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Mainstream, VOL LV No 12 New Delhi March 11, 2017

Tribute to Professor Randhir Singh and his Politics

Sunday 12 March 2017

by Kadayam Subramanian

Professor Randhir Singh, who passed away on January 31, 2016, was a truly eminent Professor of Political Theory in the University of Delhi. The first anniversary of his passing away was fittingly observed with the First Randhir Singh Memorial Lecture delivered on January 31, 2017 by the distinguished scholar/journalist, Bernard D’Mello.

The occasion also witnessed the release of the volume Selected Writings of Randhir Singh with an introduction by Professor Manoranjan Mohanty, a former student of Professor Singh. The volume was prepared for presentation to Professor Randhir Singh on his 95th year but that was not to be. Aakar Books, New Delhi has done an excellent job of production of this book which is valuable for students and others alike at this critical stage in our country’s politics and economics. The book contains a collection of 13 brilliant pieces of writing by Professor Singh.

All revolutionaries tend to be poets as well. Randhir Singh, the revolutionary, wrote great poetry about ‘the caravan that reached its destination in 1947 and yet lost its way’. Can anyone sum up more beautifully, yet painfully, the immense tragedy of Partition and its profound and long-lasting consequences for both India and Pakistan in 1947?

Partition deprived Randhir of his home in Lahore and drove him to India as an unwilling refugee. The loss of his home for Randhir led to the creation of two nuclear armed nations in combat with each other, especially today, when peace efforts between the two conflict-torn nations are foundering.

It is indeed heartening that a volume containing Randhir’s poetry was also brought out along with a volume on his political writings.

It is equally significant that the First Randhir Singh Memorial Lecture on “Reimagining ‘New Democracy’: Rethinking Radical Politics” by Bernard D’Mello was delivered on the same day. One expects to receive the printed version soon.

It is difficult for a non-expert to review a book of unsurpassed brilliance such as the volume on Randhir Singh’s selected political writings. One must content oneself by requesting the diligent reader to go through these thought-provoking writings and imbibe their lessons in order to more clearly understand the nature of the complex socio-political transition that is taking place right now in India and the world.

The book is divided into three parts: Part I contains excerpts in five sections from Randhir Singh’s seminal theoretical critique ‘Reason, Revolution and Political Theory’, which was not, Professor Mohanty clarifies, just a response to the British political theorist Michael Oakeshott’s book, Rationalism in Politics and other Essays, but ‘an alternative theoretical treatise on social enquiry’. The issues raised by Randhir Singh in this book were not just those relevant to the 1960s, when it appeared, but are still relevant today in the context of the current debates on ‘science and philosophy, facts and values, and ideology and practice’.

Part II of the book on ‘Marxism and Politics’ contains Randhir’s well known essays on Marxism with a ‘non-determinist, dialectical materialist interpretation and on how the Marxist approach could be applied to concrete situations of the present times’.

A notable omission here is Randhir’s essay published in the Economic and Political Weekly Mumbai on ‘Marxism and the Sikh Extremist Movement in Punjab’, in which he criticised a police officer, a professorial colleague, a leading journalist and also the mainstream Communist Parties for lining up with the state machinery which inflicted violence against the Sikh movement in Punjab in the name of national unity, security and integrity. The ultimate beneficiary of this approach was the Right-wing chauvinist forces of Hindu nationalism, said the author.

In this essay alone, if not his entire corpus, Randhir stood tall with extraordinary moral integrity and courage unlike most other academics at the time.

Another notable omission here is the autobiographical ‘In Lieu of a Biodata’, in which Randhir Singh indirectly takes to task scholars who are obsessed with biodata and CV!

Part III contains five essays on ‘State and Democracy in India’ which deal with the status of democratic and civil rights in India and other live issues such as terrorism and reservations. These issues are analysed by Randhir Singh in a way that is distinct from conventional analysis in India and elsewhere. They need to be read individually and collectively to draw the lessons that the author wishes to convey.

Randhir’s magisterial work, Crisis of Socialism: Notes in Defence of a Commitment (Aakar, 2006), which goes into the collapse of the Soviet Union and the capitalist transformation of China, is available in print but does not seem to have received adequate attention.

The analysis here is reminiscent of the presentation by Bernard D’Mello at this function.

Randhir Singh, as a Professor of Political Theory in the University of Delhi, had influenced generations of students and intellectuals. He devoted his entire life to explaining social reality by systematically using the Marxist method and has not had a liking for any other work. He holds that ‘knowing Marx does make a difference to what sense you make of life; how you understand and how you live and act in this world’.

