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The Hindu
The Hindu
Vikas Vasudeva

When guns and lives go for a song

Sidhu Moosewala killing

Braving the scorching heat on the afternoon of May 31, Sidhu Moosewala’s fans gathered outside his house to get a last glimpse of their idol, a widely popular Punjabi singer and rapper. Holding his pictures and posters, the anguished fans, mostly young men, some of whom were dressed like their gun-caressing macho hero, thronged his native village Moosa in Mansa district. His inconsolable parents sat near his body at home. The singer’s favourite tractor, which had figured in many of his music videos, was bedecked with flowers for his last journey to a family-owned field for the cremation.

Two days earlier, at around 5.30 in the evening, 29-year-old Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, popularly known as Sidhu Moosewala, had been driving a black SUV with two companions accompanying him when their vehicle was blocked by two others — one from the front and one from behind — on the outskirts of Jawaharke village, close to Moosa. Moosewala had been given security cover by the Punjab police but this had been trimmed a day earlier. Director-General of Police (DGP) V.K. Bhawra later said Moosewala had asked his two commandos to stay at home and did not use his private bulletproof car that day.

The men in the vehicles began firing indiscriminately at the black SUV. Photos that emerged later of Moosewala’s vehicle showed bullet holes in the glass and blood-splattered seats. He was declared ‘brought dead’ at the local hospital. The initial postmortem report noted over two dozen bullets lodged in Moosewala’s body. The police recovered around 30 empty cases from the spot which showed that three different arms had been used to fire at him. The Lawrence Bishnoi gang claimed responsibility for the killing through a Canada-based operative, Goldy Brar.

A few metres away from the spot where Moosewala was shot, Gurdeep Singh, 18, runs a small cycle repair shop. Days later, he was still in a state of shock. “I was fixing a cycle when I heard the gunshots. I thought someone was firing celebratory shots in the air. But within seconds, I realised that the gunshots were growing louder and louder. I ran for my life. Later, I came to know that Moosewala was killed in the firing. It was a horrific experience. The way those bullets were fired... many people could have died here,” he said, pointing to the bullet imprints on the gate of an adjacent house and the walls of the building that has his shop.

The murder of the high-profile singer in broad daylight sent shock waves across Punjab. It placed the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has been in power for only two and a half months in a State where it is a new entrant, on the back foot over allegations of a breakdown of law and order. And it has highlighted the problem in Punjab of gang wars, which have become increasingly bloody and frequent over time.

A ‘humble’, controversial artist

Moosewala was born in Moosa village. His father, Balkaur Singh, was in the Army before taking up a job in the Punjab government. His mother, Charan Kaur, is the village head (Sarpanch) of Moosa village. Moosewala studied electric engineering but was keen on following a career in music. He moved to Canada after graduation. In 2016, he wrote lyrics for the song ‘License’, sung by Ninja. The following year, he shot to fame as a singer when his track ‘So High’, released on his YouTube channel, became a hit. In 2018, his debut music album ‘PBX 1’ was released and made it to Canada’s Billboard Albums chart. Moosewala’s famous songs include ‘Issa Jatt’, ‘Selfmade,’ ‘Tibeyan Da Putt’, ‘Tochan’, ‘Legend’, ‘Game’ and ‘Bambiha Bole’. His last song, presciently titled ‘The Last Ride’, was released last month. His song videos often featured swanky cars, tractors and guns, and sometimes masked men.

Moosewala also had a brief stint in politics; he contested the 2022 Assembly elections as the Congress party candidate from Mansa constituency and lost by a large margin.

In his short music career, Moosewala garnered a huge fan following not just in Punjab but also among the Indian diaspora in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. Several Bollywood celebrities such as Ranveer Singh, Ajay Devgn and Vicky Kaushal mourned his death on social media.

Moosewala’s songs were often in the news over concerns that they promoted violence and gun culture. He had been booked in multiple cases under Sections 294 (obscene acts and songs) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code and also under Sections 25 and 30 of the Arms Act by the Punjab police for glorifying gun culture.

Fans hold posters of Sidhu Moosewala outside his residence in Moosa village in Mansa district, Punjab. (Source: R.V. Moorthy)

Yet his fans kept growing. The sea of mourners at his cremation was a testimony to his immense popularity. Many were keen to emphasise that his songs about guns, or videos showing the singer with weapons, were not a “big deal”. Rohit Kumar, 25, Moosewala’s neighbour, described the singer as a “humble man”. He did not think that the glorification of guns in Moosewala’s videos had any impact on listeners. “I have been watching his song videos for years, but that has not pushed me to become violent. The government should not have curtailed his security cover. I’ll always remain his fan,” he said.

