Professor Randhir Singh, an internationally renowned Marxist scholar of political science, who died on January 31 at the age of 95 was a kind of legend among his students. Apart from a brief stint at Jawaharlal Nehru University, he spent his entire academic career at the Department of political science at the University of Delhi.
His lectures were so popular for the sheer brilliance of their content and delivered with such 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. And, of course, among his students are now very successful academics who have proud publication records and many of them attribute their fascination with the subject of political science to Prof Randhir Singh’s lectures they attended at Delhi University.
Prof Singh 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, the CPI theorist, reviewing Randhir Singh’s 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.
Critical of state repression in Punjab
In 1987, Randhir Singh wrote a very influential article that was entitled ‘Marxists and the Sikh Extremist Movement in Punjab’ that was published in the EPW, which was an example of his intellectual and political integrity where he overcame personal considerations in criticising very sharply his lifelong friend the historian Bipan Chandra. He criticised what he called ‘the Ribeiro-Girilal 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 fed 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 beneficiaries have been the BJP-led political tendencies and forces.
He was far away from being an armchair theoretician. Not only was he a leading light of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association for a long period of time and especially in its formative stage, but he was also an active supporter of the trade unions, Kisan Sabhas, human rights groups and the campaigning organisations of women, Dalits, tribal communities and the minority nationalities in the country.
A remarkable quality of Prof Singh was that he was constantly refreshing his ideas and perspectives. He was one of the very few among the Indian academics who understood the importance of the vision of eco-socialism in its critique of capitalism’s environmentally destructive character. In terms 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.
Pritam Singh is a professor at Oxford Brookes University