Randhir was not a pedestrian and boring Marxist scholar. In 1978, I invited him to speak to bureaucrats and scholars in Manipur where I was then posted. Randhir spoke so powerfully that at the end of the lecture, a former Army officer-turned-policeman (a Sikh) rushed to me to announce that he was also a Communist!

Randhir was full of life. He spoke powerfully with a lot of passion, wit, humour and sarcasm. He had a gift for the telling phrase like when he said that a particular scholar had not ‘taken his eyes off the national flag since 1947’! He humorously faulted another Marxist scholar of ‘barefoot Marxism’. When a scholar, seeking promotion, appeared before him with an impressive bundle of books written by him, Randhir told him to write less and read more!

Randhir was increasingly critical of ‘official Marxism’ since it was too mechanistic and deterministic. In opposing communalism, a scholar forgot capitalism and helped it prosper!

Perhaps to a large extent, it was his dislike of ‘mechanical’ Marxism that drove Randhir away from the established Communist Parties he was associated with. What the parties lost the university gained! He was as interesting and witty in his speeches as he was serious, powerful and full of dynamism and conviction in his writings. Harry Magdoff, editor of the venerable Monthly Review, is reported to have told him: ‘I admire the solidity of your analysis as well as the firmness of your commitment.’ An eminent visiting scholar from the US delivered three lectures on dialectical materialism at a meeting at the University of Delhi, chaired by Randhir; Randhir spoke so brilliantly in his concluding observations that the visiting scholar stood up and said: ‘Sir, I wish I had been your student.’ Randhir was just incomparable!

Professor Mohanty points out that as a communist activist and editor of a party journal, Randhir Singh had spent a year in the same prison in which the immortal Bhagat Singh was confined before his execution.

Randhir kept a prison diary during his days in prison.

Professor Mohanty has done well to identify the qualities of Randhir Singh as a legendary teacher who helped transform the discipline of political science at the University of Delhi. He is also interesting in his analysis of what he calls the ‘Marxism of Randhir Singh’.

Randhir left the united CPI around 1950 and after the party split in 1964, he remained for a time with the CPI-M. Thereafter, he dissociated with the formal party frameworks and became an ‘independent Marxist’, a term he didn’t like. From the 1970s he interacted with all streams of the communist movement in India as well as internationally. He gave his time liberally to democratic rights movements across the country.

Randhir saw the need to practice dialectics and perceive historical patterns in the specificity of prevailing situations. He held that practising class politics to fight capitalism can only be successful if the linkages of class were forged with other social categories such as caste, gender, ethnicity, religion and environment. He wrote an influential paper on Marxism and Aesthetics.

He held that the revolutionary struggle for socialism can only succeed if after coming to power, the socialists exercise and defend the democratic rights and civil liberties of the people, since those had been won by them through resolute struggles. The failure to do so led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of capitalist trends in China.

In China, Mao had perceived the problem and came up with the concept of New Democracy though he was not successful in implementing it.

Bernard d’Mello examined the problem in his eloquent exposition which followed the book launch.

In his illuminating lecture, which is yet to appear in print, Bernard D’Mello explained how denial of democracy and civil rights in the Soviet Union after the 1917 Revolution, led to the establishment of the direct rule of a new ruling class, which exploited the peasants and working class to consolidate their own rule over the people. This led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In China too, a similar development had taken place which Mao sought to set right with his powerful concept of New Democracy.

An important point made by Bernard in his speech on New Democracy (pending the written text) is that in both the Russian and Chinese cases, the post-revolutionary scenario witnessed the survival of the pre-revolutionary state machinery contributing to the emergence of a new exploiting class, which in turn defeated the new revolutionary set-up. In China, Mao realised the problem and opted for New Democracy although he was not successful in institutionalising it. The retention of the oppressive state machinery created by Chiang Kei Sheik in the post-revolutionary scenario, led to the emergence of capitalist processes and events leading to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.

The speaker wanted something like New Democracy to come up in India to replace the existing bankrupt bourgeois democracy.

What happened in post-independence India was the formulation of a republican and democratic Constitution in 1950 but the retention of the British-created repressive bureaucratic machinery and criminal laws such as the IPC, CrPC, the Evidence Act etc. No effort was made to reform the criminal laws in particular, which come in the way of assertion of people’s power. Further, a massive paramilitary police structure of about a million-and-a-half men was set up at the Centre in the name of national security. This was not envisaged by the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution.

The transition to democracy in India was non-revolutionary. The new ruling classes have consolidated themselves and control the repressive colonial state machinery. They are not in favour of criminal law reforms and police reforms of any kind. This is somewhat similar to what happened in Russia and China though minus a class-based revolution.

