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Games to guns: Why many sportsmen in Punjab, Haryana are turning to crime

Arrests of Sampat Nehra, a former national decathlon athlete, and Rakesh Mokhriya, a former national gold medallist wrestler, sheds light on troubling trend in state.

india Updated: Jun 24, 2018 11:21 IST
Ravinder Vasudeva and Hardik Anand, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Vicky Gounder,Nabha jailbreak Jaipal Singh Bhullar,Prema Lahoria
Harjinder Singh, aka Vicky Gounder, was a discus thrower who became a gangster. He was killed by the police in January.(HT Photo)

In 2004, a national-level discus thrower at the inter-state school games, Harjinder Singh from Sarawan Bodla village of Muktsar district, was admitted to the Government Sports College in Jalandhar.

Unfortunately, the institute where this teenager could have fulfilled his father’s dream of winning accolades internationally, turned out to be the launch pad for Harjinder’s career in crime. By 2010, he had come to be known as Vicky Gounder, a dreaded criminal who masterminded the Nabha jailbreak in 2016, helping two militants and four gangsters escape.

He was killed in an encounter by Punjab Police on January 26 this year.

Gounder is not an exception. He, in fact, exemplifies the trend of professional sportspersons taking to crime. The latest entrants to the hall of infamy are two sportspersons-turned-gangsters – Sampat Nehra, a former national level decathlon athlete, and Rakesh Mokhriya, a former national gold medallist wrestler – who fell into the police net recently.

Most wanted

Many men from the testosterone-fuelled field of sports in Punjab and Haryana have given up their passion for sports to step into the murky world of crime. Prema Lahoria, Shera Khuban and Jaswinder Rocky are some of the prominent names, as notorious as Rakesh Malik, alias Mokhariya and Shani Dev, alias Kuki.

One of North India’s shrewdest criminals, Jaipal Singh Bhullar from Ferozepur is also a national-level hammer thrower. On top of Punjab Police’s most wanted list, he remains on the run after killing Rocky at Parwanoo in Solan district in 2015.

Bhullar’s gangster mentor, Gurshahid Singh, alias Shera Khuban, killed in a police encounter in 2012, was also a hammer thrower. Their association began after they met at a sports tournament in Ferozepur.

Tirath Dhilwan, who now runs the Shera Khuban gang, was known in Malwa as a kabaddi player.

Gounder’s life changed after he met Navpreet Singh, alias Lovely Baba, also a trainee at the college. Baba introduced him to Jalandhar-based sportsperson Prema Lahoriya, a silver medallist at an inter-state college championship in 2006, and the trio became friends.

Lahoria, killed with Gounder on January 26, was also a friend of Sukha Kahlwan, who belonged to a wealthy NRI family of Jalandhar district.In 2010, Kahlwan killed Baba, once his friend, because of internal rivalry and a clash of egos.

A furious Gounder then swore he would kill Kahlwan to avenge his friend’s death. Lahoriya supported him and both joined the Shera Khuban gang and in 2014 killed Kahlwan near Phagwara, dancing around his body in a bizarre show of might.

Tirath Dhilwan’s criminal career began when his “drug addict” brother-in-law died after he beat him up in a domestic dispute. He met Khuban in Faridkot Central Jail.

Arjuna awardee wrestler and dismissed Punjab Police DSP Jagdish Bhola’s lust for overnight riches compelled him to take up heroin smuggling.

Losing in love

Haryana’s Rakesh Malik, alias Mokhriya, 37, also had a promising career in wrestling, winning a gold medal for Haryana in an inter-state wrestling tournament and a bronze at a national-level wrestling dangal (contest) at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium in 2003.

Arrested last week by the Rohtak police for murdering a liquor contractor in 2017 at Assan village in the district, Mokhriya had to give up his first love, wrestling, because of a kidney infection.

Soon, while looking for help to recover money from loan defaulters he came in contact with some gangsters and took to crime.

