Rocky & Gang, this time in Punjab

Amritsar police display the arms seized after a shootout.
Amritsar police display the arms seized after a shootout. Photo Courtesy: Raman Gill

In this land of ‘plenty’, are we increasingly failing to draw the line at what quantifies as plenty? Is the pull of an acceptable gun culture as well as a rich lifestyle aided with political patronage in Punjab driving its youth towards organised crime? Is the land of the Gurus in danger of forsaking the concept of ‘kirt kamai’ (honest & righteous living) in return for quick riches and notoriety mistaken for fame? Is social media granting more ‘acceptability’ of what is plain crime by glamourising a rising rank of perceived ‘Robin Hood gangsters’, thereby boosting a cult following?

Punjab has never been in the news for gang warfare. However, its fast rearing ugly head can no longer be wished away. The recent killing of Rocky Fazilka, gangster turned politician has put gang war in the limelight like never before. A heady mix of the after-effects of terrorism, huge cache of arms (the state has 20 per cent of the entire weapons in the country), glorification of gun culture by popular Punjabi singers as well as rampant unemployment coupled with growing lifestyle expenditure of youngsters has led to a dramatic growth of gang warfare in the state.

For long in this border state, a gun has been perceived to be a symbol of supremacy and arms are prized possessions. Though we do not need them now to ward off the marauding herds of invaders across the Khyber, we are still enamoured by them. Many people in the interiors cheer and hoot while guests fire in the air to express their jubilation during marriage celebrations. But all this pales in comparison to the spurt in formation of gangs and organized crime since the past decade or so.

The genesis
Criminal gangs, associated with those based in Uttar Pradesh, have been operational in the state since the end of militancy. Post terrorism, they took to contract killings. The real estate and industrial sector boom of the early 2000 saw several criminals surfacing with the primary objective of controlling unions.
The flourishing of the banking sector, especially finance companies, spurred the demand for bouncers who ensured recovery of bad loans and helped in grabbing disputed properties. Cricket bookies too used their services. Around five years back when the boom in real estate ended, these gangs then tuned to extortion and protection money as their source of income.

Most of these are inter-state gangs as well as the ones specializing in arms smuggling, narcotics and abduction. Kidnappings for ransom in Punjab, something which rarely happened earlier, are on the rise. A case in point is the kidnapping and ransom paid by a Patiala doctor to free his son few days back.

Opting for crime by choice
Many sociologists are of the view that Punjab’s gangsters are not frustrated economically weak youth, rather most are from reasonably well-to-do farming families or are kin of cops or have been successful sportspersons before adopting a life of crime. Reasons: Lust for quick money, power and influence besides the love for sophisticated weapons coupled with a flashy lifestyle.

In fact Jaipal, the son of a Punjab Police sub-inspector, who is believed to be the prime suspect in the killing of gangster Rocky Fazilka , is an undergraduate from Ferozepur and a national-level hammer thrower. Jaipal ‘s associate Shera, also a hammer thrower was the son of a Punjab government employee and was planning to migrate to New Zealand when he met Jaipal during a sports event in Patiala. Harinder Singh Tinu, a former shotputter in Jaipal’s gang, was pursuing law and is the son of a Chandigarh Police inspector.

Student politics getting murky
While some gang members may be local criminals, their leaders usually emerge from student politics. Sadly, universities become their nurseries. It is here during student elections that such elements tend to garner limelight and fan following. Their involvement in election activities and violent clashes on campuses are on the increase. Petty violence leads to more nefarious dealings and ultimately jail terms.
These periods allow a criminal to gain access to bigger networks, develop better understanding of the loopholes in the law and join a bigger gang or expand on his own.

That is the reason gangsters in the state are mostly in their mid-twenties and mid-thirties. Unlike popular perception, they are neither jilted lovers nor frustrated jobseekers. Many of them, like the slain Rocky who owned 70 acres of land, seem to have entered the world of crimes by choice.

Cult Culture
What is most worrying is the cult following some of the gangsters have among the youth. Some of them have ‘likes’ on Facebook pages running into thousands. Their pages show them holding sophisticated weapons, using expensive vehicles and boasting about their exploits. However their quest for acceptability also turns some into ‘generous givers to the needy’ and this age old, apparent Robin Hood like appeal (loot the rich to give to the poor) gets them a huge fan base amongst the masses.

