholar of political science and one of the leading nationally known Punjabi intellectual died on January 31 in Delhi a few weeks after celebrating his 94th birthday. When I was an undergraduate student of economics at Panjab University, Chandigarh and was increasingly getting interested in Marxism and the Naxalite movement, a left wing economist Amit Bhaduri visited the university. I and Harbhajan Halvarvi, an underground Naxalite activist, went to meet him to find out if he could help us in establishing contacts with Marxist intellectuals in Calcutta who could help us in conducting study circles on Marxism in Punjab, and he suggested to us that we should establish contacts with Randhir Singh and Bipan Chandra of Delhi University. That was the first time I heard about Randhir Singh. Since that time and meeting him on his 93rd birthday party in Delhi in January 2015, it has been a long history of friendship and political-intellectual relationship. When I used to look at the intellectual heritage of Punjabi communists, he was the one who inspired me the most.

After I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 1972, I got attracted to Trotskyism and became a part of a small but intellectually the most advanced group in the university. When we as a group thought of establishing contacts with independent Marxist intellectuals and activists who were not totally integrated into the Stalinist parties, Randhir Singh appeared to be the most attractive to us. I contacted him and he invited the whole group to meet him at his house. About 10 of us went to his house and we spent several hours of fascinating discussions on the world communist movement and the Indian left. That meeting remained a memorable part of our mutual engagement.

Randhir Singh had a brief stint at JNU and spent his entire academic career at Delhi University. He was a kind of legend as a teacher. His lectures were so popular for the sheer brilliance of their content and their delivery with passion and engagement that students from as diverse disciplines as Economics, Sociology, Law, Literature, Mathematics and even Physics and Chemistry, attended in large numbers. Unlike most academics these days who pride themselves on their research publications, he was very proud of his teaching achievements. There are, of course, generations of successful academics with impressive research publications in India and abroad who attribute their fascination with the subject of political science to Randhir Singh’s lectures they had attended.

As was characteristic of him, he was hesitant to write or talk about his ‘bio-data’, and at the insistence of the Mainstream journal which published a felicitation volume (1988) after his retirement in 1987, he wrote a short piece called ‘In Lieu of a Bio-Data’ whose opening lines are very disarming: ‘A ‘bio-data’, now, has been a source of perennial embarrassment for me. For I simply don’t have any-I have no credentials at all so far as scholarship in the academy goes. I have only a life to speak of, lived somewhat differently, and on a generous interpretation, may be a little more meaningfully too’. It indeed was a brilliantly meaningful life.

He came from a cultured and educated family background. His father was a reputed physician and surgeon. Randhir Singh also toyed with idea of becoming a doctor but abandoned that aim to pursue his political activities. In his childhood, he was much influenced by the ideals of Bhagat Singh. He was a primary school kid when Bhagat Singh and his comrades were hanged, and he was briefly detained for shouting revolutionary slogans while passing in front of the Lahore Central jail on his way to school that was near to the jail. Many years later, he spent a few months in the ‘Terrorist Ward’ of the same jail where he met some of the surviving comrades of Bhagat Singh such as Kishori Lal, and described those few months as ‘among the happiest in my life’. While pursuing his college studies in Lahore, he not only actively participated in the student movement; he spent the vacations in organising workers in factories and peasants in the villages. The Punjabi writer Balwant Gargi has written that Randhir Singh was intellectually the brightest of all young leftist in Lahore and was almost considered as the Marx of the group. He spent a year in imprisonment for opposing the British government’s war policies, and after his jail term was over, he worked on the editorial staff of the Communist Party’s Punjabi weekly Jang-i-Azadi. He also wrote a biography of the legendary Ghadar hero Baba Gurmukh Singh which was published in 1945 as Ghadar Heroes: A Forgotten Story of the Punjab Revolutionaries of 1914-1915. For some time, he added ‘Josh’ to his name and published a book of Punjabi poems Rahan Di Dhoor (Stormy dust of the paths) in 1950. He also managed to pass MA in political science with first class first from the pre-partition Panjab University. After partition, he took up teaching as a career because, in his view, ‘after ‘revolution-making’, teaching perhaps holds the maximum possibilities for a non-alienated life’.

He attracted critical acclaim in the world of political science with the publication of his book Reason, Revolution and Political Theory (1967) which is a powerful and widely reviewed Marxist critique of the work of the conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshott. The late Mohit Sen, a CPI theorist, reviewing the book in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) had remarked that with this book, Indian political scientists could claim an equal status in the world of international scholarship on political theory.

He wrote a very influential article on Punjab entitled ‘Marxists and the Sikh Extremist Movement in Punjab’ (1987) in EPW in which displaying his exemplary intellectual integrity, he overcame personal considerations in criticising very sharply his lifelong friend the historian Bipan Chandra. He criticised what he called ‘the Ribeiro-Giri Lal Jain-Bipan Chandra line’ for its advocacy of resolving the Punjab crisis by using the repressive apparatus of the state in liquidating the Sikh extremists. He also ridiculed the CPI and CPM for indirectly endorsing this line by joining the BJP in ‘united all party rallies’ against Sikh extremism under the name of ‘unity and integrity of the country’. He argued that this line not only reinforced the class rule of the Indian state, it also feeds the aggressive Hindu chauvinist nationalism. The robustness of his criticism of this line has been proved by the subsequent events that have shown that the main beneficiary of this line has been the BJP-led political tendencies and forces.

Apart from being one of the founders, along with Bipan Chandra, of the Delhi University Teachers Association, Randhir Singh was an active supporter of the trade unions, Kisan Sabhas, human rights groups, student movements and the campaigning organisations of women, Dalits, tribal communities and the minority nationalities in the country. He and Gursharan Singh, the radical Punjabi theatre activist whose sister is married to him, were a source of enormous moral and intellectual support, and political guidance to many left wing activists and organisations in Punjab. In recognition of his intellectual and political contributions, Chandigarh’s Institute for Development and Communications has named its library after him.

He was constantly refreshing his ideas and perspectives. In his magnum opus Crisis of ‎Socialism (2006) of 1100 pages, he displayed a remarkable understanding of the emerging vision of eco-socialism in its critique of both capitalism’s environmentally destructive character as well as that of the old Soviet style socialism. He was one of the very few left-wing intellectuals in India who not only grasped the historical significance of the perspective of eco-socialism but contributed to further articulating and developing it. This is what brought me closet to him intellectually and politically.

In terms of the combination of moral and intellectual qualities, Randhir Singh was one of the tallest public intellectuals India has produced in the last few decades, and the Punjabis can be genuinely proud of him for contributing to weakening if not breaking altogether the national stereotype in India of Punjabis especially the Sikhs as farmers and soldiers.

His was a well lived life of a committed Marxist intellectual and his legacy will live long.

He is survived by his wife Mohinder Kaur, two daughters Shimareet, a doctor in USA and Priyaleen, a professor of architecture in Delhi, and two grandchildren Nishant and Anant.