February 14, 2016

Professor Randhir Singh

Amar Farooqui

Professor Randhir Singh, Marxist thinker, activist and teacher passed away on January 31, 2016, at the age of 94. His immense popularity as a teacher gave him almost a cult status, which however remained irrelevant to him personally. It was his activism, combined with his intellectual engagement as a communist ideologue, that was relevant for him. With his remarkable oratorical skills he forcefully critiqued, both in the classroom and outside, all forms of exploitation – particularly, the ruthlessness of capitalism, which could only end with the establishment of socialism for which communists have to strive conscientiously. This was the constant theme of his lectures.

Comrade Randhir Singh was born at Manuke (now in Moga district, Punjab), on January 11, 1922. His father was a prominent medical doctor.  Prof. Singh studied at Forman Christian College in Lahore. He initially intended to pursue medicine, but shifted to a ‘softer’ option, political science, due to his involvement with the communist movement from around 1939 onwards. He was deeply influenced by the revolutionary ideas and life of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, and recalled later that while on his way to school on the day that Bhagat Singh was executed, he had witnessed the outpouring of grief by a huge crowd that had gathered near Lahore Central Jail. As a tribute to the great revolutionary martyr he had requested before his death that his ashes be taken to Hussainiwala where Bhagat Singh was cremated.

Prof. Singh became a wholetime worker of the Communist Party of India (CPI), and apart from his work among students and peasants, he worked for the Party’s Panjabi journal, Jang-e Azadi. Simultaneously, he successfully completed his MA, obtaining a first class first. This, despite the fact that he was in prison for some time while pursuing his studies. Among the Marxist intellectuals who had a profound influence on him at this time, was the celebrated British historian and communist, Victor Kiernan who was then teaching at Lahore. In an essay published in 2012, Prof. Singh wrote movingly of his association with Kiernan at Lahore. The two remained in close touch later on.

In 1947, he was forced to move to Delhi due to the violence that accompanied partition. At Delhi he got an opportunity to teach at ‘Camp College’, a unit of the University of Punjab set up for refugees in the city. Further, as a CPI activist Com Randhir Singh worked for the Party’s Punjabi journal Sada Jug. According to his own account of his political activities and academic career, in his widely-read essay ‘In Lieu of a Bio-Data’ (1988), he ‘opted out of the Party’ in the late 1940s. It was shortly after this that he was appointed as a lecturer at Delhi College (now, Zakir Hussain Delhi College), where he taught Political Science for nearly two decades. All this while, he was engaged in political activities as a communist, even though he was not a formal member of the Party. Moreover, it was in these two decades that he acquired a formidable reputation as an outstanding teacher. He played an important role in building the teachers’ movement as a key organiser of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) in its formative period. DUTA was to emerge as the most powerful and radical organisation of university teachers by the 1960s. Prof. Singh had joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) soon after the Party was formed and was closely associated with its work among teachers and intellectuals for several years. In the 1960s, he collaborated with Prof. Bipan Chandra (who was then teaching History at Hindu College, University of Delhi) to bring out a Marxist research journal, Enquiry, to which some of the most outstanding Marxist scholars in India (and abroad) contributed, including scholars of the eminence of Prof. Irfan Habib. This was a unique experiment which has sadly never been replicated. It was in this journal that Prof. Singh published some of his articles critiquing the political thinker Michael Oakeshott, which were later developed into his book entitled Reason, Revolution and Political Theory (1967). The book received wide acclaim.

Prof. Randhir Singh joined the newly established Jawaharlal Nehru University for a short while before he was appointed as professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Delhi (1972). Even though his area of specialisation was political theory, he was prevented from teaching courses focusing on Marxist thought (for obvious reasons).  Nevertheless, he was able to teach Marx via Plato; such was his revolutionary commitment and intellectual creativity. It was the Department of History, which at that time (late 1970s and early 1980s) had stalwarts such as Profs. RS Sharma, DN Jha, Partha Sarathi Gupta, and Sumit Sarkar, that invited him to teach two courses on political thought. His lectures on Rousseau, Hobbes and Marx were of a calibre that has rarely been attained in the university. An entire generation of students learnt their Marxism from Prof. Singh’s lectures. I myself had the privilege of being his student in the late 1970s.

Com. Singh retired in 1987. It was after this that he published more extensively. He continued to write, teach, mobilise as a revolutionary activist almost till the end of his life. His life and work will continue to inspire communists for a long time.


The following is the text of the condolenece message sent by Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary, on February 3, 2016.

I EXPRESS my profound grief and sorrow at the passing away of Prof. Randhir Singh. He remained a committed Marxist scholar all his life. His life and work were a source of inspiration to many of my generation who were drawn to the Left movement. Notwithstanding the differences, which I believe are only natural, between Prof. Randhir Singh and the organised Left movement in the country, his activities played an important role in shaping the understanding on many crucial issues connected with the international communist movement and the practice in the former socialist countries.

I convey my sincere condolences to all members of his family and his fellow colleagues and students.