Gangster Sukha Kahlwan tapped Facebook extensively. Photos of his in jail and being taken for hearings were put up on his fan page titled, ‘Sukha Kahlon sharpshooter’. The fan page created just a few years back has over 80,000 likes and is full of comments appreciating Kahlwan’s ‘heroic’ acts.

One can find many tribute videos on YouTube made by sympathisers and family members of the gangsters who have been killed. Their views, again, run into thousands. “Lucky Deora tribute to Happy Deora”; “Sukha Kalhon di yaad”; “The Legend Happy Deora”; “Shera khuban” are such some examples.

Tech-savvy goons
What’s more, gangs are now using the social media, especially facebook extensively to attract more “talent”. They also use whatsapp services to stay connected and pass instant messages besides attracting “customers”.

Many armed with latest weapons have acquired the title of “sharp shooters” who have acquired “perfection” in taking out people. These net savvy criminals are now posting on the Facebook to proudly claim responsibility of inter-gang killings and what’s more even tagging other alleged gangsters in the post.

Of late, there has been one-upmanship amongst these gangs and this has led to bloody fights. There was one high-profile killing of a gangster Sukha Kahlwan who was attacked and killed while being transported in police custody last year. The recent killing of another high profile gangster turned ‘Robin Hood’ turned politician — Jaswinder Singh Bhullar aka Rocky Fazilka has also brought gang warfare to the forefront in Punjab.

What was shocking was that within hours of the killing many tried to take ‘credit’ for it through social media posts, several of these from jails.

Political patronage
The nexus between gangsters and politicians cannot be debated. They are the goons of the high and mighty and have a big role to play in land grabbing. Many among them are used by politicians and are on the payrolls of the liquor or drug mafia. Some work for illegal moneylenders or as recovery teams for banks and finance companies.

Some gangsters rise quickly in political circles as well. A case in point being, Lalla, a gangster from Ludhiana who is thought to be close to a BJP politician from Ludhiana. The politician reportedly went to the Senior Superintendent of Police for an arms licence renewal allegedly on behalf of Lalla but was refused The incident was however, widely reported.

Recently Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) MP Sher Singh Ghubaya went to Rocky’s residence to pay his condolences after the gangster’s death.

When asked about it, he denied all knowledge of the numerous criminal cases registered against Rocky. Two former Congress ministers were present at his cremation as family friends.

Niruana gang sitting at the central jail in Bathinda, a picture uploaded on Facebook.
Niruana gang sitting at the central jail in Bathinda, a picture uploaded on Facebook.

Marking territory

There has been a spurt in the formation and activities of criminal gangs in Punjab over the last decade after they found patronage from politicians and businessmen and carved out corresponding areas for their operations.

Besides the lust for money, these gangsters vie for name and fame. They want to be feared and dreaded so that they can scare people and extort money. Usually gang wars are carried out with a view to establish supremacy in the region.

From about less than 20 loosely formed gangs, who were found mainly in industrial cities of Khanna and Ludhiana about a decade back, their count has now reportedly gone upto 70 with around 500 or more members in all. Even though many are in jail, they are quick to regroup and recruit more members thus ensuring their territory and operations remain with them.

Compromised police force
Though several of the top gangsters are behind bars, they appear to be operating from inside the jail premises with relative ease. Jails are being used to run criminal operations. Gangsters have access to phones in jails and use prisons to monitor operations as well as form new alliances.

Besides, the politicisation of the once most professional Punjab police, by making it subservient to politicians by the ruling dispensation, ensures protection and patronage to such elements.

There are reports about extortions and “execution orders” issued by them from within the prison premises. These, in turn, are carried out by their associates outside the jail. The police has not been very successful in being able to make such devices of communication and other comforts inaccessible to the inmates.

Rhetorical or real?
Rocky’s shooting prompted Punjab police to raid all important jails in the state simultaneously a few days back. The DGP led the raid wherein the police seized 60 mobiles, some SIM cards and other contraband. As many as 21 mobiles were seized in Amritsar alone. A small sub-jail saw the recovery of 16 mobiles. The police team took its own plumbers and some mobiles were seized from sewers. However, sources in the police department say the possibility of involvement of jail staff in allowing banned objects inside prisons cannot be ruled out.

The Deputy CM of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal has given directions to suspend jail officials. He has asked the DGP to isolate the gangsters and ensure they are in solitary confinement so that they are not able to communicate with each other as well as with the outside world. The official speak is that these raids were part of the state government’s drive to ensure that Punjab jails do not become havens for organised crime. However, stringent action, ruthless crackdowns and — most importantly — strong political will, can be the only formula to scotch this menace.