Excerpt: Who Killed Moosewala by Jupinderjit Singh
This extract from a new book on the murder of Sidhu Moosewala looks at the Punjabi hip-hop superstar’s powerful lyrics
To know Moosewala, one has to know his songs. The visceral lyrics are honest and hide nothing. Through them, the singer, shy as he was in real life, expressed himself. “I write my songs based on my experiences. When I sing a song in a live programme like this, there is a reel playing in my mind about the time or the circumstances when I wrote those particular lines. Like, I just sang Legend and you think about something while hearing it but in my mind, the reel of the time when I wrote and composed it plays in the background,” said Sidhu Moosewala on 31 January 2020, while performing at the annual Basant Mela at Baoli Baba Bhandari ji in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab. Set in the foothills of the Dhauladhar range of the great Himalayas, it is one of the most notable traditional melas in Punjab.
The singer was in his element that evening. He sang from his core but more importantly, he spoke from his heart in between performing songs on public demand. He hinted at how his rivals tried to pin him down. “But they were mistaken to think they had succeeded. Pygmies,” he said, scoffing at his rivals in the music industry.
As lead organiser of the event, Parminder Bariana witnessed the live show. “People, including me, screamed in appreciation and sang and laughed with him, thinking his monologues between the songs were part of the performance, but that was not the case. Only now, after his brutal killing, we realise what was possibly going on in his mind. The video of that song has been shared a number of times after his murder, with fans commenting that he hinted at people harassing him.”
The song during which he launched into a tirade on stage is called Hathyar. It was released in July 2019 under The Kidd music label and has over 50 million views to date. It was part of the album Sikander 2, released worldwide in August 2019. “The game is not over yet. He is back to finish it,” appears in bold lettering on the screen at the beginning of the video, with his trademark “Aw dil da ni maara, Sidhu Moosewala” (You may dislike him but Sidhu Moosewala is not a man with a bad heart) blaring in the background. In Hathyar, Moosewala sings: Sadde kolo seham … udaariyan laun lage.
People who were once scared to even look at us
I hear have now started to challenge us, trying to grab our collar
Seeing that the sky looks empty
The flock of partridges are trying to fly high like eagles
Moosewala used words like “titran” (partridges) and snakes for his enemies and rivals in his songs. In Punjabi, titar is used to refer to a weak person who can be easily caught and eliminated. Moosewala’s music and songs are rooted in the Punjabi way of life. He used his music to talk about the machoism of the Jats and their courage. Using rural imagery, he made fun of his rivals, comparing them to tempos. Large three-wheelers, called maruta in rural parlance, tempos are run on engines which are sometimes hand-started. So the driver keeps the engine running at chowks, lest the vehicle stops. Moosewala was implying that his rivals were running idle in one place, like the tempo, and not going anywhere.
A recurrent theme in his songs is that of a macho Jat, who is ruthless with his enemies, but is kind-hearted. Or a gangster, seemingly tough and unflinching in the face of danger, but principled enough to never harm the innocent and be gentle with children and women. The image of the central character is one of fearless bravado. In Moosewala’s videos we see weapons being brandished freely, bloodshed, cars flying around and a master gangster with his entourage of bodyguards, who follow at a distance, scared to be too close to the boss.
Social commentator Ajay Pal Singh Brar, who participated in the year-long farmers’ agitation, among other social movements, terms this bold expression of hypermasculinity typical of Punjabi youth. “His songs on scaring our rivals hypes up our own masculinity. Moosewala kept himself high and so did his listener. This hypermasculinity is like a kick from Red Bull or cocaine. His lyrics give you a rush. For the youth of Punjab, who have been directionless since the days of terrorism, Moosewala’s songs gave them the adrenaline rush they longed for. Can we blame them? As a society, we have failed to give our youth better goals. They need a higher purpose in life.”
...Moosewala courted trouble more than once for his songs. In 2020, police lodged four different FIRs against him for glorifying weapons, promoting gun culture and violence and illegally firing an AK-47...
“Yes, I talk about weapons for I believe keeping a gun is good if it is for your safety. But otherwise, it is not good. I am accused of promoting gun culture and violence. But don’t they see films like RRR or Hollywood films which thrive on violence, gory murders and bloodshed? The Indian government doesn’t book these filmmakers for inciting violence. Why only Moosewala?” the singer said in an interview a few weeks before his death.
“If you think keeping and brandishing guns is an act of violence, then why is there a provision for getting an arms licence? Stop issuing arms licences. Act against the censor board which cleared my songs and which clears other songs or films that show guns, gangsters and violence,” he argued.
...Moosewala lamented that he was the most judged among his contemporaries. “I don’t understand this one-sided action. I don’t talk about drugs or liquor which others do. Some first sing about drugs, then they participate in de-addiction drives to earn the government’s favour.
These people are hypocrites. I don’t do that. I have not plucked my eyebrows like several nor shorn my hair and then claimed to be a champion of the religion like other Sikh singers. It is fair to believe that they think they can fail me by criticising me but they can only try. Badnaam kar sakde ho nakaam nahi (You can defame me but you cannot make me fail).”
Harjinder Thind, noted radio journalist in Canada, asked Moosewala in an interview: “Your critics say your songs are making gangsters of the youth. That you always glorify weapons and keep a gun...”
Moosewala defended himself. “Is it the first time that a singer is talking about weapons and rivals? It is rooted in our culture. Punjab has been braving invaders since time immemorial. Punjabis were the wall each invader first confronted before marching to Delhi or mainland India. We were the defenders. We also fought against oppression if someone occupied our territory. These courageous tales are in our folklore, in our blood. But my critics don’t appreciate that I have not glorified the use of drugs and liquor or showcased girls in provocative dresses.’
Incidentally, Punjab has the third-highest number of arms licences while Uttar Pradesh tops the list. According to statistics released by the home ministry, as on 31 December 2016, Uttar Pradesh had more than 12 lakh licences and Punjab had about 3.6 lakh. However, on the licence-people ratio, 0.63 per cent of the population in UP owned a licence compared to 1.3 per cent of Punjab. In 2019, seeing the mad rush of applications for arms licences in Ferozepur, IAS officer Chander Gaind came up with a unique plan to benefit the environment. He made it mandatory for every licence holder to plant 10 saplings and submit selfies with the plants as proof to be eligible for a licence. Moosewala insisted a licenced weapon was not dangerous for the state. “I don’t understand why the Election Commission [of India] asks people to deposit all licenced weapons in a police station before elections. How many murders have taken place with such weapons? It is the illegally kept weapons which cause gory murders and law and order problems.” His statement in favour of arms licences invited more criticism.
Just four days later, six shooters gunned him down with sophisticated but illegal weapons.