It was perhaps early morning of 20th July 1979. I was a JNU student, but the night before I stayed at a IIT Hostel near JNU,in a friend K Sainath’s room to spend time with a common political friend from Punjab. (के साईनाथ did his PhD from IIT and joined some company in Andhra Pradesh, his family is political family, but I lost touch with him since years, so many lost people have been found on face book, I wish I could find Sainath also!) As usual slept late in hot summer night, but I got up early to go back to my hostel in JNU to get ready for the day. Times of India had come and I made a cursory look-on front page itself, there was shocking news of Pirthipal Randhawa’s assassination at Ludhiana. I woke up Sainath and then our friend, who is now no more alive. All three were speechless, had a brief talk, as our friend was also to leave for Punjab early in wake of this shocking development. After reaching JNU, I had planned some protest, met activists of various progressive student groups-PSO-Progressive Student Organisation, a proto form of today’s AISA, SFI, RSC-Radical Student Centre, AISF etc. Started a signature campaign, on which got signatures from all eminent faculty members like Late Bipan Chandra, Romila Thapar, Late Krishna Bhardwaj, Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik, late GP Deshpande, Manager Pandey and many more. Almost all student activists of those days-Sita Ram Yechuri, DP Tripathy, both remained JNUSU Presidents, other activists etc. signed demanding strict action against murderers. More than five hundred signatures were collected, the memorandum was published in EPW in letters column, but without any name. The same or earlier issue of EPW carried now renowned Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan report from Punjab. My piece was published by Frontier and Dinman(Hindi, edited by Raghuvir Sahay). I have lost signed copy of memorandum and also Dinman/Frontier issues, but EPW copies I could recover from its archives . We held many protest meetings in JNU and Delhi University, including demonstrations. PUDR also condemned the murder at that time. Pirthipal Randhawa had just come out of Punjab Students Union(PSU) as his studentship in PAU was over, though he was just 27 at that time. He was being drafted into Association for Democratic Rights as its founder General Secretary later, when this vilest act from Akali patronised goons took place. AFDR was formed later in the same year and Dr. Dharamvir Gandhi, now AAP MP was given the task, which Randhawa was supposed to perform. Dr. Gandhi performed that task as competently as was expected from Pirthipal and made AFDR a well known organisation throughout the country in its first few years of formation. Incidentally two members from Punjab in this Parliament learnt their politics under the leadership of Pirthipal Randhawa as part of PSU in those days. Prem Singh Chandumajra, now an Akali MP and an ex minister was also PSU activist in Randhawa’s leadership. He was the elected President of Punjabi University Students Union from PSU. Irony is that even he does not raise the demand for restoration of Punjabi University Patiala’s student union elections banned since 1983!
Pirthipal Randhawa became immensely popular among Punjab students in the wake of 1972 Moga students agitation against killing of some students at the hands of police who were demanding closure of Regal cinema there. No other student leader has acquired such popularity later or before him in Punjab. He was soft spoken but firm leader, he was taken in handcuffs to then Punjab chief minister Giani Zail Singh for negotiations, he refused to talk in such humiliating condition, his handcuffs were removed and talks were held in proper manner.
I have been corrected here by Baljit Balli, who was President of PSU, with Randhawa as General Secretary, both worked together for 7-8 years before passing on baton to next generation of activists-Sukhdev Patwari, Malwinder Mali, Jaspal Jassi etc.Balli has corrected me further about Randhawa’s sketch made by Imroz. In fact he had come to JNU and stayed with me in 305 Periyar hostel in August 1979 to get the portrait and we both together had gone to Imroz and met Amrita Pritam first. Imroz gave us the portrait in one or two days, which Balli got printed from a press in old Delhi and he took many, may be hundreds copy in poster format to Punjab. If it is so, then many old activists now in late age like mine, may be having the IMroz made sketch, pl. click it on your camera or mobile and share it on social sites. Balli told it was his first and last mmet him eeting with Imroz, but I have met him later as well, in fact in recent years as well at Navyug farm annual Lohri meet at Delhi, he is now 80+, but as cheerful and gentle as earlier.
I remember him fondly this day, I had few occasions to meet him at Ludhiana and Bathinda, while participated in huge protest march on 7th October 1972 at Ludhiana in those days in solidarity as writer/teacher activist. I was approached by PSU to get a portrait of Pirthipal from eminent artist Imroz, whose house at Hauz Khas was damn near. I approached him with Amrita Pritam also present, had little interaction with her earlier also with a photograph of Pirthipal, he happily agreed to make a portrait in a princely sum of 200/ rupees, neither very high nor low in 1979. He gave me that pencil sketch duly framed and I handed it over to PSU. It presented Pirthi in very soft form, while PSU people wished to have more tougher posture. Sukhdev Patwari, Malwinder Mali and Baljit Balli had taken over the leadership of PSU in post Randhawa time. Perhaps all three came at different occasions to address protest meetings organised by me in Delhi at JNU, DU and some other place. I was active at that time in PUDR in Delhi.
Irony with that portrait was that after three decades it was back to me from some Punjabi University Patiala PSU activists for repairing the damage water has done to portrait and the artists told it could not be repaired, so returned and the portrait was lost. I don’t know if some PSU activist has kept even the mobile or camera click also of that portrait as it was not a digital age yet!
Revolutionary Punjabi poet Pash, who knew Pirthipal closely wrote a tribute in a poem, which is printed on this photograph of Randhawa. Ironically I got the news of Pash’s assassination in somewhat similar circumstances later in March 1988. I was at Rohatk on 23rd March 1988 for a lecture on Bhagat Singh and stayed at my poet-teacher friends-Manmohan and Shubha. On the morning of 24th March I wished to leave the home without waking them up as train was early morning. On railway station, my purse was picked up and I had to return to them for getting some bucks for fare! While I entered their home, Times of India of the day was lying and had usual cursory look, which again had front page story of ‘Punjabi poet Avtar Singh Pash assassinated’. Same shock and speechlessness in three persons!
Punjab Students Union(PSU), Randhawa and Pash were all true admirers and followers of Bhagat Singh and his thought and tried to carry forward his radical ideas in contemporary Punjab. The murder of Randhawa in 1979, in some years led to PSU’s downfall and rise of Bhindrawale’s rightist Khalistani terrorist movement in Punjab and radical movement in PSU , as well as their mentor political ML groups split into many factions. An emerging leftist option was defeated by rightist rise. The conditions are now much worse. A rightist force led by a man, who is shaped in Bhindrawale style-abusive, aggressive, crude and threatening, is holding state power, as in Germany Hitler held and the leftist-progressive-liberal forces are in disarray, AAP like liberal progressive looking groups are also riding rightist bandwagon in cover of populism and shedding off all progressive forces inside AAP, rather crudely and arrogantly! Pirthipal Randhawa like young leaders are the crying need of Indian society today, who could appeal masses by their gentle yet firm and principled personality!