Remembering Professor Randhir Singh

Gautam Navlakha

I met Prof Randhir Singh on the pages of Economic and Political Weekly, when I read his article on “Marxists and the Sikh Extremist Movement in Punjab” [EPW; August 22, 1987]. I had heard about him from his students, but this article and few more which he wrote in EPW made him someone who spoke for many of us. It was sometime in 1990s when I finally got to meet and know him. He then agreed to become a special advisor to Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (Delhi) and our bond firmed up. I, we in PUDR, benefitted from this association for the clarity he brought to matters of concern, confusion or caused consternation to us. However, in this homage I do not want to dwell on my personal relationship with him or that with PUDR, but to merely draw attention to the acute insights he brought to fore in his EPW writings which, a decade or two later still remain of contemporary interest because they point in the direction for us to proceed in our search and struggle. This is what sets him apart from his other contemporary Marxist scholars. He not only remained a Communist Revolutionary till the end, his commitment was such that he chided the Nepal’s comrades for believing that they could bring about a transformation without replacing/ restructuring the institutions of the feudal monarchy. He said ‘smash the old order’ ought not to be taken literally however, nor should it mean to deny the need to transform existing institutions of the State, because embedded in these institutions with their rules, laws, procedures, processes etc are class interests. He put it more eloquently than I am doing now.

He never saw himself as a scholar in the mould of those who seek prestige and peer group appreciation and write prolifically but he saw himself as someone who preferred to address problems that confront Indian people in their quest for emancipation. Indeed it pained him that Indian academia and the social science institutions were marginally relevant to the problems and prospects of Indian people’s struggle for a better future. So as a teacher, guide and philosopher he continuously engaged with a variety of struggles and social formations and his scholarship was grounded in politics which served the oppressed and exploited. He was open to all and welcomed all. His perspective, refreshingly lucid and devoid of rhetoric and cliche appealed to most. He theorized but always to draw attention to the political praxis to follow. Most of all he never veered away from Marxism.

‘Sikh Extremism’ or Khalistan movement in popular parlance had divided the Left in Punjab. His criticism of the CPI and CPI (M) for taking the line of defence of “national unity and integrity and against destabilization by US imperialism & its allies,” was sharp. But from this arose many observations which were of general relevance, for instance, to understand nation and class. He made the point that basic concept of Marxism is class and not nation. He argued that “in so far as we today have stake in the ‘unity and integrity of India’, not as nationalists, but as Communist Revolutionaries who view it as an important favourable condition for the advance of Indian people’s common struggle for socialism, this unity is best fought for and presented with this theoretical position and political practice flowing from it i.e. as part of the struggle against the Indian ruling classes”. He chastised the CPI and CPM for appearing together with BJP and supporting state repression and failing to criticize the Congress, Akali Dal and BJP for their role in the making of the Punjab problem. And he argued that such a line, in defence of “nation” merely reinforced ruling classes and also fed aggressive Hindu chauvinism”. This he wrote in 1987 [Marxism and Sikh Extremism....]. A year later in 1988 in “Theorizing Communalism”[EPW July 1988] he took it further when he wrote that there is an ideological error as well as methodological limitation in organized Left’s thinking. Ideologically, because of looking at communalism from the standpoint of nationalism, and methodological because it makes for an essentially empirical and ahistorical study, which forgets its ‘historical causation and socio-economic roots’.

The alienation of Sikhs has certainly eased as a beleaguered community, however, the problems arising out of capitalist development has not. In such a situation there is constant danger of the ruling classes playing on communal divisions once again, prepare the ground for ‘nation- in-danger’ type of situation, to divert attention from root causes to issues of pride, prestige and identity. So when he draws our attention to the fact that the state in India is promoting or practicing communalism, or doing both, especially fanning Hindu communalism, the Indian nationalism is increasingly getting identified with the “homogenizing ideology of Hindu chauvinism.” Indian ruling classes, he wrote, “have always found religion, religiosity or dharmikta as recent coinage goes most useful for reinforcing their hegemony, ideological dominance and social control over common people, making easier the latter’s continued acceptance of an unjust and iniquitous social order.” And he warns us against the methodological limitation of empiricist approach which is concerned with the “immediately observable fact”, a phenomena in “their appearance and isolation” and its “interconnections with larger social reality.” Here he echoes Engels in Anti-Dühring whom he quotes quite often in his writings, as saying that in studying any phenomenon in their “isolation, detached from the whole vast interconnections of things; and therefore not in their motion, but in their repose; not in their life, but in their death.... in considering individual things it loses sight of their connections; in contemplating their existence it forgets their coming into being and passing away; at looking at them at rest it leaves their motion out of account; it cannot see the woods for the trees.” But he cautioned us that unlike physical sciences, in social sciences search for Truth is for “scientific approximation” of truth and not absolute truth or the whole truth.

