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.