Farewell Teacher, Comrade, and Friend
by Jyotsna Kapur
When my brother called to tell me that that Professor Randhir Singh was no more I wanted, more than anything else, to be in Delhi. I wanted to see him one last time with my own eyes and to hug him. And, I wanted to be there with the crowd of people — of students, friends, and comrades, all of us — whom he had inspired in so many different ways, to bid him a last farewell.
I had studied political theory with Prof. Randhir Singh at Delhi University in the early 80s, but I had known him from way earlier as a child — quite literally grown up with him as our families were close friends and neighbors. I first came to know Randhir Singh as my parents’ comrade, colleague, and mentor; someone whom they respected immensely and who was a major attraction of the “meetings” that were a regular fixture in our home. I put quotes around meetings to indicate that in our very run-of-the-mill middle class neighborhood in West Delhi, Patel Nagar to be precise, not only was it unusual to describe adult get-togethers as meetings, but these gatherings were themselves unusual. The adults argued and discussed rather than socialize around food or ritual; they sometimes made posters (I especially loved my mother’s quickly drawn bright strokes on colored chart paper); they ate pretty basic dal roti, but enjoyed fresh salads and a drink or two. They were a fascinating bunch of adults to observe and they made the observation easy by simply ignoring us kids, unless they had something to ask or say to us directly. There were Bhisham Sahni with his twinkling eyes and soft-spoken humor; his wife Sheela ji and her caustic ribbing; Om Bakshi, then a young professor, filled with fire and sarcasm. Bipin Chandra, who was then writing his history textbook, would quiz me to prove to the group that ideas like colonialism could be grasped by children. To my father’s endless amusement, I had once asked him, referring to Randhir: Who is this “ferocious man” and why does everyone listen to him so intently? Years later, when I became Randhir Singh’s student, my father would teasingly ask: So you are going to listen to the “ferocious man?” Because by then I, who could never be on time for anything else, would be ready and eagerly waiting for Randhir Uncle to drive up and pick me up on his way to Delhi University, where I would sit in his class. Over those drives, through his classes, and in common political stands at the University and in Delhi, Randhir Uncle merged fluidly and easily into a comrade and friend with whom I could talk about anything.
For the sake of privacy and brevity, I want to mention four instances that may help explain that transition:
70s: I sense something akin to deep sorrow in our living room and step in to hear Randhir choking on his words as he says in Panjabi: The fascists cut off Victor Jara’s arms and threw the guitar at him! At twelve years old I did not know who they were speaking of, but the idea that fascism is opposed to art, music, in fact life itself — and that we have comrades all over the world — was born. Through the Emergency months, when a plainclothes policeman waited outside our home and we had no idea when this would get over, our friendship mattered. I think I may have heard the word lumpen for the first time in those days and thought it was a Panjabi word.
80s: There was a dowry murder in our neighborhood and along with my friends from Saheli we were working to organize an investigation and bring the neighbors together to rally against the killing. Randhir, who had no time for social niceties otherwise, enthusiastically offered to go with us door to door. It was empowering to see his tall figure in the crowd around our street play. Later I heard he had taken to asking in his classes: Who amongst the students identified themselves as feminists? When a couple of hands would go up he would ask others to learn from them.
November 1984: We returned to the university after the pogrom against Sikhs. Just as he was entering our class a group of goons, possibly Cong I, stepped in and obstructed him from stepping into the classroom. Randhir, who must have been in his sixties then, threw himself on them, saying, “You will not come between me and my class.” From inside, we started a mad scuffle to break apart the group and the goons now withdrew and stood by the door. Randhir started the class, which had people sitting on the floor and standing in the back, with these words: You think you can destroy the Sikhs and, yes, you may well succeed. But, you will also destroy the idea of India.
December 2015: This is the last time I met him. He is living with his daughter Priyaleen, herself a brilliant, caring, and generous person. As always, I am expected to give him a “report” on what I am working on. I tell him that I see my work as continuing what he has taught so many of us and I summarize his work for him, thus:
Ask, not what Marx would think but how he would think in your own context and times. Understand Marx as a political thinker and human being who was passionately engaged with his world and in love with his species.
The neo-liberal era is the end of a truce between labor and capital; the Keynesian welfare state was strictly a temporary phenomenon which in the longer run is totally unviable for capitalism. . . . Now with globalization it is a return to “normal capitalism.” (Singh 2006: 749)
Before 1947, we were part of a global system, well-integrated into a world market economy. We were globalized, so to speak, but we did not like it. Our globalization then also had a name, imperialism, and we struggled against it. . . . The struggle against capitalism in the Third World may prove decisive for the future of socialism in the first world as well. (Singh 1999: 32-33)
The destructive potential of capitalism has acquired a new quality in the form of an ecological crisis . . . [producing] a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the environment. Human actions that in the past merely produced local environmental problems now have, in their cumulative outcome, most dangerous global implications. Capitalism has brought humankind at a turning point in its history. (Singh 2006: 929)
Socialism must learn to practice a real and meaningful democracy, to make real the promises of bourgeois democracy . . . whose “one person one vote” cannot even guarantee the right to life.