He repeatedly stressed that he sought to understand Indian politics which could help towards a more effective people’s intervention in what is happening in the country and the world.

In this respect, of immense value is his speech at the APCLC’s 7th State Conference in Hyderabad, on April 27-28, 1991, which was carried in EPW [Terrorism, State Terrorism and Democratic Rights; February 8, 1992]. He was fond of saying that what he was saying was nothing new or original. And he often quoted Goethe to affirm that “one must from time to time repeat what one believes in, proclaim what one agrees with and what one condemns.” But he would then reinvigorate us by taking us through ‘How does one think?’ Because “on the nature and adequacy of the understanding it provides, depends the nature and adequacy, the ultimate effectiveness of how one acts in the matter.” Truth, he was fond of reminding us, is always partisan, unlike the physical or natural sciences. But social sciences, concerned as they are with class divided societies are full of political dynamite. “Truth here is not only partisan but also dangerous for the dominant class... (it) becomes a matter for disputation and if need be suppression – and therefore also difficult to acquire.” He warns us that dominant mode of thinking which is concerned with ‘here and now’ and with ‘hard facts’, refuses to look deeper or look beyond. He cites Engels from Anti-Dühring to decry studying things in their isolation and “in considering individual things it loses sight of their interconnections; in contemplating their existence it forgets their coming into being and passing away; in looking at them at rest it leaves their motion out of account; it cannot see the woods for trees.” Thus he takes us into the issue of terrorism by pointing out that violence abstracted from its varied histories and still more varied interconnections, isolated and reduced to produce and essentially depoliticized composite phenomenon.... (It) becomes a resort to senseless utterly uncivilized forms of violence, a foreign inspired social deviance, a label for defamation and means to ostracize those branded as terrorist (“anti-nationals” now). He argued that the specificity of each instance of situation or struggle, conflict and confrontations gets thus obscured, and a universalist abstraction, such as Human Rights used to damn them. He wryly points out that the violation of Democratic Rights “can in fact go hand in hand with defence of ‘human rights’,” pointing to Ronald Reagan’s Presidency and Margaret Thatcher led Conservative regimes. He brought in analysis the immense private violence of the rich and powerful. And he draws attention to State Terrorism which receives little attention because they are presented and understood as aberrations, mistaken polices or distortions, in an otherwise perfect State. “It is not seen that the Indian state does not merely happen to be violent or repressive, it is inherently so by virtue of the society it presides over; it guards and keeps going, violently if necessary, an inherently violent society because it is a society of myriad economic, social and cultural oppressions”. He further draws our attention to the significance of realizing that when state violence occurs, state violence is analyzed in terms of democratic rights but not as class violence, (but) as an expression of class domination or policies, as a part of ongoing open or hidden class struggle in society.” He then adds that:

“(S)tate power in India is also a form of class power and that this has its relevance for any effective struggle in defence of democratic rights of the Indian people against the Indian state.” And he then points out that “in a law based state like India, there exists an elaborate code, an entire ensemble of laws, procedures, institutions and enforcing agencies to deal with private violence or lawlessness, there is nothing comparable, no genuine checks or controls, to take care of peaceful or violent lawlessness of the state, which is potentially, and often in actual practice, the most powerful violator of democratic rights in society. It is this absence in our system of credible institutional safeguards against the illegal acts and terrorism committed or backed by the state and its functionaries, that makes the presence of democratic rights organisations necessary.”

In looking at the myriad “oppressions”, he reminds us that Indian society is “full of glaring injustice and inequities, oppression and exploitation, it will always have its victims, frustrated and desperate men and women, ready to avenge themselves or their fellow victims, violently or otherwise.” And he cautioned against passing moral judgments, or condemning their motives and actions, which he considered as “normal violence”, but “to do whatever we possibly can to change the conditions which make such frustration and desperation, and the accompanying violence, inevitable.”

