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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 8 New Delhi February 13, 2016

In Lieu of a Bio-data

Sunday 14 February 2016


Renowned Professor of Political Theory at the University of Delhi and well-known Marxist thinker Prof Randhir Singh, 95, passed away in Delhi on January 31 night. He was cremated at the Lodhi Crematorium in the evening of February 1, 2016 before a large group of students, colleagues, friends and admirers.

Prof Manoranjan Mohanty, a noted political scientist, was are of the first post-graduate students taught by Prof Singh. “I had come to Delhi for an MA and he was my professor,” he disclosed. Subsequnetly Prof Mohanty joined Delhi College, now Zakir Hussain College before joining the Delhi University’s Political Science Department as his colleague. “I was his student, his colleague and very close friend. In fact I am writing a preface to the Selected Works of Randhir Singh. I am so sorry that he is not there to see this,” he added.

Madhulika Banerjee, a DU Political Science teacher, observed: “He was not just a great teacher but a great friend in the classroom. An amazing connect with students—a connect of great scholarship in the most warm, humane and heartfelt way—I saw him as a great icon and inspiration for the kind of teacher one should be.”

Her words were echoed by several others, notably Prof Meenakshi Gopinath, former Principal of Lady Shri Ram College and also one of his students, at the meeting held at the India International Centre on February 5 to celebrate his life and work. The meeting found one of his oldest comrades in the communist movement since his days in Lahore, Primla Loomba, reminiscing about that period and her association with him. Others who spoke included Prof Uma Chakravarty, Prof Harbans Mukhia and Gautam Navlakha. Both Prof Chakravarty and Gautam had come in close touch with him during their work in the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) while Prof Mukhia had worked with him in the CPI-M in the university.

A tireless champion of civil liberties, Prof Randhir Singh had a deep empathy for the toiling people, especially the downtrodden. His old association with the CPI-M did not deter him from lashing out at the party’s role in West Bengal in Nandigram and Singur under the Buddhadab Bhattacharjee Government. Though he was not a member of any political party at the time of his death, he never lost his communist conviction which he preserved till his last breath.

Prof Randhir Singh, who became Head of the Department of Political Science in the University of Delhi, was the author of Crisis of Socialism: Notes in Defence of Commitment; Reason, Revolution and Political Theory; Of Marxism and Indian Politics; and Five Lectures in Marxist Mode.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

While remembering him we reproduce two of his articles that he sent to us for publication in this journal. We are also carrying a tribute by one of his students.

o o o

The following ‘autobiographical note’ was written by Prof Randhir Singh in response to a request for his bio-data for a proposed publication in his honour. It was first published in Mainstream (March 12, 1988).

In Lieu of a Bio-data

There is a certain inevitability about it. Sooner or later someone was bound to ask me, again, for my bio-data.

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. Here, very sketchily, then is some of the more public part of the story, for whatever it is worth.

Childhood, they say, is important, always and in many ways. For me it was a rather unhappy childhood, very bleak and altogether lonely. I literally lived and survived on books, which partly explains my life-long love for and involvement with them. This childhood, possibly, also left me with a certain sensitivity for the reality of suffering in the human situation of our time.

Over this childhood loomed large the heroic figure of Bhagat Singh. A morning is still vividly etched on my mind, the morning after he and his comrades were hanged. I was detained, briefly, while passing in front of the Lahore Central Jail on my way to the primary school in the neighbourhood. The army and the police, a surging sea of humanity, tears in each eye and the proud faces, portraits, of the martyrs everywhere—and the defiant unending cry of “Inquilab Zindabad”... That morning was born a dream which, I believe, in some form or the other, has always stayed with me. Years later I was to spend a few months, among the happiest in my life in the “Terrorist Ward” of this very prison with some of the surviving comrades of Bhagat Singh—Kishori Lal and others—who had in the meantime joined the Communist Party.

Thus I grew up. And in due course, on the eve of the Second World War, I again came to Lahore, this time for my studies at a college there. My father, a remarkable man in his own mixed sort of way—a brilliant physician and surgeon, profoundly religious and puritanical, with a rather deadly combination of Gandhi and Lenin in his head—sensing the turbulence inside me, his only son, had advised: “Do anything out there, but don’t join some illegal organisation.” Predictably, this was the first thing I did on reaching Lahore. Even as I was searching for it, the Communist Party found me. When my father admonished me that I had shown scant regard for the family, I wrote back: “I have found my real family.” The Communist Party meant this and very much more in those days, to so many of us at least. Besides, there was a certain pride in being a Communist. I still remember from those days two lines from the poet C. Day Lewis. A question and an answer, they went something like this:

Why do we on seeing a Red feel small?

