On January 26 as the Republic Day celebrations were winding down, a Punjab Police team was still at work in a Rajasthan border village.
It had surrounded a house and bullets were flying. In half an hour, a 16-month search for the state’s most-wanted gangster was over. Harjinder Singh, better known was as Vicky Gounder, was dead and so was his aide, Prema Lahoriya.
Excellent work by DGP Suresh Arora, DG Intelligence Dinkar Gupta and OCCU team, including AIG Gurmeet Singh and Inspector Vikram Brar. Proud of you boys,” chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh tweeted that evening.
The gang culture thriving in Punjab has been a concern not just for Singh but the police establishment as well.
Gun-toting men have had a free run for a long time. Jail was no bar – social media was their weapon of choice, earning them huge followings that they simply loved. Through Facebook posts and live videos they would often taunt police.
They flirted with politics, forged links with Khalistani separatists sitting in Europe and had rap sheets that stretched way beyond Punjab’s borders.
But over the last one year, the tide seems to be turning. In the last 10 months, eight “most-wanted” gangsters have been killed and 27 arrested. The list of 650 criminals on the loose has been reduced to around 100. Police have also seized 189 vehicles, 97 weapons and ~1.7 crore in cash. “Out of the 38 category A (most wanted) and B gangsters, 21 have been either nabbed or killed in encounters in the past few months. We will get hold of a few more in the coming days,” director general of police (intelligence) Dinkar Gupta said last week.
Prema Lahoriya: ‘A’ category gangster from Jalandhar, was gunned down along with Gounder. They killed Sukha Kahlon; was wanted in 13 cases.
Manpreet Manna and Prabhdeep Singh: Belonging to Gounder’s group, they were killed in a police encounter on December 17. Their aide Amritpal Singh was injured. The trio was facing cases in Rajasthan.
Gurbaksh Sewewala: A member of Devinder Bambiha gang, he was arrested by the state police. After Bambiha was killed in an encounter, Sewewala was running the gang.
Gurpreet Singh Sekhon: One of the masterminds of the Nabha jailbreak, he was arrested by the Punjab police on February 12, 2017. Sekhon was wanted in multiple cases of murder, extortion.
Kamaljeet Singh, Jaspreet Singh and Nishan Singh: All three committed suicide in Dabwali (Haryana) on being cornered by police on June 13, 2017. They were involved in murders and other heinous crimes.
Ravicharan Singh: A boxer-turned-singer who later took to crime, the gangster surrendered in a Sangrur court on January 30. He was wanted in seven cases.
Neeta Deol: An escapee from Nabha jail, Kulpreet Singh alias Neeta Deol was arrested by Punjab police and MP police from Indore in Jan 2017.
Carrot and stick
The success lies in the two-pronged strategy the state government adopted last year. Police officials met the families, asking them to prevail upon the gangsters to shun crime and give themselves up. On the other hand, they launched an all-out offensive.
The crackdown had the desired effect, with dreaded gangsters such as Jaipal Singh Bhullar, Tirath Singh and Dilpreet Singh, alias Rinda, forced into hiding and putting their activities on hold.
Three gangsters had surrendered within days of Gounder’s death and another five were arrested.
“The free hand given by the chief minister has paid off. These criminals must understand that a state never grows old, but the age of crime and criminals is limited. Our crackdown will continue,” director general of police Suresh Arora said.
Love of the gun
Gun culture is not new to Punjab, which flourished after the green revolution in the 1960s. The riches added to the fascination for gun that was firmly established in popular culture – there is a long list of songs that celebrates the weapon.
The dark days of terrorism, too, kept the guns alive. But it was with the real estate boom, which started in 2000, that Punjab saw the emergence of these gangsters, most of whom came from well-off families. The problem lay in the culture and lifestyle of Punjabis, a landlord’s son was no longer interested in farming, said Parmod Kumar, director, Institute of Development and Communication.
“With enough money to spend and no productive things to use energy on, they get attracted towards Robinhoodism and political power these gangsters enjoy. This life gives them a kick and they eventually fall in the net of criminals,” said Kumar, who is also a sociologist.
The power trip and the “popularity” are indeed a big draw. “When I used to visit Rampura Phul (his hometown) and Bathinda, people used to salute me and show respect. They offered me money too,” said Lakha Sidhana, a former gangster facing cases of murder. Social media and popular culture that extolled gangsters in songs and films further fuelled the trend. Gounder’s Facebook accounts commanded a mammoth following.
Campus politics, too, has played it role. The state’s gang culture has its roots in student politics of Panjab University (PU), Chandigarh, police say.
In 1985, a group led by student leader Prabhjinder Singh Dimpy gunned down rival Makhan Singh on the campus, the first political murder in the well-respected university. Dimpy, considered close to the Shiromani Akali Dal, formed a gang that also had links with criminals in Uttar Pradesh and even Pakistan.
He faced extortion and kidnapping charges in UP and was also accused of smuggling arms from Pakistan. He planned the abduction of a diamond trader in faraway Karnataka, where he was arrested. He escaped from jail and was killed in Chandigarh in 2006.
His aide, Jaswinder Singh Rocky, a former PU student leader, stepped in to form his own group with Jaipal, Shera Khuban and Gounder.
But they were soon at war with each other. Khuban was killed by police in 2012. It was widely held that Rocky, who by then joined politics and unsuccessfully contested the assembly election from his home town of Fazilka, gave him away. Four years later, Rocky was killed allegedly by Jaipal and his aides to avenge Khuban’s death. Lawrence Bishnoi and Rupinder Gandhi are two other PU student leaders-turned-gangsters. While Gandhi was killed by police, Bishnoi is lodged in a Jodhpur jail.
The students bodies set up by them – the Gandhi Group, the Students Organisation of Panjab University (Bishnoi) –participate in university polls every year. Most of these youngsters, many of them sportsmen, were propelled into crime by power and an exaggerated sense of manliness, inspector general of police Nilabh Kishore, who led the operation against Gounder, said. “It’s a slippery slope, and it wasn’t long before they started indulging in extortions,
kidnappings and smuggling to make more money.”
Gang wars led to revenge killings and there was no end to the vicious cycle.
Lately, the gangs have been flirting with anti-national forces. Ramanjit Singh Romi, an associate of Gounder who is in Hong Kong, has links with Pakistan’s ISI and is also involved in the targeted killings’ of right-wing Hindu leaders in Punjab, say police. But rivalries within the gangs coupled with police action are proving to be their undoing.