It was a dull Sunday evening in the village of Jawaharke in Punjab’s Mansa district when residents were jolted out of their reverie by the sound of continuous gunfire. Minutes later, the villagers rushed out to find that the victim was local boy and international rapper/ singer Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu a.k.a. Sidhu Moosewala, whose hit singles had names like ‘So High’ and ‘Warning Shots’. The singer was waylaid and shot in his SUV and died while being taken to the hospital.
The last such murder of entertainers in Punjab was in 1988, when prominent singer duo Amar Singh Chamkila and his wife Amarjot Kaur were gunned down. That happened when the violent Khalistan movement was at its peak; today, they blame it on the free run of gangsters. Canada-based Goldy Brar, an erstwhile member of the Lawrence Bishnoi gang, allegedly claimed responsibility for Moosewala’s murder in a Facebook post. More worrying was the weapon used in the crime—an AN-94 assault rifle. The Russian-make weapon is an uncommon choice—it fires in two-bullet bursts and can pepper a target with up to 1,800 rounds per minute. It also requires special skillsets to use. The Indian security forces do not use it; it is not a common choice even in Russia. Punjab Police say it’s the first time such a weapon has been used in the state. “It’s not clear where the weapon came from...but the signs are ominous,” admitted a top Punjab Police officer.
Mann’s government was already on the back foot over the law and order situation. Moosewala’s murder has compounded matters
The Aam Aadmi party (AAP) government led by Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann is in a bind over the murder. On May 28, the day before Moosewala was shot dead, Punjab Police had cut back on his security, along with that of “424 other VIPs”. That in itself would not have come in for so much flak for the Mann government but by evening the ‘strictly confidential’ list had been leaked on social media, and messages were flying around specifically mentioning Moosewala and Akal Takht jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh.
Moosewala’s family alleges that he was getting regular threats and that the Bolero car used in the crime had been recceing the rapper’s movements. The opposition sounds uniformly aggrieved. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Badal says leaking the names was akin to a criminal act while the Congress and BJP say they had warned the government that such selective leaks would have consequences.
Meanwhile, the cutbacks in security for the Akal Takht jathedar, the foremost leader of the Sikhs, encouraged the formation of private militias, ostensibly as alternative security for him. The presence of heavily armed men, some even with automatic weapons, suddenly became a larger security issue for the state. The jathedar’s security was restored soon. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee is organising remembrance programmes to mark the 39th anniversary of Operation Blue Star on June 6. Emotions run high among extremist Sikh and Hindu groups during the time, and opposition parties had argued that the jathedar’s security breach could escalate the situation.
While the security threat to the clergy is the new crisis, it’s no secret that Moosewala’s murder has put Mann and his AAP colleagues on the back foot. Mann tweeted that “nobody involved will be spared” and has ordered a judicial inquiry, but the party is tight-lipped on how and why the information on the security withdrawal was leaked. Punjab will see a Lok Sabha bypoll on June 23 for the Sangrur seat Mann vacated. Mansa, where the murder happened, is next door to Sangrur and the repercussions will be felt during the poll. On May 31, the cabinet meeting was cancelled even as Vidhan Sabha speaker Kultar Singh called off the training programme for first-time MLAs, fearing a ruckus from the opposition MLAs.
State DGP V.K. Bhawra has gone on record to say Moosewala’s murder was part of a gang war. There are reports that the victim may have had ties with the Haryana-based Kaushal Choudhry gang. In the past, the police had investigated his ex-manager Shaganpreet in the murder of Akali Dal youth leader Vikramjit Mitukhera—a close friend of Bishnoi and Goldy Brar—in August 2021. Subsequently, Shaganpreet had fled to Australia, but the police couldn’t link the case to the rapper.
Moosewala, 28, an electrical engineer-turned-rapper, first hit the charts in 2017 with his song, ‘So High’. He wrote his own songs, some of them glorifying guns and violence while others such as ‘295’ (on Section 295A related to ‘outraged religious feelings’) were trenchant commentary on the social evils of the land. In the recent assembly poll, he had unsuccessfully contested from Mansa on a Congress ticket. Ironically, one of his last songs was called ‘The Last Ride’ which, if internet fanboy chatter is to be believed, predicted his own death.
Chief Minister Mann had set up an Anti-Gangster Task Force in April headed by special DGP Prabhodh Kumar, but it has had limited success so far. DGP Bhawra mentioned in April that there were 545 A,B and C category gangsters in the state a few years back, and that effective action had been taken against 515. Eight well-known gangsters were gunned down in encounters, including Vicky Gounder, Prema Lahoria and Jaipal, during the tenure of Capt. Amarinder Singh, after which many of them shifted base to Canada, Armenia, Dubai and even Pakistan. Police sources say many of them have tied up with Khalistani militants and druglords.
After Brar’s alleged confession on social media, the special cell of Delhi Police raided gang leader Bishnoi’s cell in Tihar jail, but found nothing. Goldy is facing several criminal charges, including murder and extortion, in Punjab. He has also been linked to Khalistani militant Lakhbir Singh Rode and his Canada-based son Bhagat Brar. The intelligence agencies believe the gangs extort money from Punjabi singers and movie stars and use the services of local gangs for this. In 2018, singer-cum-actor Parvesh Verma was shot at in Mohali by gangster Dilpreet Singh Dahan’s gang after he refused to pay extortion money. In the past, pictures of several Punjabi stars on their tours to Canada had emerged on social media with Bhagat Brar and many of these NRI gangsters.
Mann first faced flak over the law and order situation when a fringe Hindutva group took out a rally against the alleged call for a Khalistan Sthapana Diwas on April 29, leading to a communal clash. Then there was the RPG attack on Punjab Police’s intelligence headquarters in Mohali on May 10. And now there is the Moosewala murder. The CM has to get on top of the situation, and fast, before comments like the one by BJP state general secretary Subhash Sharma—that “the Mann government is running around like headless chickens”—begins to find an echo.