The Last of a Kind: A Student’s Reminiscences of the professor Randhir Singh

Joe Athialy/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
06 February, 2016

If professor Randhir Singh was alive today, chances are he would not remember me. It is also entirely possible that he may not remember thousands like me who traversed the portals of Delhi University’s Faculty of Arts during the four decades and more that he taught there, retiring a professor of political science. In the early and mid 1980s, Singh, already in his sixties, was an unlikely superstar in the department. Yet unlike most superstars, there was something about him that was forbidding. Perhaps it was his reputation as a teacher, which had assumed near mythical proportions, or because he discouraged proximity. I don’t remember seeing hangers-on around him, or hearing that he played favourites by doling out patronage to chosen ones—an allegation that is often levied at Indian academics.

He should have known me. After all, I got a comfortable first division in his paper, a course he taught on political thought. But I suspect he did not set much store by marks and grades. He was generous,and I don’t remember anybody failing in the paper—not an easy feat, since it included studying the works of political thinkers such as Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes among others. “Singh’s was the only paper I worked for,” recalled Ambhoj Sinha, a former Masters of Arts student who studied political science, and is currently a lawyer with the Supreme Court. “He made the subject interesting,” he said, before adding, “The rest of the MA papers, we just mugged.”

Singh’s weekly classes were an event on our calendars. A healthy student crowd, even lazy “hostellers” like me, would start milling around the gigantic Arts faculty lecture hall at which he was due. A hush would descend as he approached the gothic corridors. You could recognise him from a mile. Erect and imposing without being intimidating, he had a free-flowing white beard that was not tied in the conventional Sikh fashion, always dressed in a white or blue bush-shirt, his trademark sky-blue turban worn loose. That Singh emanated the inner calm of a ragi—who chants verses from the Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs—was in sharp contrast to the impassioned way in which he delivered lectures. For most of the time, he spoke extempore, but every now and then, he would clip the ends of his spectacles into the folds of his turban near his ears, their bridge balancing on the tip of his nose so that he could simultaneously consult his notes and address the class. The point, once made—gently, with a twinkle of the eye and a smile—would be accompanied by a twitch of the shoulder. The spectacles would then disappear into his pocket.

So compelling were his lectures that it was only after it ended that one realised that the gigantic lecture hall was packed, with students spilling out on to the corridor. This was the case as far back as 1970, said Dilip Simeon, a former student of Singh’s who was then a fresh post-graduate student, and subsequently taught history at Delhi University.

Singh was an old-school Marxist in the true sense of the term, but was neither sectarian, nor hidebound. He was drawn to Marxism because of the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, whose 1931 hanging triggered mass protests across the country, including in Lahore, where Singh was a school-going child. In his book, Marxism, Socialism, Indian Politics: A View from the Left, Singh writes about the profound impact the event had on him in an essay titled ‘In Lieu of a Biodata.’ “Years later I would spend a few months, among the happiest in my life, in the ‘Terrorist Ward’ of this very prison”—where Bhagat Singh was interned—“with some of the surviving comrades of Bhagat Singh—Kishori Lal and the others, he wrote and went on to note that these comrades had in the meantime, joined the Communist Party of India, or the CPI.

Singh, too, joined the CPI before Partition, but there is no clarity on how long he stayed, although he remained a communist till his death, influencing many students. “My one memory of him was the lucidity with which he taught a subject we all considered scary,” said Pushpinder Grewal, another former student of history at St Stephen’s who is currently the Delhi State Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M). “This quality, no other teacher had. He introduced me to Marxism and whatever I am today is because of him.” Others such as Simeon, miles removed from Grewal politically, remembered that they fought with the history department to have Singh reinstated as their teacher after he was replaced by the professor Frank Thakurdas, a well-known liberal political theorist. Singh’s influence reached farther than his classroom. For instance, the Punjabi folk theatre artist Gursharan Singh, who audaciously took his cultural performances to the terror affected areas of Punjab in the 1980s and who was Singh’s brother-in-law, often acknowledged the professor’s influence on him.

His Marxist teachings, however, were not his only legacy. After all, not every Marxist professor had students thronging to him in droves from across disciplines to comprehend obscure political philosophy. Though the late 1970s and much of the 1980s, social sciences in Delhi University comprised a star-studded pantheon of teachers—RS Sharma, Sumit Sarkar and Parthsarathy Gupta in the history department, and professors such as Andre Beteille, Veena Das, JPS Uberoi at the Delhi School of Economics and Sociology. None enjoyed the cult following that Randhir Singh did.

In an age where there was nothing beyond All India Radio and Doordarshan, Singh was a born communicator. He had a passion for political thought as a discipline, and meted out the same treatment to Machiavelli and Hobbes as he did to Marx. If he prescribed the work of New Left philosopher Lucio Colletti as a means to understand Rousseau, he would also recommended liberal thinkers such as Ernst Cassirer and Leo Strauss to help students understand canonical theorists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes.

I suspect being a practising communist helped him in ways neither he nor his students ever fully realised. In my years of learning, two teachers stood out: Randhir Singh and Bipin Chandra—both from the CPI stable. In another part of the world, some of Britain’s best historians, such as EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and EJ Hobsbawm, too, emerged out of the Communist Party Historians Group, an influential British Marxist collective that was formed under the aegis of Communist Party of Great Britain. Perhaps it was the political climate during his career, much of which was characterised by activism among peasants and workers unions, including the historic Telangana movement, that shaped Singh as a professor. Perhaps it is what inspired him to move beyond sheer careerism and the publish-or-perish imperative that often consumes professional academics.

Singh wrote of this in the ‘Biodata’ essay:

“I have had no string of scholars working under me, no fellowships, no research projects, 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!”

His PhD was rejected by the Delhi University, and Singh remained and died a simple post-graduate. It was his sheer popularity as a teacher that compelled the university to bestow on him a teaching position. Few can match this in independent India.

Though Singh has written about his early political involvements, little is known about what he did later. Former Cambridge scholar and retired Delhi University history teacher Vijay Singh said that within Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA)—the most powerful teachers union in the country—the professor, at various points, supported the CPI(M) and even the Congress party. His last agitprop initiative was in the 1970s, to set up a socialist club in DU that hosted a number of Leftist scholars such as Mohit Sen and Jairus Banaji. In the wake of the 1984 riots, Vijay Singh said, the professor changed his position, turning away from the Congress, though he never stated it publicly. From here on, he appeared to have veered towards the Indian People’s Front (IPF)—a sort of parliamentary Maoist political intiative of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, or CPI(ML), which had begun finding support within DUTA. Vijay Singh also remembers the professor as being active with the Nepalese Maoist movement in Delhi, which may be why, following his death, the newspaper The Tribune quoted the former Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, an alumnus of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who called him “one of the greatest Marxist scholars of our time.” In 2001, the professor addressed the IPF-sponsored People’s Conference Against Globalisation,  an international conference held at the Constitution Club in Delhi, and gave a talk on democracy and globalisation.

It may appear clichéd to say that the professor’s death marked the end of an era. But in his lifetime, few rivalled him as a teacher. Universities are no longer the same and neither are the students, and as recent events in Hyderabad have shown, nor are their interactions. The Communist movement has been unable to reinvent itself. Those that survive—the CPI and CPI (M)—have not thought it fit to even issue a formal statement of condolence. Perhaps, in their peculiar blinkered fashion, they did not see him as a mass leader. But those on the right who are perpetually ranting against the Left “establishment” in Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University would do well to look for their own Randhir Singh, if they hope to even stand a chance of winning the ongoing battle of ideas.