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Young, armed and astray: What’s behind the spurt in criminal gangs in Punjab

Gangs of Punjab have emerged as a post-militancy, post-liberalisation and post-globalisation phenomenon with aspirations of the youth rising without the requisite education, employment skills or patience to work hard for moderate gains.

punjab Updated: Nov 25, 2017 11:59 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
gangsters,youth icons,gangsters become youth icons
A poster for a movie based on gang leader Rupinder Gandhi. Gangs provide instant justice in disputes, ranging from marital to agrarian. To the young, they offer the thrill and romance of bravado that only the silver-screen can project.(Facebook)

Shadows of fear and suspicion stalk the drive through Punjab’s dusty countryside, a state struggling to contain a spurt in gangster crimes.

The regal home of slain gang leader, Rupinder Gandhi, stands tall in the fields of Rasoolra village near Khanna. It is heavily guarded by armed young men.

The HT photographer and reporter are watched with suspicion by three teenagers. They cock a gun at them, check their identity cards and ask them to leave.

A fair-faced adolescent of few words says: “Leave a phone number and the family will get back to you. We can’t let you in as no older person is at home.”

The dread is not without reason in the citadel of the Gandhi Group of Student Union (GGSU) with 300,000 members across Punjab. Ironically, Rupinder was given the surname of the Mahatma of non-violence as he was born on October 2, the birthday of the father of the nation.

A national football player, he became a student leader in Panjab University and then the sarpanch of his village at 22. Involved in violent activity, he was picked out by a rival gang from Samrala, his knees and arms were broken. He was then hanged from a tree, shot dead and the body was thrown in the Bhakra canal in 2003.

His older brother, Manminder Singh Aujla, alias Mindhi Gandhi, who worked in a construction company in the UK, returned home and took charge of his brother’s ring and formed the GGSU, got involved in violence and tried to shoot Lakhi, the main accused behind Rupinder’s murder.

Mindhi too was gunned down this August shortly before the release of the second film allegedly by a GGSU member for trying to get cheap publicity by making movies on their revered leader, Rupinder.

The gangs of Punjab have emerged as a post-militancy, post-liberalisation and post-globalisation phenomenon with aspirations of the youth rising without the requisite education, employment skills or patience to work hard for moderate gains.

They fall easy prey to gangsters. Many a time, drugs and gangsters go hand in hand as both are consumers and peddlers.

More than 100 gangs with about 500 trigger-happy members collectively operate in Punjab, besides arrested gangsters running their clandestine networks from prisons, according to police sources.

Inter-gang rivalry in Punjab is multiplying with new recruits eager to join the gangs of loot, extortion and murder. Gangster crimes are concentrated more in Kapurthala, Muktsar, Ludhiana, Moga, Jalandhar, Gurdaspur and Fazilka districts.

With the suppression of militancy in the 1990s, a gun and gang culture took root in the state.

Patiala-based economist Sucha Singh Gill blames politicians of varied hues for creating their own gun-toting guards.

“In an article in the ‘Economic and Political Weekly’ in 2010, I had written about the indiscriminate issuing of arms licence. Sometimes young men have two to three guns on one licence. Student leaders and unemployed youth are drawn into this new corps, gaining dignity with a gun in hand,” he said.

Another student leader from an affluent farming family in Ferozepur fell into this dangerous net and is now running his gang from a Rajasthan jail on Whatsapp. He is Lawrence Bishnoi, a former student of DAV College, Sector 10, Chandigarh, and a leader of the Students Union of Panjab University (SOPU).

Close to gangster Amandeep Singh, alias Happy Deora, he rose from student clashes to carjacking, kidnapping and extortion. Ransom is the forte of Bishnoi’s gang.

Rupinder and Bishnoi are exceptions as they belonged to wealthy homes. But the majority of gangsters belong to homes of marginalised farmers, with little education and employment skills.

Harish K Puri, a political analyst, says: “We found 90% of boys were school dropouts and came from poor homes, sometimes dysfunctional families, but had the good looks and pride of Punjabi Jats. Suffering from low self-esteem, they wanted to prove their worth in their own eyes. That situation has not changed in Punjab.”

Gangs provide instant justice in disputes, ranging from marital to agrarian. To the young, they offer the thrill and romance of bravado that only the silver-screen can project.

Punjab has a tradition of celebrating the rebel and there are ballads aplenty on Dulla Bhatti, Jagga Daku, Sucha Soorma or Jat Jeona Maur.

But the current celebration on social media, in films and songs is unparalleled. Gun and gangster songs are there in abundance and sometimes on specific topics such as last year’s Nabha jailbreak. “Shoot da order” is a hit in its celebration of revenge and killings.

Harish Jain, the publisher of Lok Geet Prakashan, says: “Even Jagga Daku and or Sucha Soorma are not celebrated like the gangsters of this day.”

He says legendary dacoits fought for farmers against the excesses of the Mughal or British colonial police, but today’s gangsters have no such agenda.

Police sources say it is a worrying trend as some of these gangsters could be hired by Pakistani spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as anti-India terrorist organisations to do their bidding.

First Published: Nov 25, 2017 09:00 IST