For he is future walking to meet us.

Fifty years later, badly buffeted, some of this pride yet remains. Incidentally, this is also how I came to Marxism—beginning with whatever Marxism was then available with the Comintern and permitted or possible, under the British rule, in this country.

Followed years of hectic activity in the students’ movement and with the Communist Party, including entire vacations spent with the workers in factories away from Lahore or with the peasants in their villages.

We were good students, among the best in the University. I duly qualified for admission to the Medical College. But it was clear that the demands of ever-increasing political work would be impossible to reconcile with those of a study in medicine. I decided to shift to a ‘soft’ discipline. I was advised that Political Science was, possibly, the easiest subject to get your master’s degree in! That, perhaps, is one reason why I could never take to it seriously. Later on I was to discover that it is also, possibly, the poorest of all the social sciences. And if I may suggest, one reason—but only one, for there are other important reasons also—for its poverty as a social scientific enterprise, is its near-universal ignorance of or hostility towards Marxism as social science; though, in recent years, it has not been averse to recognising Marxism as “political thought”.

Be that as it may, in a couple of years even the pursuit of Political Science had to be given up for full-time work with the Communist Party—on the party wage of, I think, rupees twentyfive per month. For most of the next five years and more, till the partition, I moved around the villages and towns of Punjab, organising the people and persuading them to move through their struggle for freedom towards a social revolution in this country.

Soon enough I landed in prison, charged with opposition to “the war effort” of the British Government in India. (Incidentally, it was “the people’s war” period!) Released, after nearly an year’s imprisonment, I was for some time put under the usual restrictions on movement, meetings, etc. I filled up the time with a stint on the editorial staff of the Party’s Punjabi weekly, Jang-i-Azadi. I also started work on a biography of the still active legendary revolu-tionary, Baba Gurmukh Singh, a fragment of which was later published as Ghadar Heroes: A forgotten Story of the Punjab Revolutionaries of 1914-15 (1945).My professor at the University—he was none other than Dr J.N. Khosla—who was rather fond of me, insisted that I use this opportunity to at least finish my studies. The Party gave me the required leave for a couple of months, and my professor provided me with the necessary certificate of attendance at classes—which, I believe, partly overlapped the period I was in prison! I duly took the examination—and was soon back in villages. (The degree, a first-class-first, was to come in very handy later in my life, at Delhi.)

Came the great popular struggles, the near-revolutionary upsurge of the mid-forties, the haggling and compromising presided over by Imperialism, the consequent riots, the partition, and more riots—and Indian Independence. A faith had been kept and betrayed. Those were glorious and yet ignominy-laden years, the years at once of victory and defeat for the Indian people. More specifically, it was the final success, however ambiguous, of a Gandhi and bourgeois-led politics, and a definitive failure, however temporary, of our Communist politics, which included that last adventurist flourish with BTR as well as the heroic struggle in Telengana. One lived, shared and fought through it all—and survived. Some of this experience, intensely personal as well as political and collective, found expression in a small collection of poems in Punjabi—Rahan Di Dhoor (1950). In one of these, I recorded:

A caravan has reached the destination,

And yet lost its way.

I never wrote poetry again—don’t ask me why. Only very recently I have learnt that early in 1951 itself, a distinguished critic had, in a review, hailed my book as a truly significant work of the period. A contemporary scholar even considers it to be the best poetry of those five years, though, as he told me, he had difficulty in locating its author!

I would appear that, as in scholarship, so in poetry, and may be in much else besides, I am a genuine “might have been”.

