Gangster Sachin Bishnoi, Lawrence Bishnoi, Sidhu Moosewala
Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, popularly known as Sidhu Moosewala, was shot dead in Punjab’s Mansa district on May 29, 2022 | File photo

Moosewala murder: Gangs, not guns, at root of Punjab’s violence

While the state’s gun numbers are hardly significant, its gang culture is decades-old and all-pervading

Sidhu Moosewala’s songs often glorified guns; ironically, he lost his life to a brutal gun firing on Sunday. The assassination of the 28-year-old Punjabi singer and budding Congress politician  — he was lacerated with 26 bullets — has added fuel to the perception that Punjab’s modern-day pop culture normalises gun violence. Some all-weather experts have even hypothesised that Punjabi pop and rap are pushing youngsters into a world of organised crime.

Overzealous talking heads on television debates have even proferred hot takes on how Moosewala’s sensational killing is the outcome of the gun culture he and other singers created through their rustic music. Moot to this theory is the undeniable fact that several contemporary Punjabi pop icons have, consciously or otherwise, made guns seem cool and macho.

Moosewala was no exception. It could even be said that his penchant for arms transcended beyond his reel life persona. During the 2020 lockdown, a video clip of him firing an AK-47 at the police firing range in Barnala went viral, leading to his arrest and suspension of the cops who were present with him. After the incident, Moosewala released a song titled Sanju, which compared his case to the one against actor Sanjay Dutt, who faced prosecution for illegal possession of an AK-47 in 1993. In 2013, Dutt was sentenced to five years. Moosewala’s song was an instant hit.

Correlation is debatable

But that the mindless glorification of guns by pop stars has resulted in gun violence in Punjab is debatable.

For one, there are official statistics that run counter to this theory. As per the last available report of the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), in 2020, Punjab accounted for just 362 firearms-related cases under the Arms Act, 1959, out of the total 44,789 cases nationwide. Uttar Pradesh topped the charts at 26,530 cases. Total arms seizure in Punjab, as per volume-III of the report, was 881, against 37,616 in UP.

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Punjab may be among the states with the highest number of licensed arms holders. But then the use of licensed arms in the total firearms cases across the country in 2020 was only 395 (less than 1 per cent), indicating that it is the unlicensed arms that are often used for crime.  Further, the total licensed arms seized in Punjab was just four.

One may ask why Punjabis seek to arm themselves when they don’t really use guns. Obviously in an ideal world, shorn of the burden of a bloody past or a legacy of avoidable flamboyance, they should not. But they’re a people who have dealt with violent foreign invasions down several centuries and a more recent history of separatist militancy. The impulse to self-protect with arms is tough to get rid of, experts say.

And then there’s the Punjabi tendency to flaunt, be it guns or goodwill.

The real problem of  gangs

Coming back to Moosewala, the real issue around his killing is not guns but the gang culture. Punjab DGP VK Bhawra, at a press conference on the day of Moosewala’s murder, revealed that the police suspected rivalry between the Lawrence Bishnoi and Lucky Patial-Bambiha gangs to have caused the killing.

This came soon after one Goldy Brar of Bishnoi’s gang claimed responsibility for the killing. He called it retaliation for Moosewala’s alleged involvement in the killing of ‘our brother’ Vicky Middhukhera, a young Akali Dal leader, who was shot dead last August. Brar also reportedly blamed Moosewala for the deaths of other people associated with the Bishnoi gang.

The DGP further claimed that Moosewala’s manager, Shaganpreet, was one of the accused in Midhukhera’s murder.

It is a different matter that within a day of his presser, Bhawra tied himself in knots clarifying his claims after he was roundly criticised for ostensibly linking Moosewala to the state’s raging gang wars.

Moosewala’s father wrote to Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, criticising his government for showing his son in the ‘wrong light’. The state government then issued a statement quoting the DGP saying he, on no occasion, ever said that Moosewala was a gangster or affiliated with gangsters.

The ongoing investigations will reveal — or perhaps they won’t; as is often the case with our police probes — whether or not Moosewala fell prey to gang rivalry, or if there was more to his death. Yet, the tragedy has exposed the proliferation of gang culture in Punjab.

