Politics | Asians can learn from radical Indian thinker Randhir Singh

Asians can learn from radical Indian thinker Randhir Singh

Kadayam Subramanian February 18, 2017 7:03 PM (UTC+8)
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Radical scholars, activists and others in India assembled on January 31, 2017, in New Delhi, to both pay respects to and learn from the departed eminent scholar/activist Randhir Singh. The occasion was the posthumous release of a book titled Selected writings of Randhir Singh (Aakar Books, 2017). The introduction to the volume was written by Professor Manoranjan Mohanty, a student of Randhir Singh. The occasion was the first anniversary of the professor’s passing away.

Randhir Singh was a distinguished Professor of political theory and philosophy in the university of Delhi. The scholar/journalist Bernard D’Mello gave the first Randhir Singh Memorial Lecture on the theme of Re-imagining ‘New Democracy: Rethinking Radical Politics.

The 13 representative political writings of Professor Singh were collected in the volume. They are expected to go a long way in helping scholars, students and activists alike in making sense of the murky social and political developments in India today with its linkages to the wider world.

Revolutionaries tend to be poets as well. A great poem (in the Punjabi) by Randhir Singh referred to India’s freedom movement and its culmination in 1947 and said the ‘caravan’ had reached its destination and had yet lost its way. The reference was to the contradictory process in which freedom was achieved in India in combination with the bloody Partition of the country leading to the emergence of ‘Hindu’ India and ‘Muslim’ Pakistan as two distinct entities.

Partition deprived Randhir Singh, who was born in 1922 in pre-Partition Punjab and lived in Lahore (now in Pakistan) till 1947 when he had to move to India as a reluctant refugee. The loss of a home in Lahore for Randhir Singh led to what has come to be two nuclear armed neighbors today in tragic combat with each other. Peace moves have consistently foundered.

A volume of Randhir Singh’s poetry was also brought out on the occasion of publication of his selected writings.

Bernard D’Mello’s thought provoking First Randhir Singh Memorial Lecture ‘Re-imagining ‘New Democracy’: Rethinking Radical Politics’ was delivered on the same occasion.

It is difficult review a book of such unsurpassed brilliance as the present work by Randhir Singh. The reader must go through the selected essays and imbibe the lessons in them to move towards comprehensive deconstruction of the growing global disorder today.

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 1960’s when it appeared in print but are still relevant today in the context of current debates on ‘science and philosophy, facts and values, and ideology and practice’.

Part II on ‘Marxism and Politics’ contain Randhir’s well known essays on Marxism with a ‘non-deterministic, 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 celebrated 1987 article published in the Economic and political Weekly, Mumbai on ‘Marxism and the Sikh Extremist movement in Punjab’, in which he castigated what he called the ‘Ribeiro-Girilal Jain- Bipan Chandra line’, putting together a policeman, journalist and historian with indirect support from the the mainstream communist parties approving state repression against the Sikh extremist movement in Punjab in the name of protecting ‘national unity, security and integrity’. The ultimate beneficiary of the approach was, of course, the right-wing chauvinist Hindu nationalism, according to the author.

Randhir was never afraid of taking unpopular positions.

In this essay alone, if not his entire corpus, Randhir stood tall displaying extraordinary moral integrity and courage. This cannot be said of most scholars at the time.

There were other notable omissions as well.

Part III contains five essays on ‘State and Democracy in India’ which deal with the status of democratic and civil rights movements in the country and the live issues of terrorism and reservations. The analysis is couched in a way that is distinct from conventional approaches. The essays need to be read individually and collectively to draw the lessons for the present.

Randhir’s magisterial work ‘Crisis of Socialism: Notes in Defense of a Commitment’ (Aakar, 2006), which goes into the collapse of the Soviet Union and the capitalist transformation of China, is very much available but seems to have received lesser attention than it deserves.

As professor of political theory and philosophy in the university of Delhi, Professor Singh influenced generations of students and intellectuals. He devoted his entire life to explaining social reality by using the Marxist method. He has not opted for any other mode. He held 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 or boring Marxist scholar. In 1978, I had invited him to speak to bureaucrats and scholars in Manipur where I was then posted. Randhir spoke so powerfully and convincingly 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 with a lot of commitment, passion, wit 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’ and accused him wittily of practicing ‘barefoot Marxism’! When a scholar, seeking promotion, appeared before him with an impressive bundle of books published by him, Randhir told him to write less and read more!

Randhir was increasingly critical of ‘official Marxism’ since it tended to be mechanistic and deterministic. In opposing communalism, some forgot capitalism and helped it prosper!

It was perhaps his dislike of the ‘mechanical’ approach to Marxism that drove Randhir away from the established communist parties he had been associated with. However, what the parties lost, the university gained! He was as interesting and witty in his speeches as he was serious, powerful and committed in his writing. Harry Magdoff, distinguished editor of Monthly Review, told him: ‘I admire the solidity of your analysis as well as the firmness of your commitment’.

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 distinguished freedom fighter Bhagat Singh had been confined before his execution.

Randhir kept a prison diary during his days in prison.

Professor Mohanty has estimated the qualities of Randhir Singh as a legendary teacher who helped transform the discipline of political science in the university of Delhi.

Randhir left the united Communist Party of India (CPI) around 1950 and after the party split in 1964, remained for a while with its left wing known as the CPI (M). Thereafter, he dissociated himself from formal party frameworks and became an ‘independent Marxist’, a term he disliked. From the 1970’s onward, he interacted with all the fragments of the communist movement in India and abroad. He gave his time liberally to democratic rights movements across the country.

Randhir held that practicing class politics to fight capitalism can only be successful if the linkages of class with other social categories such as caste, gender, ethnicity, religion and environment are perceived. 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 defended the democratic rights and civil liberties of the people won by resolute struggles. The failure to do so had 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 unable to institutionalize it.

Bernard D’Mello examined the problem at length in his lecture, which followed the book launch.The written text of his lecture will be received soon.

India achieved independence and formulated a democratic, liberal Constitution but retained the British-created framework of law and order and criminal laws. Colonial criminal laws and procedures came in the way of the people’s assertion of their democratic rights.  This was a failure on the part of the founding fathers of the Indian state.

The non-revolutionary transition to democracy in India allowed the new ruling classes to consolidate themselves and take control the colonial repressive state apparatus.

The failure of democratic reforms in post-independence India is somewhat similar to what happened in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China.

The teachings of radical thinkers such as Randhir Singh do derive support from the reports of organizations such as the Mahbub ul Haq South Asia Human Development Center, Islamabad.

The Human Development reports produced by the Center  at Islamabad have professionally carried forward the understanding developed by radical scholars across the region.

Asian thinkers and activists have much to learn from the exchange of each other’s experiences and thoughts. This would lead to greater  mutual understanding and cooperation among the people of South Asia and  Asia.

Kadayam Subramanian
Kadayam Subramanian is former Director, Research and Policy Division, Union Home Ministry, Government of India, and former Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage, 2007, and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, 2016
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