‘Gangsters have a free run’

Anger against the government over the growing hold of gangs in the State was apparent. Gurninder Singh, 28, and his friend Karanveer, 19, had travelled about 200 km on their motorbike to reach Moosa for the singer’s cremation. Singh said he had not slept for two nights since Moosewala’s death. “Gangsters are having a free run across the State. This is not the first incident. The government must take swift action against them; otherwise Punjab’s peace will be under threat,” he said.

Rajinder Singh, a former Sarpanch of Jawarharke, was furious that the government had withdrawn Moosewala’s security cover. “Not only did they withdraw it, they also publicised it. They should not have done that. I keep hearing and reading about gangster-related crimes. I hope our State doesn’t have to see dark days again,” he said referring to the tumultuous days of the movement to create ‘Khalistan’.

Fans of Sidhu Moosewala gather outside his residence at Moosa village in Mansa district of Punjab. (Source: R.V. Moorthy)

The worry is rooted in facts. According to government data, 158 murders have taken place in Punjab between January 1 and April 4 this year, an average of 50 murders per month. The police said various units had busted 16 gangster modules and arrested 98 individuals involved in these activities since January 1. They said six gangster crime-related murders had taken place in the State this year until April 4. Investigations had been conducted in all the cases and a total of 24 accused in these cases had been arrested.

Bullet for bullet

Punjab went through a traumatic phase between the mid-1980s and early 1990s when terrorism was at its peak. With the gangster-terrorist nexus coming to the fore during police investigations in some cases, there is a widespread apprehension that with the change of guard at the helm in Punjab, radical elements may be testing the new government.

The list of deaths is long. In March this year, Sandeep Singh, an international Kabaddi player from Nangal Ambian village in Jalandhar, was shot dead by unidentified assailants during a tournament. The Punjab police arrested four suspects who were gangsters or history-sheeters. They also booked three persons who they said were the main conspirators, two based in Canada and one in Malaysia.

In April, Dharminder Singh, another prominent Kabaddi player, was shot dead in Patiala. The key accused, Harbir Singh Dhindsa, who is an aide of gangster Lawrence Bishnoi, was arrested among others in the case.

On May 9, the headquarters of the Intelligence Wing of the Punjab police situated in Mohali in Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar district was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade. Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), a terrorist organisation, along with local gangsters, carried out the attack at the behest of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, according to the police. They said the key conspirator behind the attack was Lakhbir Singh alias Landa, who provided the rocket-propelled grenade, an AK-47, and a local network of criminals for logistic support to carry out the attack. Landa is a native of Tarn Taran district. He fled to Canada in 2017 and is believed to be a close aide of Pakistan-based gangster Harvinder Singh alias Rinda, and had joined hands with the BKI. On May 5, four persons were arrested and three IEDs and one pistol recovered from Karnal by the Haryana police. The police said these explosives were supplied to the accused by Rinda through drones from across the border from Pakistan. The accused were supposed to deliver the explosives to those in Adilabad in Telangana, they police said.

Amid the rising criticism over the deteriorating law-and-order situation, in April the Punjab government established an Anti-Gangster Task Force, which aims to focus on intelligence-based operations. Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann wrote a letter asking Commissioners of Police and Senior Superintendents of Police to play a frontal role in the war against gangsters by personally conducting operations and interrogations.

Also read | Gang members planned Moosewala’s murder, Bishnoi tells police

After Moosewala’s murder, Punjab DGP V.K. Bhawra stated that prima facie the Lawrence Bishnoi group and the Lucky Patial group were involved. “The Lawrence Bishnoi group has taken responsibility for Sidhu Mooswala’s murder citing it as a retaliation for the killing of Vicky Midhukhera,” he said.

Three shooters, identified as Sunny, Anil Lath and Bholu, all residents of Haryana, were arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell in connection with the murder of Vicky Midhukhera, who, according to an FIR registered in Chandigarh in 2020, was allegedly a member of the Lawrence Bishnoi gang. Midhukhera was a member of the Student Organisation of India, which is affiliated to the Shiromani Akali Dal. But another accused, identified as Shaganpreet, who was Moosewala’s manager, was also named as an accused in the FIR registered following Midhukhera’s murder. Shaganpreet escaped to Australia and is wanted by the police.

