New Delhi: A rural Punjab road, a white car tailing a black jeep, the sharp retort of gunfire. The purported CCTV footage of the deadly 28 May attack on Punjabi singer-politician Sidhu Moose Wala looks almost like a scene from one of his wildly popular music videos.
The parallels between the musician’s demise and his bhangra-rap fusion songs about guns, violence, and revenge have, of course, not escaped fans, many of whom believe that the singer had had a premonition about his death. But, in this instance, it seems to be more a case of art imitating life rather than the other way around.
Images doing the rounds on social media lay bare the ruthless nature of the crime. They show the 28-year-old star slumped on the driver’s seat of his black SUV, his red t-shirt soaked in blood and face slashed by broken glass from the car. More than two dozen bullets, fired from automatic weapons, were found in his body, the initial postmortem report has found.
The attack, which took place a day after Moose Wala’s security detail was reduced by the Punjab government, was carried out by members of the Lawrence Bishnoi gang, police have alleged.
A Facebook post attributed to Bishnoi’s Canada-based associate Goldy Brar also soon appeared, bragging about the murder. It was an act of vengeance, the post said, for the role they claimed Moose Wala played in the killings of two men: Youth Akali leader Vicky Middukhera last year, and Bishnoi aide Gurlal Brar in 2020.
Now, Lawrence Bishnoi, currently in Tihar Jail, has said he fears being killed in an “encounter”.
This, though, is not a unique case. As a successful musician and a Congress leader who had contested this year’s assembly polls (although he lost to the AAP’s Vijay Singla), Moose Wala is a particularly high-profile victim, but “gang culture” has existed in Punjab for decades and has been difficult to shake despite clampdowns by the police.
Extortion, murder, drugs, and vicious blood feuds are just one aspect of this. Fuelled by songs and viral videos, gang culture has also achieved cult status in sections of the population for its associations with a kind of vigilante heroism, moneyed glamour, and social consciousness with an edge. Moose Wala’s life and death have both reflected this culture, although he has not been named as a gang member himself.
ThePrint takes a look at how gang culture evolved in Punjab and how it has become deeply embedded in the popular imagination.
Live fast, die young
Just over a month before Moose Wala’s killing, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann announced the setting up of a dedicated Anti-Gangster Task Force (AGTF), since gang-related crimes were reportedly on the rise even though nearly 300 out of 500 known gangsters, belonging to about 70 gangs, had been put behind bars by the Organised Crime Control Unit (OCCU).
But there are still several active groups — known to have interstate operations and transnational links — that are notorious not just for extortion and murder attempts, but also for their bloody rivalries, which they sometimes openly declare through provocative posts and videos on social media.
Well before there was such a thing as Facebook, the “Punjabi mafia” in Canada, known for their flashy lifestyle and drug-running, but also for asserting their cultural identity, were threatening and challenging each other in TV appearances.
One prominent instance of this is the bitter feud between Vancouver’s Bindy Johal and Ranjit ‘Ron’ Dosanjh in the 1990s.
In a 1994 appearance, Ron Dosanjh told Bindal, who he believed had killed his brother Jimmy Dosanjh: “I wouldn’t shoot you in the back. I’d do it face-to-face, square in the forehead.” Two weeks later, Ron Dosanjh was shot dead in broad daylight.
Meanwhile, in Punjab too, a parallel gang culture, defined by the dictum of ‘live fast die young’, started spreading in the 1980s, with universities and student politics emerging as nurseries of crime.
In the early 1980s, one such figure was Makhan Singh, a leader of the Panjab University Students Union (PUSU), who was reportedly referred to by the police as a “godfather” and inspiration for other gangsters. Makhan Singh was engaged in a feud with another group called the Cheema gang and was shot dead at the students’ centre of the university.
Since then, there have been many ‘notorious’ gangsters that have repeatedly popped up on the radar of the police, but have also achieved a kind of Robinhood status with their ability to provide vigilante ‘justice’, according to experts.
Some also joined politics, given their ‘status’ as mass leaders — like Fazilka’s Jaswinder Singh ‘Rocky’, who at one point was facing about 30 cases of murder, extortion, kidnapping, conspiracy, illegal confinement and possession of illegal weapons (he was acquitted in 18). He was pursuing a career in politics and fighting elections before he was shot dead on the Shimla highway in 2016.
“In public, all these gangsters project that they are working and risking their lives for the common people. This is very attractive for the villagers,” Sarabjit Singh, who works with the non-profit Punjab Human Rights Organisation, said.
For instance, in 2017, members of the Shera Khuban gang purportedly vowed to avenge an attack outside a temple on a woman from the Akali Dal. “We don’t believe in police investigations. Keep your pistol ready, we will see how many shots you fire. If you have the guts, message us in the inbox,” a gang member reportedly announced on Facebook.
Another notorious gangster was Prabhjinder Singh Brar ‘Dimpy’, an alleged contract killer and henchman for politicians in UP, Punjab and Haryana, who was wanted in these three states, besides Bihar, Karnataka and Delhi.
When Dimpy was released on bail once in 2006, he was welcomed by 25,000 people, and 500 cars had reportedly lined up on both sides of the Bathinda-Kotkapura road. He was gunned down later that year by motorcycle-borne shooters while he was sitting in his car.
Then there was Vicky Gounder, who gained infamy after his gang reportedly killing the “sharpshooter” and don Sukha Kahlon (who was himself wanted by police across several states in dozens of cases involving violent crime) to avenge the killing of another gangster.