Speaking of the “crisis of our poor possessive-market society, its manifold conflicts, its lumpen rapacity and crumbling structures of authority with the people desperately struggling to survive, has given rise to a great deal of private violence of the rich and powerful against the people below”. He refers to landlord armies, vigilante groups, goon squads linked to police, politicians and businessmen. And he warns us that this may provoke counter-violence on the part of people in “sheer self defence” to take to violence ‘in defense of their right to organise and struggle peacefully’. Elsewhere he wrote that where means and ends is concerned the question is not “whether we may or may not adopt means involving evil to attain a good which outbalances that evil or to avoid a still greater evil, but as to whether the good attained is really worth the cost, or whether there is another route to that good involving less evil.” [Marxism, Socialism, Indian Politics: A View from the Left; Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2008, p. 326.]

Mindful that counter-violence can turn against the people he cautioned that “if the quality of politics is poor, the gun becomes increasingly more important; it tends to itself become the politics, just as state terrorism tends to do at the other end”. He concludes by reminding us that when so many from the intelligentsia deserted the people and moved to serve ‘the nation’, DR activists continue to stand by the struggling people. The idea of “nation” and reality of class is once again brought to the fore.

His commitment as a Communist Revolutionary was also grounded in understanding of human condition and human suffering. Thus his article in 1992 [‘Crisis of Socialism’; Notes in defence of a commitment: EPW July 25, 1992], speaks of the collapse of Soviet socialism causing “wreckage around us” with a “deluge of disenchantment” on both the possibility of escape from Capitalism and also the validity of Marxism itself as the theory and practice for human emancipation.” He traces his own road to Marxism and his source of inspiration, the appeal of Soviet Socialism along with its then contemporary critics. Albert Einstein, he pointed out, in “Why Socialism?” had raised an important query that:

“Nonetheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible in view of political and economic powers, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all powerful and overweaning? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”

According to him, “(i)f ideals had indeed moved millions of Russian people and communists to heroic endeavour, their actual practice had also caused these people & communists untold pain and suffering. Socialism was acquiring, above all in its lack of democratic freedoms, its arbitrary and cruel exercise of political power, an ugly and inhuman face”. He spoke of the “yawning chasm” that existed between the rulers and the ruled but also wonders why so many failed to see the “awesome alienation” of the people from their rulers. This “stubborn refusal” to see, hear or speak when “it was their revolutionary duty” to do so, constitutes “an act of historic complicity”.

His point was that democratic freedoms must be central to our concern. That socialism has come to acquire an inhuman face made this concern even more important a task. Soviet Socialism, he wrote, was one “historically specific outcome of Marxism, implicating only a particular political practice in the name of Marxism. It does not settle the question of capitalism or socialism for all times or signaling final demise of Marxism itself.” He concludes by reminding us that we ourselves must return to communist norms of personal conduct and a better “revolutionary practice of Marxism”.

His articles are far richer in analytical depth and detail than I am able to provide here. The intellectual span he brought in his articles covered many more areas and his awareness of ecological issues and feminism were equally significant. His prose is engaging and punctuated by literary references that brings out his enormous grasp of the subject. What, nevertheless, stands out and makes his writings immensely contemporary is the fact that his scholarship was directed at making us grasp the significance of part to the whole, so as to sharpen and improve our practice. Reminding us that Nation cannot be made the basic criterion of determining politics, for instance while discussing “Sikh extremism”, he compels us to look at the social context within which it arose and also reminding us that ruling classes are not averse to using religion to reinforce their hegemony. So where his scholarship stood out was that he was open to all, notwithstanding his love and hate relation with Left formations. He was also amenable to those who disagreed or differed with him and his Marxism. In his persona and writings he brought his practice in consonance with communist behaviour of openness, criticism, self-criticism and intellectual integrity.

In the times we live in where communal fascism is running amok and there is blurring of difference between hoodlums on the street and institutions of the state, his urging us to look at social, economic and cultural roots of this phenomenon is a reminder that we cannot de-link how this situation comes about/came about and its real basis. It is also a call to carry on the struggle for human emancipation as relentlessly as ruling classes persist with their attempt to wrest back whatever people have won through their struggle. Finally, he did not want us to merely repeat what he said but to understand why and from what vantage point he looked at social phenomenon and what all must go into making our enquiry purposeful and effective. It is a work of sustained endeavour, which he advocated and we must stubbornly pursue never losing our critical approach.

This is how I remember him. A great teacher indeed, but also our guide and philosopher.

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