Gangs of Punjab

Former police officers and academics said that the rise of gangs in Punjab can be traced back to the 1990s. The drugs trade and the alleged involvement of some politicians and the police have aggravated the situation, they said. “I would say the roots of the current situation lie in the association between Jaswinder Rocky from Punjab and a dreaded gang in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, which was led allegedly by Muktar Ansari, in the 1990s,” said Shashi Kant, former DGP. “They allegedly committed some sensational crimes, including abducting and murdering a local businessman in U.P. Later, Rocky is said to have returned to Punjab only to get caught in a conflict with one of his protégés, Prabhjinder Singh ‘Dimpy’. Dimpy was shot dead in 2006 in Chandigarh. Rocky was killed in Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh 10 years later. Some Punjabi gangsters lodged in State jails celebrated Rocky’s death on their social media profiles. Even in 2016, gangsters had access to smartphones in prisons. By this time, local gangsters had grown in Punjab.”

Kant said gangsters had not only been threatening Moosewala but had also been making attempts to extort money from him. Moosewala’s security had been slashed as additional forces were required for ‘Ghallughara’ week (the anniversary of Operation Blue Star). “In view of the massive threat to Moosewala’s life, his security should not have been compromised,” he said. “To make matters worse, this development was foolishly publicised on social media and other public forums. There are about 50 major or splinter gangs in Punjab with a membership of more than 500. Though most of these members are in jail, prisons appear to be the safest places to plan crimes. Those lodged in prison execute their plans through their henchmen who are outside prison. Gangsters also have inter-State and international links. They are capable of procuring modern weapons.” Kant added that there could be a political storm if another such incident occurs.

In many districts of Punjab, these established local gangs wield influence and cause fear. All the three geographical areas of Punjab — the Malwa, Doaba and Majha regions — are dominated by different gangs, which have inter-group and intra-group rivalries. Malwa, which includes Patiala, Ludhiana, Mansa and Bhatinda districts, is dominated by Jaipal, Gurpreet Sekhon, Vicky Gounder and the Lawrence Bishnoi gang. Doaba consisting of Jalandhar and its neighbouring districts is dominated by the Gopi Dalewalia, Daljit Bhana and Prema Lahoria gangs. And Majha is dominated by the Jaggu Bhagwanpuria and Bhinda Shadipuria gangs. Some of the leaders after whom the gangs are named are either dead or incarcerated, but they continue to enjoy the status of legends in these regions.

Prevalence of gun culture

Professor Sucha Singh Gill, an eminent economist and retired Director of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh, who has published a research paper titled ‘Gun culture in Punjab’, said the situation has only worsened with gun licenses being issued indiscriminately in Punjab. “Then you have the drug menace and the alleged involvement of some politicians and the police. Songs praising guns and promoting violence are also another reason for the problem. Successive governments have hardly taken steps against such songs. Unemployment also provides fertile ground for many of the youth to join the gangs,” he said.

“During the 1982-1992 decade, political leaders and activists who ran the risk of being attacked were provided gunmen by the State. This continues even today though terrorist violence ended two decades ago. Having a weapon has become a fashion statement and a matter of prestige for influential people. This has created a gun culture in the State,” he said. Guns are displayed in public, especially at marriage ceremonies, and are used to intimidate opponents at election time, he added. The proliferation of guns must be checked and the police and administration de-politicised to solve this problem, he noted.

Fans hold posters of Sidhu Moosewala outside his residence in Moosa village in Mansa district of Punjab. (Source: R.V. Moorthy)

Back in Moosa, Kumar, Moosewala’s neighbour, spoke for most in the crowd at the cremation as he insisted that Moosewala’s glamourising of guns had no impact on people like him.

Kewal Singh, 30, who had come from Bhai Desa village to Moosa, instead pinned the blame on the State government. “There are several police nakas (check points) set up in our district. Yet, the gangsters carried sophisticated weapons in their vehicles and killed Moosewala. What is the point of these nakas? The way this played out, everyone is obviously scared. The State’s intelligence seems to be in deep slumber,” he said, as he slowly made his way through the jam-packed road towards Moosewala’s home to pay tribute.

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