I came to Delhi sometime after the partition, having lived with death the previous few months. Uprooted, a refugee, everything around me including my politics in shambles, I sought a new foothold in life—only temporarily, I had then thought, mistakenly. I started teaching at what was then known as the Camp College, an institution set up by the Punjab University at Delhi for refugee students and teachers. Even as I began to enjoy my new vocation, the Party, passing through a series of crises, both internal and external, increasingly opted for ‘peaceful’, “parliamentary” ways. And so it came to pass, with other tangible and not-so-tangible factors contributing, that, over a period of time—during which I still produced from Delhi its theoretical monthly in Punjab, Sada-Jug—I just opted out of the Party. [Later on, after its formation, I was to spend a few years in the Communist Party (Marxist).] For me the comforting rationali-sation was that in our society, after ‘revolution-making’ teaching perhaps holds the maximum possibilities for a non-alienated life. Here, if you want, but only if you want, earning your living can be at the same time living your life. So teaching it was to be for me for the rest of my life. Soon I moved from the Camp College to Delhi College, where I was to teach for nearly two decades; then, after a brief stint at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in 1972, I joined Delhi University, rather late in life, as Professor of Political Theory.

Thus it is that having spent some of the best years of my life elsewhere, away from the academy, and the rest only teaching, scholarship has simply passed me by. Hence as I said at the beginning, “bio-data” has been a perennial embarrassment—for I never managed to acquire one as a scholar. I have no research degrees, no string of scholars working ‘under’ me, no fellow-ships, no research projects, no study or other academic leaves, no “seminaring”, national or international, nothing—not even a visit abroad, that has come to certify any sort of achievement or standing as a scholar these days!

Recently, the Indian Council of Social Science Research, perhaps wanting to be helpful, more than once extended me an invitation involving “a foreign visit” each time. Having somehow missed or evaded every such opportunity or activity in the past, I thought, I would make a virtue of it—and declined. Besides, it seemed a bit too late in life for me to now get started on this. Perhaps I also wanted to make certain that there is at least one professor in this country who has not been abroad!

Incidentally, the Council have also very generously offered me a National Fellowship which I have accepted. So I may yet end up as a scholar; though, I am not too sure. For the subject on which I have chosen to write a brief monograph is rather away from what have been my major concerns as a teacher—Western Political Thought, Contemporary Political Theory, Marxism. My subject is so obviously political, not scholarly; I seek on understanding of Indian politics which may, it is hoped, help towards “a more effective people’s intervention in what is happening in our country”. What is more, contrary to the current fashions in the world of Marxian scholarship, where “orthodoxy” is almost a dirty word and a comfortable and comforting “post-Marxism” is abroad, I visualise my work as an exercise in Marxist orthodoxy!

If I have, most of the time, done none of the things that scholars are normally supposed to do, I have been, most of the time, busy with what they are normally supposed to keep away from, which is as well, for life has been such fun this way. I have thus functioned, in the profession and the university, more as a millitant on the Left—even when revising the syllabi in Political Science whenever or wherever I got the oppor-tunity to do so, or in putting in a rather noisy plea on behalf of Political Theory in general and Marxism in particular on the campuses of the Indian universities. And the aim was always hegemony and not factional nor economic or political gains.

Over the years, teaching and related work apart, I have, along with many others of course, spent a great deal of time helping build up the teachers’ movement, fighting for democratic rights and reforms in the university—with the Vice-Chancellors and against them, carrying on socialist education among workers, students and teachers, including school teachers, running Marx Clubs and putting together socialist groups [one such effort, incidentally, went into the making of the Communist Party (Marxist) on Delhi University campus], writing and publi-shing pamphlets and bulletins, editing or producing or distributing journals like Enquiry, Socialist Digest, The Marxist Review, etc., campaigning on issues like Vietnam and Czechoslovakia, collecting signatures for Iranian students and others, mobilising and marching for all sorts of popular causes, associating with almost any radical initiative on the campus and every revolutionary venture off it, an association which on occasions, quite understandably, even ended in a love-hate relationship—and so on. That is how it has been for the most part over nearly forty long years.

But if scholarship has passed me by, I have not done too badly as a teacher. At least that is what my students, colleagues, and so many others tell me. And I am inclined to believe them; may be, because I very much want to. I have taught in the departments of History, Political Science, and occasionally Philosophy. Students have come to my class from various other disciplines, even other universities at Delhi, from Economics and Sociology, Law and Literature, Mathematics, even Chemistry and Physics. (Perhaps Commerce and Business Management alone have been missing!) And they have given me abundantly of their love and affection, and thoughtful appreciation. This has been compensation enough for whatever I may have missed out on not being a scholar. It was compensation enough especially during periods of bitter conflict and controversy that, inevitably, have been a persistent feature of my long career as a teacher. It is the students who have spoken of “a legend in Delhi University”. And it is, above all, to them that I trace the real source or basis of an observation Bertell Ollman has made, though it is also expressive of his own characteristic generosity. After his recent visit to Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru universities, he writes: “If I wasn’t already over 50, I would probably say something like when I grow up I want to be a professor like Randhir Singh.” Yes, teaching has been compensation enough.