My own experience with Randhir Singh was quite unique. He came into my life in 1972 and we never looked back. Later on, I began my Ph.D work on the Indian communist movement at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and pursued it further with Professor K. Raghavendra Rao of Karnatak University. I was unable to work with Randhir Singh at the University of Delhi owing to technical reasons. However, I was lucky to get Professor Singh as an examiner of my thesis on essentially an empirical-theoretical account of the differences within the communist movement in India from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. I received my degree in 1984 though not without interruptions due to my postings in the North-East.

The Government of India put obstacles in the path of publication of my thesis as a book. The relaxation of the rules in 1989 allowing publication of the writings by civil servants came to my help and the thesis came out as a book in 1989 titled Parliamentary Communism (Ajanta, 1989).

My experience as the Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Union Home Ministry (1979-86) and the empirical analysis that I had to undertake on several aspects of social reality in India confirmed to me the correctness of Randhir Singh’s approach in studying the nature of the Indian state and its policies vis-à-vis the rural poor.

I may narrate some field experiences in the present context:

i) In 1979, I was asked to evaluate the implementation of government policies with regard to protection of civil rights of the Dalits in the State of Tamil Nadu. My extensive field work in the State showed that government policies are not having any impact on the ground. I submitted a detailed report to the Government of India and it was forwarded to the State Government of Tamil Nadu. Apart from futile correspondence, no significant improvement took place in the condition of the Dalits in the State. The setting up of a separate Commission for Dalits in the recent period has only helped to entrench non-functional politicians in them. My recent field work in Tamil Nadu has shown that the dominant Thevar caste, hostile to the Dalits, is fully entrenched in the police machinery and inflicts violence on them.

ii) In 1980, I was asked to write a paper on tribal unrest in Bihar. I visited Ranchi followed by a visit to the Santhal Parganas (now part of the new Jharkhand state). I travelled in an official car (‘Ambassador’ car in those days). I stopped at a tribal village to talk to the tribal people. As I got out of the car, I noticed that a group of tribal people, standing at a distance and watching the car, suddenly began running away. I was confused and looked around. There was a Catholic church nearby. As I walked towards it, I saw a priest coming out. We greeted each other and he said: ‘So, you want to meet the tribal people? Come with me’ and the Italian Father La Greca (that was his name) and I moved towards the village. As soon as they saw Father La Greca, the tribal people came running towards him. The Father spoke to them fluently in the Santhali language and introduced me to them. This was an education for me, a colonially trained bureaucrat. I can never forget that event! My report on tribal unrest in Bihar was appreciated in the Ministry but no action followed on my recommendations.

iii) I did a study for the government on the so-called Naxalite violence in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. I found that most of the so-called Naxalite violence is nothing but a form of poor people’s resistance to the oppressive policies of the upper castes and classes. A series of incidents in central Bihar was interpreted as Naxalite violence by the State machinery and that all were Naxalites. The Central IB repeated the version. Given an uproar in Parliament, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set up a Central Team headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. I was part of the Team which found that many poor agricultural workers and poor peasants had been killed. The Chief Secretary of the State, when summoned to Delhi, reported that 59 people had been killed and none of them was a Naxalite. The report on the discussions in the Ministry were classified as top secret.

iv) This anecdote is about police training. I was attending a seminar on social justice in the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), Hyderabad. Towards the end of the proceedings, some so-called ‘surrendered’ Naxalites sitting in a corner of the seminar hall were requested to speak. They began narrating the police torture they had suffered. This was too painful to hear. Silence pervaded the seminar hall. Suddenly, a uniformed IPS woman officer from the National Police Academy, Hyderabad, a participant, shouted loudly at the so-called Naxalites: ‘When I hear you people, I wish I had brought my revolver.’ The meeting ended and when we came out I asked the woman police officer what her problem was. She replied: “Sir, I am a brilliant officer. I have joined the IPS to serve the nation. I am serving the nation. These people are anti-nationals. I must set them right.”

v) Finally, in the mid-2000s, at a conference of State Chief Ministers and officers in New Delhi presided over by the PM, to consider Maoist violence in Central India, the IB was reported to have stated that Maoist violence in central India was the ‘biggest internal security threat’ to India. At the same time the Planning Commission of India had reported in its document ‘Development Challenges on Extremist Affected Areas’ that Maoist violence was a developmental issue. The report was quietly buried but the IB report was prioritised. Victims of state violence in Central India are mainly Dalits and Adivasis. None of the Ministers dealing with these communities nor the Commissions for the Dalits and Adivasis were present at the conference. What does this tell us about the Indian state?

It is impossible to reject Professor Randhir Singh’s analysis of the Indian state.

The author is a former IPS officer and a scholar.