Once the promise of liberation, socialism has now become a question for survival too. [The h]uman species needs socialism not only to realize its potentials but even to survive. That is how the chances of survival and realization of the potentials of both [the] human species and socialism have come to be interlinked today. Which also means that the future of socialism is as bleak or bright as that of humankind. (Singh 2006: 962)
It is a terribly inadequate summary for a life lived fully — for whom ideas were not to be hidden away in books but developed in debate and practice. It all goes back to how Singh had first come to know Marx: as a young man who joined the Communist Party (then illegal) under British colonial rule; and in jail where he spent a year, including a few months in the “Terrorist Ward” with the surviving comrades of Bhagat Singh such as Kishori Lal. He was to later recall these days as the happiest in his life (see Singh 1990). He remained true to that formative experience, to the principle that had animated the generation that fought against colonialism for a revolution in the name of dignity and freedom for the worker, the farmer, the poor, and the exploited. In a lecture after his retirement, he explained the ground upon which his commitment to Maxism was built by quoting these lines from Bhagat Singh (Singh 1999: 28):
This war will go on so long as the Indian toiling masses are exploited by a handful of exploiters, be they purely British, or British and Indian in alliance, or even purely Indian.
Randhir Singh turned the classroom into a genuinely transformative experience — teaching us to think for ourselves, teaching in the spirit of Marx (1843 ) that the mark of intellectual honesty was “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and not afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” As others (Sandeep Bhushan, Pritam Singh, Neera Chandhoke) have written, Prof. Randhir Singh was a legend in the university and a formidable one at that; someone who profoundly prized his independence and this included a revulsion for lackeys and fans. So here was this anomaly: an impassioned teacher who would not tolerate a cult of admirers and yet faced frequent and loud opposition.
Before the term “public intellectual” was imported from the US academy and finalized the split between the academy and public life, Randhir Singh was practicing what an intellectual is supposed to do — i.e., engage the public in oppositional thinking. After all, it was not in the hopes of learning how to pass exams in political science, but rather to learn about politics, that students from all over the university thronged his classes, including those who were not students. And, when not allowed to teach in the Department of Political Science, he taught in the Department of History. Then, not allowed to teach Marx, he taught the great liberals — Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham and Mill — and Marx through the liberals. Teaching Marx this way gave an unforgettable lesson in how holistic Marx’s analysis is — its object of study nothing less than humanity itself and its place on this planet, and, its ambition, “a truly rich life for us all.” Such a fundamental and far-reaching understanding of the social function of intellectual labor cannot be broken down into specializations and disciplines. Randhir Singh, consequently, had little patience with academic debates of the narrow kind, especially through the dark postmodern era, which were preoccupied more with establishing ownership over a tiny idea rather than advancing critical thinking. He never felt the need to go through every tangential line in academic nitpicking, but directly went to Marx — and interpreted him.
I keep thinking about our last meeting — how inadequate my little summary was of his life’s work and what he had meant to me. Yet, he had looked at me and, even as his voice was almost completely gone, whispered: Thank you. I hugged him because I knew we were losing him. And I know he knew it too that this might be the last goodbye. I told him how I had no words to describe the silence and determination with which he put up with the sheer suffering of his long illness, except that he had once told me that he was a survivor. A glint of approval brightened his eye.
“Death appears,” Marx (1844) tells us, “as the harsh victory of the species over the particular individual, and seemingly contradicts their unity; but the particular individual is only a particular species-being, and, as such, mortal.” The species goes on, richer with the labor of people like Professor Randhir Singh. To honor his work we, who remain, must carry on. He gave us enough to work with. And, work there certainly is, right here in our universities, which are being dismantled in India and in the US by the neoliberal project that would rather turn out robotic, obedient, yet rage-filled, insecure tools for the market and the military rather than thinking, creative human beings who would restore humanity to itself and the planet — before it is too late. But, you, Comrade, will be sorely missed. Comrade Randhir Singh, Laal Salaam!
Marx, Karl. 1844. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/epm/3rd.htm (accessed November 24, 2015).
Marx, Karl. 1843 . “Letter to Arnold Ruge.” In Early Writings, by Karl Marx, 209. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
Singh, Randhir. 1990. “In Lieu of a Bio-Date.” In Of Marxism and Indian Politics, by Randhir Singh, 13-20. New Delhi : Ajanta Publications.
–. 1999. “Of Nationalism in India: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”Mainstream, August: 27-36.
–. 2006. Crisis of Socialism: Notes in Defense of a Commitment. Delhi: Ajanta.
Jyotsna Kapur is a Professor of Cinema Studies and Sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is the author, most recently, of The Politics of Time and Youth in Brand India: Bargaining with Capital (London: Anthem Press. 2013).