At one of the farewell meetings at Delhi University, they questioned me on the subject of my teaching. I responded that given the “functional rationality” governing the organised structures of teaching and research, so that scholarly writing is increasingly addressed not to problems of publics but to peers and to prestige and preferment in the highly bureau-cratised academic professions, and given the growing, and often mindless, specialisation in the social sciences (including Political Science) which is resulting in a situation where fewer and fewer people were hearing more and more about less and less—given all this, a certain lack of conventional academic scholarship may even be an advantage; it may be of some help not only towards recognising and addressing ourselves to the real problems of our society but also in not missing the wood for the trees and seeing the social reality as it essentially is, “a structured interdependence of parts”, a whole—complex and differentiated and rich with the dialectics of its mediations, but a whole nevertheless.

Incidentally, I also told them, my students and colleagues, that for one speaking for Marxism, my knowledge of Economics is shockingly poor and that I have always regretted it. But this lack, perhaps, has made me that much more sensitive to the human, philosophical and above all political dimensions of Marxism. Of course, I added that: “politics as revolution” is central to Marxism, at least to Marxism as Karl Marx practised it. “Marx was before all else a revolutionist,” as Engels put it.

These are, however, somewhat peripheral considerations. I had gone on to suggest that its strictly academic aspects apart, teaching could be viewed as a form of “Robinhooding”, which even as it functions within the system, yet seeks to stretch it to its limits. Of course this “Robinhooding”, this functioning as a radical or a Marxist inside the class-room, has its problems, and its risks too. The most important problem is that it needs to have a certain quality about it which, above all, demands a genuine and acknowledged familiarity with the mainstream scholarship in the concerned field or discipline, one’s reservations about it notwithstanding. Lacking this, it can easily degenerate into vulgar propaganda or empty moral rhetoric.

As a student coming from the discipline of English literature, in a complimentary reference, I once said: “One needs to have that rare combination of idealism and intelligence.” As for the risks, the most important concerns, the securing or retaining of a job, I must admit that I have been rather lucky in this regard. It is true that whenever interviewed, the selection commi-ttees almost invariably turned me down. Yet the appointments came, by invitation, including the professorship in 1972, when, incidentally, seeing everyone making a bee-line for the Jawaharlal Nehru University, I chose instead to opt for the University of Delhi.

“Robinhooding” has its minor risks also. For me it has meant another continuous struggle from the day I started teaching. At the very outset they asked for an undertaking “not to teach subver-sion”. Later they stopped you, again and again, from teaching a particular course. For long years, they would let me teach only Plato and not Marx—so that you learn to teach Marx via Plato, which is not only possible but is in some ways far more effective also, for obvious reasons. They can organise harassment and humiliation for you in so many diverse ways, with the lumpen elements in the academic community thrown in.... One has struggle against all this and them all along, and with a reasonable measure of success too. My only regret is for the students and teachers who, now and then, had to suffer for their association with me.

There are problems and there are risks. And for better credibility here one must learn to say “no” to some at least of the innumerable benefits, the cooptive attractions the system has to offer even to a radical teacher, though this “no” is only of symbolic value. But the most important thing is to be aware of the limitations, even ambiguities, inherent in the very nature of “Robinhooding” as an academic exercise. And for this reason one needs to be very modest about what one is doing or achieving here.

What is more, insofar as it is an exercise within the system, it is always in danger of itself becoming a form of cooption into it. In fact, the more you succeed in what you are doing, the more you are also, in an important sense, lending legitimacy to the system as a whole. Such is the dialectics implicit in this mode or style of teaching. That is why the quality of it is of decisive importance. Even so, how effective it is in its own modest manner, and how it contributes to any qualitative departures in the system, will be determined by other, larger social forces at work in the historical process in this country. We can only recognise and try to help these in whatever way we can.

I will only add that what goes on within the discipline of Political Science or its class-rooms, or for that matter, within the universities and the social science institutes of this country, is only of margianl relevance to the problems and prospects of the Indian people’s struggle for a better future. But this is where we work—the teachers, students, scholars, all others. And it is axiomatic, for most of us, that we make our efforts where we work, or we shall make no effort at all.