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Punjab students' march revives memory of Moga firing incident half a century ago

By Harsh Thakor* 
On October 6 the memories of the police firing on students at Moga on October 5-7, 1972 were resurrected by the Punjab Students Union (Shaheed Randhawa). Even if not so large in numbers, it gave a qualitative effect in resonating the message of the martyred students. I was privileged to be part of the gathering and the march.
The firing at the Regal Cinema turned a spark into a prairie fire, being the cradle of the student and youth rebellion or precursor to the Moga Sangram rally of April 1974. It symbolized the wrath of the students community against the injustice of an autocratic society and garnered forces from all walks of life to confront the oppressive social order.
It coincided with the student movement in Paris, the anti-Vietnam war protests, the Naxalite upheaval and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Youths, seeking to liberate themselves from the oppressive shackles, valiantly waged the battle against corruption, unemployment, fee hikes, and lack of proper educational facilities.
Today the cinema hall is in tatters manifesting the dark days. But the event still flashes like an inextinguishable light. The Moga agitation arose from a clash between college students and the management of the Regal Cinema in Moga.They boldly raised their powerful voices against the black marketing of cinema tickets in the magistrate’s office. The management paid them deaf ear, as it was a threat to the vested interests of the private owners.
A protest match was organised on October 5. After the management displayed complete apathy, the students were infuriated, picked up sticks and lathis from shops, and attempted to set the hall on fire. The police burst tear gas shells, but were unable to quell the students, and resorted to firing. Four persons, including a college student, were killed. Prohibitory orders were enforced with imposition of Section 144.
On October 6 the spark turned into a prairie fire with the flame of struggle spreading to colleges of Jagraon, Ludhiana, Jalandhar etc. Residents of Moga formed a students' council. On October 7 members of the council set the cinema hall on fire. The police again counter retaliated by firing, resulting in killing of two more persons. This crystallized an uprising all over Punjab. The Punjab government ordered the closure of all colleges. In almost every city of Punjab, the student community burnt roadway buses and cinema houses defying the prohibitory orders.
Photos of martyrs Kewal, Harjit, Gurdev and Swarn were garlanded at the inauguration of the conference on October 6, 2022. The Punjab Students Union (Shaheed Randhawa) spokesman Amitoz Mann spoke of the history behind the Moga Cinema firing and its repercussions. In vivid detail he traced its historical genesis in soaring unemployment, corruption illiteracy, male chauvinism, casteism, religious communalism etc. In spite of the Green Revolution, feudal practices were still rampant in agriculture with absentee landlordism the order of the day.
Amitoz delved into the background of the movement of the stage managed encounters in the Naxalite movement, the Jayprakash Narayan movement and the imposition of the Emergency. Illustratively he summarised how the Moga firing crystallised a powerful revolutionary democratic system, hitting the ruling classes at their hardest point.
In Amitoz’s view, a genuine mass based movement was shaped in a most cohesive manner, which made inroads amongst the peasantry and landless labourers. He projected how the movement demarcated from the revisionist path of the All-India Students Federation, who backed out of the movement, when it was soaring at a height. In Moga, the AISF cadres had to flee to rescue themselves from the rage of the cadres of the Punjab Students Union.
On October 6, 1972 the spark turned into a prairie fire with the flame of struggle spreading to colleges of Jagraon, Ludhiana, Jalandhar
Amitoz highlighted how a revolutionary alternative was projected by the Punjab Students Union and the Naujwan Bharat Sabha recounting the Moga Sangram rally of 1974, the 1977 march for democratic rights of around 2,000 persons, the methods of struggles adopted to confront days of the Emergency, the murder of Prithipal Singh Randhawa, and subsequent protests, the protest against the bus fare hike in 1980, the revival of Sikh communal politics from 1982-85 etc. He narrated how it was the weakness of the Left and democratic movement that paved the way for the ascendancy of the Sikh communalism and the Khalistani movement.
Punjab Students Union (Shaheed Randhawa) secretary Hoshiyar Salemgarh spoke about how globalisation and privatisation had penetrated the education system, and given a crippling blow to any welfare of the student community .He reflected how today privatization had aggravated the economic crisis in education worse than the turmoil of the 1970s, making education almost unaffordable, selling it on the platter of the corporates.
Hoshiyar spoke about how students were driven to go abroad being lured into careerism. He delved on the social attacks waged by the government on deprived student sections, and how the policies were breaking the unity of the student community. He reflected on how the Punjab Students Union inculcated a scientific spirit, which is the very need of the hour today, with religious revivalism at a height.
Naujwan Bharat Sabha leader Ashwini Gudda spoke about the grave economic crisis in the country. He delved on the criminal attacks of the BJP government and the anti-people economic policies. He said, it was imperative to unite students, workers, peasants and labourers. The manner globalisation tore the fabric of any welfare for the poor, was touched upon. He also spoke about the dangers of the rekindling of Sikh religious fundamentalism.
BKU (Ugrahan) president Joginder Singh Ugrahan reflected on how the Moga firing crystallised a new chapter. He a spoke about how the student community should play a vanguard role in challenging fascism. He demanded the construction of a library for students in the venue in the memory of the persons killed and heritage status for the venue.
---
*Freelance journalist who has covered mass movements around India and frequently toured Punjab to report programmes

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