Jagdish Bhola, 56
Sport: Wrestling
Achievement: Arjuna awardee and dismissed Punjab DSP. Won silver medal in Asian Championships in Delhi in 1991 and gold in Commonwealth championships.
Criminal past: Kingpin in multi-crore drug racket in Punjab. Desire for easy money led him to develop links with criminals. When Mumbai Police caught him in 2008 for drug peddling, his Arjuna Award was withdrawn.
Jaipal Singh Bhullar, 32
Sport: Hammer throw
Achievement: State-level hammer thrower.
Criminal past: Wanted in more than 30 criminal cases, Bhullar came under the police scanner in 2005 when gang member Happy Deora and he kidnapped a sevenyear-old boy in Ludhiana. In 2016, he killed gangster-turned-politician Jaswinder Rockey in Parwanoo and has been on the run.
Vicky Gounder, 29
Sport: Discus throw
Achievement: Inter-school meet winner
Criminal past: He masterminded the 2016 Nabha jailbreak and was killed in a police encounter in Rajasthan this year. Another state-level athlete and his aide, Prema Lahoria, was killed with him.
Tirath Dhilwan, 35
Sport: Kabaddi
Achievement: State-level player.
Criminal past: Faces more than 15 cases of smuggling, robberies, kidnapping and car-jacking. Arrested last year by the Khanna police, he is also involved in smuggling of heroin from Pakistan.
Shera Khuban, 27
Sport: Shot put
Achievement: State-level winner at inter-college championships
Criminal past: Took to crime after being beaten up over a dispute in a sports tournament and built links with criminals to avenge the attack. Wanted in more than 15 cases of robberies and murders, he was killed in an encounter in Bathinda in 2012.
Rakesh Malik, 37
Sport: Wrestling
Achievement: Inter-state gold, national-level bronze medallist
Criminal past: Was jailed for murder in 2005 after which he joined gangster Rohtash Asaniya and started using muscle power to pocket liquor contracts. Arrested for killing a liquor contractor.
Vicky Singh, 26
Sport: Boxing
Achievement: Junior national gold
Criminal past: Booked in eight criminal cases of murder and attempt to murder. A junior national gold medallist boxer, this arts graduate from Maharshi Dayanand University joined Rohtak gangster Rajesh Sarkari’s group after killing a Jind resident because of personal rivalry in 2011. To earn Sarkari’s trust, Vicky donated blood for his mother when she was admitted at a hospital in Rohtak.
Deepak Pahal, 22
Sport: Boxing
Achievement: Junior lightweight national boxing champion, 2011
Criminal past: Helped gangster escape from custody Arrested for throwing chilli powder at cops to free a murder-accused gangster from custody. Was expelled from Sports Authority of India hostel at Sonepat after he punched a fellow boxer and broke his teeth over a petty issue. Joined a gang later.
Shani Dev, 28
Sport: Kabaddi
Achievement: Haryana kabaddi team captain for two years
Criminal past: Was arrested in July 2016 after he went on a shooting spree to avenge his brother’s killing.

Inspector Manoj Verma, head of the police team that arrested Mokhriya, said he was first arrested in 2005 for the murder of Jhajjar resident Jai Kunwar, allegedly chopping his body to pieces for saying he wanted to have a relationship with Mokhriya’s paramour.

Awarded a 20-year prison term by a local court, he was freed after six years and joined the Rohtash Asaniya gang to deal in liquor contracts, Verma said.

“In 2017, Mokhriya was among the three shooters sent by Asaniya to eliminate Balbir Singh of Assan village who refused to buckle under their pressure over jurisdiction issues to sell liquor,” he added.

Shani Dev, alias Kuki, who represented the Haryana kabaddi team as captain twice in national tournaments, was also arrested for murders.

According to his family, Kuki’s sports career ended after he was falsely implicated in a murder case that ended his sports career. DSP Veer Singh said Kuki fell into bad company and joined a gang, getting arrested in 2010 on charges of attempt to murder.

Once out on bail in 2012, he took to crime fulltime and was named in the murder of gangster Devender Kala, whose gang members, in an act of vengeance, shot dead Kuki’s younger brother Sukhwinder Singh, another national kabaddi player, in March 2016.

To avenge his brother’s murder, Kuki went on a killing spree and shot dead many members of Kala’s gang before being arrested in July 2016.

Finding the link

A retired joint director from the Punjab Police Training Academy in Phillaur and a psychologist, Dr DJ Singh, said there was no established research to show why sportspersons are prone to committing crimes.

“Sportspersons are taught aggressive skills and encouraged to sharpen their killing instinct to excel in their games. If they fail or if their attention gets diverted, they get frustrated and to compensate for the kick they used to get from sports they opt for careers where they can flaunt their body and power,” he added.

Olympian and former Indian Hockey captain Pargat Singh says failure to perform can harm a sportsperson’s psyche. “I have seen a few sportsmen not excelling in their game for some reason and then finding ways to earn easy money to survive.” “Some sportspersons first get hooked to drugs to enhance their performance and later become suppliers, smugglers and criminals,” he says.

Gangster-turned-social activist Lakha Sidhana, a kabaddi player before he took to crime, blames politicians. “To show their muscle power, politicians trap well built sportsmen into settling their political scores with their opponents. The youth then earn enemies and get involved in police cases.”

Arjuna awardee boxer Akhil Kumar, now a DSP in Haryana, says lack of education also does not help players. “Earlier, people used to play for fitness and learning. Now their attitude has shifted to competitiveness. This evokes unnecessary anger that is channelised in the wrong direction,” he says.

Ruling out any such trend, IG Rohtak range Navdeep Singh Virk says, “I have seen such cases for the past 20 years in Haryana. The likely reason is that Haryana has more sportsmen than any other state. Aggression among players could also be a cause.”

First Published: Jun 24, 2018 10:53 IST