Gounder allegedly shot Kahlon, who was called “yara da yaar (friend of friends)”, on the Amritsar-Delhi national highway when he was being taken in a police van for a case, danced over his body, and filmed the act before fleeing. The police personnel were reportedly held at gunpoint. In the infamous Nabha jailbreak of 2016, Gounder was one of the escapees.
Most gangsters tend to die young, which only adds to their mythic appeal. The “most-wanted” Gounder, too, was killed in an alleged police encounter in 2018. When his body, shrouded in white sheets and a green turban reached his ancestral village Sarawan Bodla, in Muktsar, Punjab, it was reportedly a spectacle. ‘Fans’ of this 27-year-old sportsman-turned-gangster are said to have gone berserk. Social media pages devoted to the man who had allegedly picked up guns at the age of 14, sprang up.
Young boys, barely in their teens, posted pictures of Gounder — and themselves — flashing guns and vowed to avenge his death.
The cycle of vengeance and violence, tinged with ‘hero worship’, has been similar in the case of Moose Wala’s death, which is suspected to be an outcome of the rivalry between the Lawrence Bishnoi and Devendar Bambiha gangs.
When these gangs want to make a statement, as a Delhi Police officer told ThePrint in an earlier report, there is a standard modus operandi: make it gruesome, claim responsibility on social media, and establish supremacy. The Bishnoi gang, the police officer had added, is known to shower bullets on the target.
“They carry out these killings for two motives — eliminating rival gang members, and to send a message to potential rivals and others from whom they want to extort money,” he said.
It’s unlikely that the cycle will end here. Bishnoi — who was a national-level athlete and a leader of the Student Organisation of Panjab University (SOPU) before taking to crimes like kidnapping and extortion — has allegedly received death threats from “gangsters” in Delhi and presenting him in courts for hearings in different cases is a worry for the police (he is currently in Tihar) as they have to make elaborate security arrangements.
Like several other alleged gangsters in the past, Bishnoi has allegedly posted clips on social media and has been accused of ordering killings while in jail. Police have recovered mobile phones from his cell several times in the past.
Meanwhile, there are fears that Moose Wala’s untimely death could be romanticised and further encourage youth to emulate gang culture.
Grief, glamour, guns
There has been an outpouring of grief from fans after Sidhu Moose Wala’s death. Hundreds camped outside the singer’s mansion in Moosa village so they could attend his funeral, one 19-year-old attempted suicide in despair, and legions of others paid tribute in the comments sections of Moose Wala’s YouTube videos: “Heroes are always remembered, but legends never die”; “He has become immortal”; “His songs signified revolution, fight, freedom, and struggle against the odds of our society.”
It’s a huge response for a singer who was unknown until five years ago.
A native of Moosa village in Mansa district, Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu went to college to be an engineer before moving to Canada on a student visa in 2016.
What made him famous almost overnight as Sidhu Moose Wala was his song ‘So High’ in 2017, with simplistic but machismo-laden lyrics like “Ho karda Canada vichon deal soniye; Munda poori gangsta appeal soniye… (The guy deals in Canada, girl; The guy has a gangster appeal, girl).”
The swag in the videos — diamond watches on both wrists, guns, money spilling out of cars — and music worked but so did his identity, which incorporated the name of his village and Jatt Sikh roots, but juxtaposed with a high-flying international lifestyle.
For many, especially in villages, this kind of packaging is aspirational, Sarabjit Singh said.
In a relatively short time, Moose Wala garnered a huge fanbase, with more than 11 million subscribers on his YouTube channel and 8.4 million followers on Instagram. His popularity earned him a Congress ticket and he became known as a champion of the farmers who were protesting three controversial farm laws (now repealed) introduced by the central government in 2020.
The other part of this lifestyle were death threats, armed bodyguards, and a bulletproof car.
While it is not known whether Moose Wala had any actual gang affiliations, he was often accused of being part of an ecosystem that encouraged violence and lawlessness.
In February 2020, the singer was booked for allegedly promoting gun culture and violence through his song ‘5 Goliyan (five bullets)’. An FIR was registered against him on a complaint filed by Chandigarh-based lawyer H.C. Arora. Ludhiana Police also summoned the singer on the complaint of an RTI activist, Kuldeep Singh Khaira, who alleged that Moose Wala’s song promoted gun culture and violence.
In May 2020, two videos of Moose Wala’s went viral, in which he was training to use an AK-47 with five police officers, and a personal pistol in another. The police officers who assisted him were suspended and Moose Wala was booked for violating the lockdown.
A PIL was filed by lawyer Ravi Joshi in the Punjab and Haryana High Court alleging that Punjab Police has not booked the controversial singer under stringent provisions of law. After this, provisions of the Arms Act and criminal conspiracy were added to the FIRs registered against him.
In his song ‘Sanju’, which uses video clips from the time of Sanjay Dutt’s arrest in the Arms Act, the singer compares himself to the actor. He says he has been booked under the same Act as Dutt and even though the minimum sentence for this crime is five years, police cases against gutsy men are common and he will fight it out.
Yet, in his final song, ‘The Last Ride’, which he posted on YouTube two weeks before his death, Moose Wala struck a fatalistic note.
Recreating scenes from the assassination of American rapper Tupac Shakur, his inspiration, Moose Wala sang that death would come to him early, but he has become immortal while he lives.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)