According to former Punjab DGP Shashi Kant, gang culture is a decades-old phenomenon in the state. He told The Federal that it started over two decades ago with a section of politicians using gangsters for illegal activities or winning elections. The bureaucratic nexus gave them protection.

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Kant added that the gangs started with small petty crimes before drifting into big ones and expanding into other states as well.  “It is only now that Punjab’s gang culture has come to light — when a pop star followed by millions on social media across nations was killed because of their involvement. But this problem was always there,” he said.

Gangs and entertainment industry

Kant said that gangsters in the past made money through land grabs and drug trade. But the rise of the Punjabi music and film industries over the past decade opened a new avenue for the gangs — they took to extortion from big stars. “It is the same model gangs follow in Delhi or Mumbai,” he added.

Punjabi singers have been threatened and attacked in extortion bids in the recent past. For instance, singer Parmish Verma was attacked allegedly by the Dilpreet-Rinda gang in Mohali in 2018.  Verma, who sustained a bullet wound in his leg, wrote later in a Facebook post that the incident was linked to extortion. He had no enmity with the perpetrators, he added.

Another popular singer-actor, Gippy Grewal, allegedly received extortion threats in 2018. He made a police complaint and a case was registered against a gangster.

After the tragic death of Moosewala, India-born Canadian rapper AP Dhillon wrote on Instagram: “Most people will never know the extent of what you have to deal with as a Punjabi artist behind the scenes on a daily basis. With constant judgment, hate-filled comments, threats and negative energy directed towards people like us, who are just doing what we love to do.”

In Punjab, kabaddi has for ages been a popular sport in rural areas. The recent arrival of kabaddi leagues, said former DGP Kant, has emerged as a new avenue for gangsters to earn money through betting. He said the murder of international kabaddi player Sandeep Singh Nangal Ambian on March 14, 2022 was the outcome of inter-gang rivalry to seize control of the kabaddi tournaments in Punjab.

From ordinary lives to a world of crime

For a state that, as Kant said, has a decades-old gang culture, it is perhaps easy to assume that Punjab’s gang lords are pedigreed villains, born into a life of crime and expanding the ‘family business’, so to speak. But in reality, this isn’t the case.

For instance, Bishnoi, who hails from the Ferozepur district, is the son of a Haryana police constable. He is believed to have entered the world of crime through student politics in Chandigarh. It was there that the first cases of attempt to murder, assault and robbery were lodged against him; he subsequently ‘graduated’ to cases of extortion and murder.

From Chandigarh, he spread his network to Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi-NCR by getting associated with other gangsters. His gang first made national headlines when police claimed to have caught a member plotting to kill actor Salman Khan. While Bishnoi is lodged in Delhi’s Tihar jail for the last few years, his gang is allegedly being run from Canada by Goldy Brar.

On the other hand, Gaurav Patial, alias Lucky, is allegedly running the Davinder Bambiha gang from Armenia. Bambiha, whose real name was Davinder Singh Sidhu, was killed in a police encounter in 2016 and since then his gang has been operated by Lucky Patial and others.

Journalist Ritesh Lakhi, who has been covering these gangs prominently on his YouTube channel, told The Federal that in the past two decades, several big names have cropped up in the gang sphere. Some, like Prabhjinder Singh, alias Dimpy, Vickey Gounder and Jaipal Bhuller, were killed in police encounters, and new gangsters replaced them.

Social reasons

To say that the youth is getting attracted to this risky life due to ‘violent’ music is not accurate, said Lakhi. There are social reasons like unemployment, and the lure of easy money and a high-flying lifestyle, that often attract them to the world of crime. This problem can’t be tackled with police intervention alone, Lakhi added.

On April 11, in wake of the killings of kabaddi players by alleged gangsters, the Bhagwant Mann-led AAP government had formed an anti-gang task force under Additional Director General of Police Pramod Ban. If Moosewala’s killing is any indication, the task force has instilled little fear in the gangsters.

Also Read: Punjab CM warns singers against promoting gun culture through songs

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